Join me this week as I dive into another listener request: the history of the epic music festival, Woodstock.
In the summer of 1969, four young men put on what came to be the most memorable music festival of a generation. For four days, thousands of young Americans enjoyed the performances of the artists that came to define sixties: Jefferson Airplane, Credence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix. But what was the inspiration of Woodstock? How did it come together? And why does it still remain one of the most memorable concerts in history?
Tune in to find out all of this and more.
Havens, Richie. “On Woodstock: Richie Havens in his own words.” August 13, 2019. (LINK)
Lang, Michael. The Road to Woodstock. United States: HarperCollins, 2009.
“The Monterey Pop Festival reaches its climax.” History.com Editors. History. June 16, 2020. (LINK)
“Woodstock.” History.com Editors. History. August 13, 2021. (LINK)
Woodstock: 3 Days That Changed Everything. Directed by Rich Poggioli. Amplified, 2019. Via YouTube. (LINK
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
MUSIC CLIP - RICHIE HAVENS FREEDOM
Hey peeps. Welcome back.
In the summer of 1969, more than five hundred thousand young americans converged in a sprawling dairy farm to take part in one of the most iconic music festivals of all time. Over the course of four days, thirty two musical acts took the stage. Filled with the names that would end up defining their generation and local acts, Woodstock remains to this day one of the most iconic moments of the sixties.
This week, I am diving into one of my earliest listener requests. Peter over at Two Songs One Couple let it be known he definitely wanted me to dive into the history of the iconic music festival. So, this week I am diving into Woodstock.
Was it the first music festival? Who attended? And why is it such a permanent fixture in our memories?
Grab your cup of peeps, lets do this.
Before we dive into Woodstock itself, I think it's important to set the context. What was happening in the United States at this time? If you’re even a casual student of United States history, then you know the sixties as a decade was a pretty tumultuous and violent decade. The country was embroiled in the Vietnam conflict, the fight for Civil Rights was in full swing and the world watched as assassin bullets struck down some of the most revered leaders in history: John F Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965 followed by both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968.
The sixties were filled with a lot of chaos and challenges to conventional thought. It was, after all, the decade that saw the start of the gay liberation movement, the signing of the voting rights act of 1965 and the rise of the hippy. There was a constant battle throughout the sixties between what was and what could be and the two often clashed, sometimes violently and it seemed as if the country would never find harmony. In other words, people were raw.
So how did the idea of the festival come up? Put on by four young men - all under 27 - Woodstock was not, in fact, the first multi-day music festival. That distinction goes to the Monterey Pop festival which was held during the Summer of Love two years earlier. For several days that June, thousands of young adults and hippies gathered on the Monterey Fair Grounds to watch nearly three dozen acts perform. The musical acts were as diverse as the audience, with performances from Otis Redding to Jefferson Airplane, the festival attracted almost one hundred thousand attendees. One of those was Michael Lang. Lang, an aspiring musician and event promoter, was immediately taken with the festival and sought to replicate its feeling and success.
And though it would become known as the festival of love and music, the Woodstock festival was originally meant to be a fundraising opportunity to build a recording studio in upstate New York. The plan was to put on a Monterey-like festival where Lang and his friend and Capitol Records executive Artie Kornfeld would book both local and big name talent and use the proceeds from ticket sales to fund the costs associated with building a studio. Their aim to build a studio in upstate New York was meant to cater to big names such as Bob Dyland and Van Morrison who both lived in the area.
Having attended the Monterey festival, Lang was familiar with the layout and logistics used to put on such an event and hosted his own, the Miami Music Festival in 1968. Several other musical festivals popped up in the immediate aftermath of Monterey, including the Summer of Soul in New York - which now has its very own documentary - I’d highly recommend checking it out if you haven’t already.
However, when they pitched their idea to their other investors Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, they were less excited about the studio and more excited about putting on an epic music festival. And so the four men went about trying to figure out just how to pull it all off.
Hosting a music festival posed its own sort of problems. Aside from securing the talent, the men needed to secure a site, fencing, food, ticket booths, bathrooms and security. Security was especially worrisome given the animosity towards those who identified as hippies. Some of the festivals that cropped up after Monterey attracted the unwanted attention from local law enforcement, often causing confrontations between concert goers and police with several festivals ending in riots.
