For three days in mid-August, 1969, the center of the Universe was a dairy farmer’s field in New York’s Southern Tier that is now a cultural landmark. It was the scene of an event shared by about 400,000 people (nobody knows for sure) and they all would remember it, maybe with joy and maybe pain, confusion, inspiration and in every case music in their hearts. In 1969 America was undergoing tremendous change and youth culture was ascendant. The war in Vietnam, the demand for civil rights and racial equality, the sexual revolution and a nascent environmental movement combined to cause deep schisms in the country. It seemed at times that everything was political. The Woodstock Festival of Music and Art was both an expression of those trends and a respite from them.
The history of “Woodstock” is as chaotic as the event itself. Turned aside from the original plan to hold the open-air concert near the Hudson Valley artist colony of Woodstock, NY, organizers looked across the Catskills, into the “borscht belt”, and arranged for land in the Town of Bethel, Sullivan County, belonging to dairy farmer Max Yasgur . There was again local resistance but the event was widely advertised, ticket sales made it seem as if nearly 50,000 people would attend. In the end, of course, the attendance was in six figures, roads were jammed, facilities strained and the weather refused to cooperate. It was three days of music and mud.
But those who were there will still tell you that it was worth it. The list of performers is still staggering: Arlo Guthrie , Joan Baez , Santana, Jefferson Airplane (not yet Starship),The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Country Joe McDonald and on and on… Michael Wadleigh’s documentary won an Oscar.
Now the people who once said “never trust anyone over thirty” are celebrating forty years since the event that gave the Woodstock Generation its name. Some of the best recollections are in the book “Woodstock Revisited”, a collection of “50 far out, groovy, peace-loving, flashback-inducing stories” edited by Susan Reynolds. Among the contributors are Barbara Heller, now a psychotherapist from Afton, NY and author of “365 Ways to Relax Mind, Body and Soul” , and S.K. List of Trumansburg, NY, who has written for the Ithaca Times, New York Times and other publications. Ms. List’s story is singularly poignant, because her car broke down on the way to Woodstock and she never made it. But she writes, “As much of a kick as I would have gotten out of actually being at Yasgur’s farm, I’m thankful to be able to say that I didn’t have to be there to learn its lessons.” The site is now the location of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. With its convenient parking and comfortable seating there are those who consider it a travesty.
Heller and List join Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to share their Woodstock memories and insights and look back across four decades.