Woodstock has gone down as the most famous music festival in music history. The event lasted for only 72 hours but has left an imprint as a piece of pure Americana. Even though the three-day love fest is the epitome of the 1960s and tree-hugging hippies everywhere, it took place in 1969. The iconic gathering not only closed out the decade but also brought about change for many others. Keep reading to learn more about the funky mix of music and people.
39. Woodstock Wasn’t Originally Known as Woodstock
Initially promoted as “a weekend in the country,” the music festival was originally titled “An Aquarian Exposition, Three Days of Peace and Music.” The festival took on the title “Woodstock” due to the band that promoted it. It took place in upstate New York, in a town called Bethel.
Sri Swami Satchidananda spoke these words shortly after the event began: “Sound energy, sound power, is much, much greater than any other power in this world. And, one thing I would very much wish you all to remember is that with sound, we can make — and at the same time, break… And with all my heart, I wish a great, great success in this music festival to pave the way for many more festivals in many other parts of this country.”
The hosts who offered their property for the festival were Max and Miriam Yasgur of Bethel, New York. There were so many complaints from neighbors that they were no longer welcome in the town’s general store, but Mr. Yasgur said of the event, “You are the largest group of people ever assembled in one place at one time… and you have proven something to the world… that half a million kids can get together for fun and music and have nothing but fun and music.”
The Yasgur’s had a 600-acre dairy farm, so there were plenty of animals on-site at Woodstock. Many of the people who attended enjoyed petting the animals. Some even milked the cows and sheep in order to have something to drink, while some of the animals partied along with everyone else.
Promoters of the festival realized that they had a problem when they sold out the 100,000 planned tickets but had only recouped about 60% of the proposed budget. They ended up opening up the event for anyone to attend for free; half a million people showed up for it, five times as many as were planned.
There was undoubtedly chaos as half a million people gathered for a music festival out in the country. Beyond the mess, though, was a feeling of camaraderie and love. Many of the attendees weren’t just opposed to the Vietnam War, but they were also for promoting peace on American soil among their fellow countrymen.
Large music festivals often have feverish energy that quickly spreads among the masses. With musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Santana, The Who, and Creedence Clearwater Revival present, it’s no wonder that people felt the freedom to dance in any way they please.
There was a scheduled line-up of groups that would play, but beyond that, the fun didn’t end when the music stopped. Scheduled groups frequently went far beyond their allotted times, so the music went on well into the night. After hours, people formed drum circles and played well past midnight.
Tom Hardin was one of many troubled musicians of the day who struggled with addiction, as well as severe anxiety and stage fright. When he played at Woodstock, though, the environment was so loving that he felt empowered to give one of the best live performances of his entire career.
Janis Joplin had recently departed from Big Brother and the Holding Company, so she performed at Woodstock as a solo act. She told her band that Woodstock was just another gig, but she was so inspired by the atmosphere that after she played, she stayed and partied until the end of the festival.
Half a million people on 600 acres – without amenities like toilets and often even tents – sounds like a recipe for a violent disaster. However, although nobody had any personal space, there were no violent incidents throughout the entire festival. The spirit of peace and music was more than just a tagline.
Daisies are often used as symbols for cheerfulness, innocence, and purity. Therefore, many people used them to stand for the spirit of Woodstock. Many people wore daisies in their hair or clothes to show their camaraderie. Overall, given the relative peacefulness of the event, it was objectively the best music festival in history.
Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane were two musicians that arrived via helicopter because the traffic to Woodstock was so horrendous. They came quite early, seeing as their actual performances occurred much later than scheduled. Like Joplin, members of Jefferson Airplane stuck around to enjoy the music and the loving, peaceful atmosphere of Woodstock.
Hunter S. Thompson, a writer who attended Woodstock, said, “And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…”
Woodstock took place in August, which can be particularly hot in upstate New York. With half a million people attending, things like water were particularly scarce. Some people performed rain dances – spiritual exercises that some believe unite people with nature – and there were thunderstorms on and off the entire weekend.
Understandably, roads near Bethel were blocked entirely off; many cars parked on the sides of the fields and people just walked. As many as a million people were unable to attend the festival because they just weren’t able to get through the traffic. The locals weren’t too happy about the nuisance.
With thunderstorms popping up throughout the weekend, pouring down rain on a large dairy farm inundated with people, mud was a problem. Typically, these conditions would hamper a public event, but at Woodstock, many attendees embraced the muddy weather and jumped in the dirty puddles.
The German model had been pictured multiple times in Vogue Magazine, but she had left the fashion industry because the people there tried to make her more “bourgeois.” She fell comfortably into the environment at Woodstock and the counterculture, “counter-bourgeois” movement that it represented.
Hippies weren’t the only ones to attend Woodstock; many of their children came with them. The kids fit right into the atmosphere created them, which was, for the most part, safe. Many of the children who attended grew up embracing the principles that made Woodstock such a momentous, historical occasion. Additionally, two babies were born at the event – one in a car in a traffic jam, and one at a local hospital.
