Saturday, August 15, 2009


We are stardust; we are golden

It’s a summer full of notable anniversaries. 40 years ago today, shortly after 5 in the afternoon, Richie Havens took the stage to open the Woodstock Music and Art Fair — which wasn’t actually in Woodstock, and was never planned to be in Woodstock, nor even in the same county. The first venue, in Wallkill, fell through, and eventually the concert was moved to the dairy farm of one Max Yasgur, near Bethel, NY. The rest is, as they say, history.

I’m a farmer... and I don’t know how to speak to twenty people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. But I think you people have proven something to the world. That a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music... and have nothing but fun and music, and I God-bless you for it!

— Max Yasgur, speaking at the festival

I was twelve years old when the concert happened, and I lived in south Florida. There was no chance of my going to the concert. And, in fact, we hadn’t heard of it at all, down there, before it happened. Large, multi-headliner rock and folk festivals were commonplace, then — I remember one in Miami that included the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, and others. Monterey was, of course, legendary. So yet another big festival with yet another list of headliners — and one that was turned down by the likes of the Doors and Led Zeppelin — wasn’t notable.

Until, that is, it turned into far more than what it started as.

Yeah, it’s far out, man. I don’t know, like, how many of you can dig how many people there are, man. Like, I was rappin’ to the fuzz, right, can you dig it? Man, there’s supposed to be a million and a half people here by tonight. Can you dig that? New York State Thruway’s closed, man. Ha! Lotta freaks!

— Arlo Guthrie, during his Friday evening performance

The ultra-stoned Arlo Guthrie was overstating it — maybe “the fuzz” gave him an exaggerated number — and “a million and a half” was triple the largest reasonable estimates. Nevertheless, the organizers expected 200,000 and got at least twice that many. None of the facilities were up to handling that kind of crowd — the sound system, the food distribution, the medical facilities all proved inadequate. Yet people made do.

But Arlo was right that at one point the authorities closed the Thruway because of the crippling traffic (hm; see my recent post about denial of service). There may well have been a million or more at the festival, had they only been able to get there.

On Sunday, one of the stage announcers read from a New York Times article (the link gives you the first paragraph; you can pay for the PDF of the full article (I did)):

OK, people, we got a Times. OK. On the front page we have, on the left, a very big aerial photo of a huge mass of people, which are you. And it says, “Music was the magic for throngs at Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Towers near the stage hold loudspeakers. 300,000 at Folk-Rock Fair Camp Out in a Sea of Mud.” Ha! Ha-ha! Dig it, dig it.

“Bethel, NY, August 16th: Despite massive traffic jams, drenching thunderstorms, shortages of food, water, medical facilities, about 300,000 young people swarmed over this rural area today for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. ...the prospect of drugs and the excitement of ‘making the scene,’ the young people came in droves, camping in the woods, romping in the mud, talking, smoking, and listening to wailing music.” Quote: “Participants well-behaved: The crowd, which camped on the 600-acre farm of Max Yasgur near here for the past few days was well-behaved according to both the sponsors and the police, even though about 75 persons in the area were arrested, mostly on possessing narcotics.” Mmm, bummer, bummer.

It says other things here, man, like how shortages of water, like how cars are lined up for about 20 miles in huge traffic jams, and all this other good shit. All in all, man, it says that you’ve been pretty groovy, man, and you’ve been doing a groovy scene out here. And we gotta thank you for it, you’re being very beautiful. You’re making this show.

— stage announcement during the festival

Yes, despite the mess and the difficulties, it was an iconic weekend. It was an event that deeply affected rock and folk music afterward, and one that gave us a cultural anchor for the time. It also gave us one of the best documentary films ever, and some magical moments of music on the recordings. Who can forget Santana’s Woodstock version of “Soul Sacrifice”; or my brother’s favourite, Alvin Lee and Ten Years After playing “I’m Going Home”; or how Jimi Hendrix closed the concert Monday morning, inserting a fuzzed-out, distorted rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” into his set?

I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock-and-roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

— Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

Joni Mitchell wasn’t at Woodstock; she was supposed to be, but she cancelled — reportedly to avoid missing an appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. As with a number of other artists, she didn’t foresee its importance at the time, but she watched the TV coverage and wrote the song in her hotel room. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were there (and made it back for the Cavett appearance), and they later had a hit with their cover of Ms Mitchell’s song on their album Déjà Vu.

In the end, Woodstock stays in our collective consciousness more as a fantastic image of what it was than as the reality of mud and hungry crowds, traffic jams and madness. Woodstock is, to many of us who were young at that time, the concept voiced during another of the stage announcements included on the record album: “The man next to you’s your brother.”


May said...

Those were good times! I've always wanted to be a young girl in the Sixties. I was born a bit too late.

Thank you. This post made me dream.

Anonymous said...

I love Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "Star Spangled Banner." I can hardly imagine July 4th without hearing it.

I recall a time, during the 1990s, when I phoned an FM rock station in Springfield, MA, on July 4th, and requested Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner." The dj told me that they could lose their FCC license if he played it. So, unfortunately, I didn't get to hear it. I don't know if this policy still holds. I do hear the song on FM radio from time to time.

Barry Leiba said...

Lose their license? No, that sounds like an excuse. The FCC has been silly at times, but I've not known them to be that ridiculous... certainly not by the '90s.