BETHEL, N.Y. — “Freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom, yeah, yeah, yeah,” rang out across Max Yasgur’s bucolic 600-acre dairy farm and the crowd replied with resplendent applause.
“Richie Havens was the opening act,” recounted Mark Davis of Augusta on his porch early Thursday evening last week. “I really love that song, he made it up on the spot. That moment, that sound, those words, that’s when I think the feeling hit everyone what this was going to be, you know despite everything else that went down.”
And so it was — the eponymous cultural touchstone of the late 1960s that is Woodstock began 50 years ago this Thursday, on Aug. 15, 1969.
Originally slated to take place in Wallkill, N.Y., the Woodstock Festival coordinators met immediate opposition from residents. Despite the resistance, preparations continued from the spring of ’69 until July 15, when Wallkill officially banned the concert, citing ordinance concerns.
With just 30 days until the concert, promoters scrambled to find a venue until finally they got a phone call from a motel owner in White Lake — a hamlet of Bethel — which eventually led them to Yasgur.
Davis, now 71, was one of an estimated 400,000-plus people in attendance at the music festival, billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music.” It was a time of hedonism and freedom in which all the rules were tossed out the window and pure humanity reigned.
Davis said he and 3 friends loaded up a cooler, sleeping bags, tents and a cookstove.
“I don’t think that we thought about it too much,” he said. “We borrowed a Volkswagen bus from someone and were at the farm as the sun was going down.”
“People started showing up 3, 4 days before the concert. We got lucky,” said Davis, a retired psychologist, and 30-year Hampshire County resident. “The roads just turned into parking lots soon after. I mean they were still building the stage when we got there.”
The night the friends arrived at the festival, Davis recalled, “We were setting up our camp area and just dropped everything,” Davis said with a laugh. “Fifty feet away around this bonfire was David Peel and The Lower Eastside Band, just hanging out playing their music. And you walked another 50 feet and it was Ken Kesey’s bus, decorated all psychedelic. I didn’t know who he was at the time.”
Kesey was an American counterculture figure and postmodern author who wrote “The Electric Koolaid Acid Test” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Kesey considered himself a link between the beatniks of the ’50s and the hippies of the ‘60s.
Tickets before the concert cost $18 and were to be sold for $24 at the gate — or today about $120 and $160 respectively. The news of Wallkill banning the concert turned out to be a “publicity bonanza for the festival,” as reported by the Times Herald-Record.
An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 more concertgoers showed up than organizers had prepared for. Aside from large crowds, rain had soaked the roads and fields, facilities such as sanitation and first aid were not in place to provide for the hundreds of thousands who would soon be facing food shortages, a lack of basic medical care and bad weather.
Running out of time and resources, a choice had to be made. “Do we build the stage or do we build a fence,” recounted Woodstock co-founder John Roberts.
“What could they do,” asked Davis, “So they came over the PA said ‘this is now a free concert because the people backing the thing care more about you and the music than they do about making a buck.’ That was the sort of anti-consumerism value at the heart of the peace or psychedelic movement or whatever you want to call it.”
It was Friday at 5:07 p.m. when the music finally started. Performers faced nearly as many problems as the crowds. Artists were delayed due to traffic and other snags, so the decision was made to start flying musicians in a fleet of helicopters.
Friday was for all the acoustic and folk bands and there were nearly 300,000 people there.
“I remember Richie Havens, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez,” recalled Davis. Baez finished out the first day of the concert at 2 a.m. Saturday morning, and was notably 6 months pregnant at the time.
Late Friday state police urged those who may have been planning to drive to the festival to stay at home, but by the 2nd day the crowd had swelled to over 400,000 and the torrential rains of Friday night turned into blazing sun Saturday.
Saturday and Sunday were for rock and roll. Organizers already knew they were woefully in over their heads.
The situation became even more apparent Saturday. Woodstock was quickly becoming an emergency as they began to run out of food and medical supplies.
Then New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s office called Roberts and suggested that Rockefeller was thinking of ordering 10,000 National Guard troops in to shut down the festival. Rockefeller’s office eventually relented to Roberts’ persuasion not to follow through with this plan; however, Sullivan County did declare a state of emergency.
The music continued Saturday as 4 military helicopters descended on the festival. Lighting director and last-minute master of ceremonies Chip Monck shined a light on the situation saying, “Ladies and gentlemen the United States Army has lent us some medical teams. There are 45 doctors who are here without pay because they dig what this is in to. They are with us, man; they are not against us.”
“Saturday it all just became a blur,” said Davis. “There was just so much to walk around and see.” By the evening, he was back to watching the music though. “We were pretty close to the stage. It was easy to move through the crowd and get close,”
That night he saw Canned Heat, Credence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and the Who.
“It went on all night,” he remembered.
Nearly everyone was asleep by the next morning, “(but) I wanted to see Jefferson Airplane. They were my favorite,” said Davis with a smile, “so I was up front.”
It was now 9:40 a.m. on Sunday and the music had gone on almost non-stop for 22 hours.
Sunday’s performances were mired by several circumstances, most notably rain.
“It just poured and poured and poured,” said Davis. “Joe Cocker, who I loved, started the Sunday afternoon, but soon after is when the thunder and rain came.”
Festivalgoers made the best of it though.
“What else could you do,” proposed Davis, explaining some huddled under blankets or plastic and others “played in the mud like kids.”
Despite the size and chaos of the event, there was no violence, unlike recent prior outdoor music festivals.
“Security was cool. Wavy Gravy was there in charge of it,” with his Hog Farm commune. Dubbed the “Please Force,” a play on words and reference to their non-intrusive structure of keeping the peace, e.g. “Please don’t do that, do this instead.”
Sunday afternoon Yasgur — later revealed to be a conservative who supported the Vietnam War — asked to speak to the crowd and said, “The important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that half a million young people can get together and have 3 days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and God bless you for it.”
“Everyone from the community was so nice and helped us, it wasn’t like ‘get off my lawn, you damn hippy,’” Davis said. “I mean, they brought us food and were just kind.”
Jimi Hendrix took the stage on Monday at 8:30 a.m. as the final act. The only chaos left now at Woodstock was a small crowd of 30,000 and “what looked like a battlefield,” Davis noted.
Hendrix played for just over 2 hours. His now-iconic and psychedelic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” occurred about 2/3 of the way through the set.
While most were not around to see it, “the performance was captured in the Woodstock film and is often thought of to encapsulate the ’60s zeitgeist,” wrote Rolling Stone.
The mud has dried and the former Yasgur’s Farm is green again. Plans for a 50th-anniversary concert have been scuttled.
But as Mr. Davis — or as I call him, “Dad” — concluded, “We didn’t go to Woodstock because ‘oh this is going to be some great cultural revolution or something.’ We went to Woodstock because it seemed like it was going to be a great concert. We didn’t care it started late. We didn’t care it was muddy. We didn’t want to care about anything. It was a chance to be free and see 32 of the greatest music acts around.”
Oh, and if you’re wondering what they did with all the 450 cattle that called the Yasgur Farm home, “we just let the cows out with the campers and they seemed to get along together fine” said George Peavey, an employee of the Yasgur operation.