Friday, August 16, 2019

WOODSTOCK: Celebrating 50 Years

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock musical festival. In August 1969, nearly half a million people gathered at a farm in upstate New York to hear music. What happened over the next three days, however, was far more than a concert. It would become a legendary event, one that would define a generation and mark the end of one of the most turbulent decades in modern history. Occurring just weeks after an American set foot on the moon, the Woodstock music festival took place against a backdrop of a nation in conflict over sexual politics, civil rights and the Vietnam War. This was an example of America in transition – a handoff of the country between generations with far different values and ideals – tangibly present at what promoters billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music.” Woodstock will take center stage again in a few days as the anniversary presents a 50th anniversary concert in Bethel, New York, with Ringo Starr, Edgar Winter Band, Blood, Sweat and Tears, John Fogerty, the Doobie Brothers and others performing for an audience that can only enter the small town with permits -- ticket holders receive free traffic permits and fears that too many tourists will flood into town this coming weekend are calmed with knowledge that the state police will be checking for permits.

Woodstock, however, did not come off without a hitch: last-minute venue changes, bad weather and the hordes of attendees caused major headaches. Still, despite – or because of – a lot of sex, drugs, rock and roll and rain, Woodstock was a peaceful celebration and earned its hallowed place in pop culture history. What took place in that teaming mass of humanity – the rain-soaked, starving, tripping, half-a-million strong throng of young people – was nothing less than a miracle of teamwork, a manifestation of the “peace and love” the festival had touted, and a validation of the counter-culture’s promise to the world.

The Woodstock Music Festival was the brainchild of four men, all age 27 or younger, looking for an investment opportunity: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang.
Lang had organized the successful Miami Music Festival in 1968 and Kornfeld was the youngest vice president at Capitol Records. Roberts and Rosenman were New York entrepreneurs involved in building a Manhattan recording studio. The four men formed Woodstock Ventures, Inc., and decided to host a music festival.
Extremely huge crowd at the Woodstock 1969 music festival.
The initial plan for Woodstock called for the event to be held at Howard Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill, New York. Wallkill town officials got spooked, however, and backed out of the deal, passing a law that eliminated any possibility of holding the concert on their turf. This caused Woodstock Ventures to explore other venues, but none really panned out. Finally, just a month ahead of the concert, 49-year-old dairy farmer Max Yasgur pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil, figured out how much he would lose financially if he never grew crops that year, and offered to rent them (at the same cost he figured mathematically) part of his land in the White Lake area of Bethel, New York, surrounded by the verdant Catskill Mountains. (The name of the concert, “Woodstock,” remained while the event was truly held in Bethel.)
John Fogerty
Originally, about 50,000 people were expected to attend. But by August 13, at least that number were already camped out on location and over 100,000 tickets pre-sold.As an estimated half-a-million people descended on Woodstock, its organizers scrambled to add more facilities. Highways and local roads came to a standstill and many concert-goers simply abandoned their cars and trekked the rest of the way on foot. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller threatened to send in National Guard troops to break up the festival when he saw how huge the crowd was. Many of the musicians had to be flown in by helicopter.

Michael Lang later recalled in his fascinating book about Woodstock that Jefferson Airplane was the first band to confirm and as expected, the most expensive was the first to sign, but giving Woodstock the credibility it needed to attract other well-known musicians, a total of 32 for the three-day weekend including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, John Sebastian, Canned Heat, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Joe Cocker, Blood Sweat and Tears, Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix.

Grace Slick and Sally Mann of Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock.

Richie Havens was called for so many encores that he ran out of songs to sing, so he picked up his guitar and started singing “Freedom,” which was totally improvised. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” were the lyrics of “Freedom” that has since become synonymous with Richie Havens when Woodstockbecame a big screen event one year later in movie theaters across the country.

Carlos Santana was scheduled to go on during the latter half of day two, but due to all the delays the band was forced to go on much earlier. Santana had taken a dose of mescaline and was still peaking when the band was performing. As a result, he imagined that the neck of his guitar had become a snake and was moving. Fortunately, he was still able to perform and the band’s star-making performance went off without a hitch. Santana would achieve superstardom on the basis of their appearances at both the festival and in the 1970 motion-picture. Santana was the first to sign up for the 50thanniversary, performing some of those retro classics last month in Bethel, New York.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin stopped momentarily during her performance to ask the audience if they had enough water to drink and enough drugs to keep them high, confessing she and her group were stoned on stage. The newly formed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young confessed to the audience that Woodstock was the second time they ever played for a live audience. Jimi Hendrix was nervous about performing to a crowd so large that he quickly drank an entire bottle of wine before stepping onto the stage and performing what would become the legendary “Star-Spangled Banner.”Gravelly-voiced singer Joe Cocker was a new name at the time. He was an animated and impassioned front-man with a soul evocative of an old bluesman. His cover of The Beatles hit, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” was starting to pick up steam, and his performance at Woodstock was the final boost he needed to skyrocket himself to stardom. 

Joan Baez performing at Woodstock in 1969.

We could go on for pages with stories about the performers, about the funk-filled stylings of Sly & The Family Stone, of Michael Lang inviting Roy Rogers to close the festival by singing “Happy Trails” (Rogers declined), or how John Fogerty of CCR was disappointed in the timing of their performance that he chose not to allow any songs from the group to appear in the 1970 motion-picture… a business decision he later came to regret. But we will leave the history of the music festival to the historians who have taken time to research and write books about the subject.

Needless to say, cleaning up the venue was a mammoth task and required several days, many bulldozers and tens of thousands of dollars. The entire concert was filmed with a crew of enterprising individuals, with many of the acts licensed to Warner Brothers for a theatrical release in 1970.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock
Fans flocked to Bethel annually for the concert’s anniversary, much to the disapproval of the town census until 15 or 20 years ago when the town accepted their place in pop culture history and decided to embrace the out-of-town tourism. In 2006, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened on the hill where the Woodstock Music Festival took place, along with a museum focusing on the festival. Today, it hosts outdoor concerts in its beautiful pavilion.
In 2009, for the 40thanniversary of the music festival, a director’s cut of the motion-picture was assembled and released on VHS, later DVD and BluRay, extending the film’s three-hour length to almost four hours. This included performances of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix who were not seen in the original version of the film when it was released in 1970.
You can buy the BluRay-DVD combo set from Amazon for practically the same price as the DVD release but if you plan to revisit the music festival, you want to make sure you get the 40th anniversary director's cut. Link provided below for ease of purchase: