Arts Aug 12, 2019 10:30 AM EDT
Woodstock is surrounded by myths, legends and misperceptions. Here’s the real story about five of them.
1. Woodstock was not held at Woodstock
It made sense that co-organizer Michael Lang wanted to have the concert in Woodstock. The Catskill Mountains town was already known for being an artists’ colony and Bob Dylan’s rural hideaway. But key people in the town wanted no part of the concert. The festival was going to be held a bit south of Woodstock at an old industrial site in Wallkill, New York. But those plans fell through about a month before the show, sending Lang scrambling to find a new site. He was driving through farm country in Bethel, New York, when he spied a gently sloping alfalfa field. He struck a deal with the farmer, Max Yasgur.
2. The New York state thruway stayed open
“The New York State Thruway is closed, man,” Arlo Guthrie famously announced from the festival stage. Not exactly. Police closed at least one thruway exit east of the festival to stem the source of a blockbuster traffic jam around the site. How bad were the roads? The New York Daily News reported on Aug. 16, 1969, that cars were being delayed by as much as eight hours between New York City and the concert site — a distance of less than 100 miles.
3. Babies were (sort of) born at Woodstock
This one could be true depending on how you define “at Woodstock.” The concert’s medical director told reporters at the scene of the festival that there were two births: one at a local hospital after the mother was flown out by helicopter; the other in a car caught in traffic. Wade Lawrence, the director of what is now the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts at the festival site, recently confirmed the helicopter story with the medevac pilot, who said the mother gave birth at the hospital.
4. Max Yasgur was not a country bumpkin
Yasgur told the young crowd massed on his field he was a farmer not used to speaking to groups. Self-deprecation aside, he ran a large dairy operation with a large herd, trucks and its own plant. Nephew Marty Miller said that he warned his uncle months earlier that Woodstock’s organizers might come knocking, and that Yasgur was ready when it happened. Lang in his memoir describes Yasgur as a “sharp guy.” Miller said that beyond rent money, Yasgur benefited from improvements to the field, such as wells. “Max was an astute businessman, very sharp. He was nobody’s fool,” Miller said.
5. Woodstock was not exactly three days of peace and music
The famous concert poster with a bird perched on a guitar neck advertised “three days of peace and music,” spanning from Aug. 15-17. There was undisputedly music at Woodstock, and many attendees reportedly spent the weekend blissed out. But Woodstock lasted more than three days. Thanks to delays, it bled into the morning of Aug. 18. Jimi Hendrix came on stage after the sun came up, after a large portion of the crowd had left.
Left: Mexican-born American musician Carlos Santana (right) and American bassist David Brown perform with the other members of Santana at ‘Woodstock,’ a large rock and roll music concert, Bethel, New York, August 16, 1969. (Photo by Tucker Ransom/Getty Images)
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Groovy: Woodstock fans flock to concert site for anniversary
BETHEL, N.Y. (AP) — Woodstock fans are expected to get back to the garden to mark the 50th anniversary of the generation-defining festival.
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is hosting a series of events Thursday through Sunday at the bucolic 1969 concert site, 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of New York City.
Woodstock veteran Arlo Guthrie is set to perform Thursday evening before an outdoor screening of the concert documentary on the famous field.
There won’t be overcrowding and chaos this time. Visitors need event tickets and travel passes to drive to the site through the weekend.
An estimated 400,000 people showed up for the original festival on upstate New York farmland Aug. 15-18, 1969.
An unofficial anniversary festival, known as the forgotten Woodstock, took place in August 1989.
When the TV crews left, several hundred people were at the site. But as the music began at 5.07PM – the exact time Richie Havens started the show 20 years earlier – it became clear that many others were on their way. By Wednesday evening, it’s estimated more than 7,000 people were in attendance. By Friday, the figure was said to be 30,000.
“Most people seemed to have made a spontaneous decision to come to the festival site,” journalist Stu Fox wrote at the time.
As word spread and more people appeared at Woodstock ’89, local bands provided equipment to stage a larger-scale performance, while essential services were managed by volunteers. An attempt to charge a $5 parking fee to help defray costs was abandoned, and it was reported that very few commercial operations were seen at the event.
Highlights included a lunar eclipse on Wednesday, Aug. 16, during which there was a crowd-powered attempt to “call down the moon,’ led by Jack Hardy. Al Hendrix, father of Jimi Hendrix, told the crowd, “Everybody’s here in the spirit of Woodstock;” and original performers Melanie and Savoy Brown made a return. Hundreds of unannounced bands turned up and waited for an opportunity to take part. Original promoter Michael Lang made an appearance, as did Hugh “Wavy Gravy” Romney, who managed the freak-out tents in 1969. (He was in the area to attend the semi-official Remember Woodstock concert in nearly Swan Lake, but abandoned it for the Bethel event, as did almost everyone else involved.)
“They were there for nothing other than to be there,” Melanie told a California audience days after her appearance at Bethel. “It was so amazing. The people in the town built a makeshift stage and local bands were playing, and I went down there and I got to sing at Woodstock. So I did it twice in one lifetime!”
While the attendance will never be known, Fox reported that 50,000 signatures were added to the Woodstock monument guest book (though, according to The New York Times, one of those was “Janis Joplin”) and that many more people arrived after the 1989 festival was over. “A community was formed,” he said. “People of all ages and backgrounds came together to enjoy themselves and each other. … The reborn Woodstock Nation generated its own services, culture and customs. Everything was dependent upon the efforts of volunteers.”