The festival that overtook an alfalfa field at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm — and, really, the entire Catskills region — 50 years ago today was singular for its music. Thirty-three acts stretched over three days ranged in quality but left the world with unforgettable performances from the likes of Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Sly & the Family Stone, Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash and, at times, Young. And, of course, there was Jimi Hendrix.
Their turns on stage were iconic. No one could have predicted then the cultural touchstones that would be created from moments like Hendrix riffing on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” To be sure, elevation was something that came in the reverberation of time, vinyl and film. In the actual moment, in the waning hours of Woodstock, Hendrix played for a thinning crowd — just a fraction of the 400,000 or so people who were there for some part of the three-day festival.
Yet the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, the so-called “Aquarian Exposition” which actually took place outside of Bethel, New York, 40 miles from the town that lent its name, was so much more than its music. It was a signal event — never before had so many gotten together for something like that — and, as much as this phrase is cliche, defined a generation. It gave children of the World War II generation an upbeat coda to the violent, divisive 1960s. And, while not explicitly a protest, it really felt like a group gesture on a colossal scale toward the U.S. war in Vietnam.
That gesture was symbolized by so much more than a dove perched on a guitar neck in a promotional poster. It was made in what didn’t happen — namely, violence. Despite the chaos of things, and Woodstock was nothing if not chaotic, 75 or so arrests were mostly drug-related (albeit not marijuana related, for police generally ignored that, saying there was not enough space in the jails of three neighboring counties to start hauling people in for pot.) “I was dumbfounded by the size of the crowd,” an unnamed state police official told The New York Times at the time. “I can hardly believe that there haven’t been even small incidents of misbehavior by the young people.”
Its peacefulness was also, sadly, singular, as illustrated four months later when a similar festival at the Altamont race track outside of San Francisco, billed as a West Coast Woodstock, descended into violence and vandalism. It was so bad that the Grateful Dead declined to play.
It’s really a wonder Woodstock did not devolve into that too. For while it gets so much romanticized — thank Joni Mitchell and film director Michael Wadleigh for that — Woodstock was a mess. Logistically it was as dirty as the mud pit that became Yasgur’s farm.
The rural region was gridlocked for miles. Instead of sitting in traffic, kids bound for the concert left their cars and walked — in some cases, 20 and 30 miles away. The swarm of humanity was too intense for any attempt at crowd control, so much that organizers stopped collecting $18 for tickets. Imagine that scene in this age of hyper-security at concert venues, with metal detectors at every gate and purses exchanged for clear plastic bags. It all would’ve been shut down before Richie Havens could play the first notes. There were far too few bathrooms — only 600 ordered for the festival — not enough food or water, and lots of bad acid. Taking care of that crowd became a scramble that involved, among other things, an air drop of 10,000 sandwiches and medical supplies from a U.S. Army helicopter.
And, to be sure, not everyone could hear the music. Not even close. Bernard Collier, the New York Times’ man in Bethel, wrote in his dispatch: “Most of the hip, swinging youngsters heard the music on stage only as a distant rumble. It was almost impossible for them to tell who was performing and probably only about half the crowd could hear a note. Yet they stayed by the thousands, often standing ankle-deep in mud, sometimes paying enterprising peddlers 25 cents for a glass of water.”
Still, despite all of that, Woodstock is fixed in American lore as something that meant far more than its assembled parts. It was a moment of people engaged and united in action on a grand scale, long before cellphones and social media tethered us electronically. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking, but more likely there really was something special that a generation shared there, and left there, at Yasgur's farm and since then has been trying, as Mitchell sang, to get back to the garden.