Even though Woodstock was held on a fully-functional dairy farm, the venue was not in any way equipped to provide food for half a million people over a three-day weekend. There were shortages of food, water, and other essentials, but people grouped together and shared what they had. Much of the food, just like the entire event, was given away for free.
Plenty of entire families attended Woodstock, complete with their young children. These kids would one day be able to start conversations by saying, “Back at Woodstock…” They were able to find relatively quiet moments together away from all of the music and dancing. After all, it was a weekend out in the country.
In addition to the rain dances that some people at Woodstock performed, which are typically associated with indigenous peoples and animistic religion, occultic practices were frequently engaged in at Woodstock. There were lots of tarot cards and palm readings, both of which were more important to the hippie counterculture than mainstream religions.
The original promoters of Woodstock planned for only 100,000 people, just 20% of the number that actually attended. As such, one shouldn’t be surprised that adequate security was not in place; those who were far from the stage climbed on scaffolding to get a better view, something that would never have been able to happen otherwise. Nevertheless, there were no violent incidents.
Due to the massive food shortages at the concert, the US Army flew helicopters of food to Woodstock to feed hungry concert-goers (some of whom had been dancing for 48 hours straight!). A Jewish community center in Bethel also heard about the food shortages and donated enough food to make several hundred sandwiches.
Some concert-goers became agitated at the presence of the army; after all, they were, by and large, part of the anti-war movement. However, in addition to food, the military also brought in as many as 45 doctors, who stayed there without being paid. Quite a few concert-goers appreciated the openness of the army to engage with the festival.
Though there was an original line-up scheduled to perform at Woodstock, quite a few acts ran well over their time frames, and other musicians in the crowd decided to give an impromptu performance. John Sebastian wasn’t scheduled, but the infectious fervor of the event led him to get onto the stage and begin playing.
Woodstock was an outdoor event, and it occurred at the hottest part of the summer. While the people who were outside indeed sweltered, imagine the agony of the people who sweated things out in their cars in the traffic getting there. Since they planned to spend the weekend outside listening to music, many got out of their cars and started playing guitar.
Many of the hippies and other counterculture members who attended Woodstock followed non-mainstream spiritual beliefs, especially of Hare Krishna (an offshoot of Hinduism). Hare Krishna typically embraces nonviolence, an essential value of the anti-war movement. Many attendees wore the Hare Krishna flower and actively promoted the religion.
Long after the music ended – which was usually well past midnight – people continued the good vibes by forming drum circles. When they didn’t have musical instruments, they often used makeshift ones. Oil drums proved to be perfectly adept for the task of drumming in late-night drum circles.
Over the three-day weekend, there was only a total of two hours that were completely silent. Even that two-hour gap is contentious, as the drum circles probably continued playing. Imagine being at a festival for a full three days, outside on a dairy farm, and not being able to sleep because the noise just did not end. For the people who attended Woodstock, the experience was one to be embraced.
9. The Grateful Dead Struggled With Technical Malfunctions
The Grateful Dead were onstage for a full hour and a half during Woodstock, but during that time, they only played a total of five songs. Their equipment kept malfunctioning, at least partially because of the rain that wreaked havoc on the sound equipment.
In order to maximize the time for music, instead of spending a lot of time in-between acts with set-up, the organizers set up a revolving stage. That way, while one band played, the other group could set up and be ready to perform as soon as the previous one finished.
With half a million attendees over a rainy weekend, one shouldn’t be surprised at the level of destruction that naturally occurred at Woodstock. Nelson Rockefeller, who was then the governor of New York, declared the area a disaster zone and threatened to have the military shut it down. In the end, the National Guard arrived to help the event, not end it.
Given the food shortages of the event, one might not be surprised if the people who attended Woodstock had taken advantage of the farm animals. However, hippies tended to veer towards vegetarianism much more than the general population. The farm animals who lived on the farm were not harmed and were embraced as fellow attendees.
Instead of using police as security for the event, the organizers used a “please force” (pun intended). “Wavy Gravy” was a man from a New Mexico commune that served on this please force. Instead of conventional weapons, the security would threaten to throw fizzy water or custard pies on any troublemakers.
Despite the hordes of people present and the complete lack of personal space, the people who attended Woodstock had to improvise to do things like sleep or eat. Some people set up umbrellas over their blankets so that they could get some shut-eye outdoors during thunderstorms.
The musical performances went straight through the night on Sunday. By the time Jimi Hendrix took the stage, it was already 9 AM on Monday morning. Many of the festival-goers were already on their way out and completely missed his performance. He ended the festival by playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a tribute to patriotism that does not require a war in a foreign country.
With all of the rain that fell during Woodstock, the danger wasn’t just that the sound equipment was getting messed up or that people were inconvenienced. There was a genuine danger of the musicians getting electrocuted. Alvin Lee said, “Oh come on, if I get electrocuted at Woodstock we’ll sell lots of records.”
Before Woodstock, the band known as Santana had only released one album – entitled “Santana” – and that just a month before the festival. However, the people who attended would not forget the iconic sounds and energy of the band, which were emblematic of the entire spirit of Woodstock.
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