The four men found their site in upstate New York, initially choosing the Howard Mills Industrial Park in the town of Wallkill. they secured permits for 50,000 attendees and set ticket prices at $18 for pre-sale and $24 at the gate. When factoring in inflation, those costs are $120 and $160. For a three day event where over thirty acts performed. And if your jaw isn’t on the floor yet, I decided to google the ticket prices for one of the largest music festivals in the country, Coachella. In 2022, for General Admission, tickets start at $503. If you want a VIP experience, get ready to fork up $1003. So, the kids of Woodstock got a screamin deal.
Though they permitted for 50,000 attendees, the promoters estimated their actual attendance would be closer to 200,000 and planned their event based on that. Meaning, they reserved toilets, purchased food and provisions with that 200,000 figure in their minds. They also expected people would come and go from the festival and they would have some people who stayed throughout the weekend. Oops.
While it may seem like a foregone conclusion that Woodstock would become a major event, this was not a guarantee. While there had been several music festivals since the Summer of Love, musicians still had to be convinced to attend. According to Michael Lang, several of their initial bands received major paydays, like Jefferson Airplane, who received 10,000 for their performance.
Creedence Clearwater Revival was the first major band to sign on to perform at the festival and ticket sales hit 100,000 rapidly. Just as they were getting ready for the homestretch, the home venue pulled out. Local residents, nervous at the thought of having thousands of drug fueled hippies in their towns, pressured local politicians who passed a law making the festival an impossibility in Wallkill. Enter 45 year old farmer, Max Yasgur.
Yasgur owned a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. In their scouting, Lang and Kornfeld identified a section of the property ideally suited for the festival due to its bowl shaped topography and approached Yasgur to gain his permission. It had been a wet summer in upstate New York and Yasgur was short on hay to feed his cattle. Faced with having to purchase sufficient quantities, Yasgur welcomed the possibility of earning some much needed extra cash. Upon learning of the festival’s new location, many of Max’s neighbors were not happy with him and demanded he rescind his offer. Dealing in stereotypes, the community was upset at the thought of having hippies, known for their protest of the war in Vietnam and recreational drug use, walking about their town. In a surprising move, Max pushed back forcefully, pointing out that while he also did not like the way they looked or what they protested, soldiers were dying by the thousands to protect their rights to do just that.
This left the young promoters with just three weeks to set up their venue. And the rain? Well, it wasn’t done yet. Almost every day the sky opened up and made construction nearly impossible. And while they fought the elements to try to get the stage, fencing and ticket booths up and running, they still had to finalize some details like food, security and medical attention in the event of a drug induced incident.
Lang and crew originally hoped to use off duty police officers to help oversee the security, however when police commissioner Howard Leary banned cops from participating, the organizers needed a back up plan. So they turned to Wes Pomeroy. A former marine and sheriff who oversaw the security for the 1967 Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace, Pomeroy was made Vice President and Director of Security for the event.
And what about everything else? In what I can only say is a truly 1960’s solution, the promoters turned to The Hog Farm, a hippy commune run by a guy who went by the name Wavy Gravy. Yes. Wavy. Gravy. In articulating his plans for the event, Wavy Gravy famously said quote, “what we have in mind is breakfast in bed for four hundred thousand,” end quote. Food was minimal; breakfast was muesli and oatmeal and the medical response? Well it was primarily comprised of a place for people to ride out their trip in a peaceful place.
Once word got out of the headliners attending Woodstock, people’s interest sky rocketed. Thousands of individual without a ticket hit the roads early in the hopes they’d be able to secure a ticket at the gate. On the Thursday before the festival was due to begin, it is estimated nearly seventy-five thousand concert goers were on site and ready to request tickets. This was ahead of any gate placements or ticket booths.
While the promoters assumed there would be a number of individuals in attendance who hadn’t paid for their entry, they weren’t entirely prepared for the onslaught. Given the throng of individuals who were already setting up camp in the days leading up the festival, the organizers decided to make the whole thing free. Once word got out, the crowd only intensified, leading to a jammed interstate on the way to Woodstock.
The traffic made the news. Even Wes Pomeroy, in charge of security for the event, gave an interview warning people not to try to come out saying quote, “anybody who tries to come here is crazy. Sullivan county is a great big parking lot,” end quote.
By Friday August 15th, the proposed start of the festival, nearly four hundred thousand were on site and ready to rock. A number of big acts did not choose to participate including John Lennon, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. So who started the festival? A man by the name of Richie Havens - who I played at the top of the episode.
Havens was originally scheduled to go fifth, but due to the road conditions many acts just couldn’t make it. Even Havens had to be helicoptered in as he was sitting in a hotel some two hours away from the actual venue. The original request was to do a 30 to 45 minute set. However, given the fact that acts were not able to get to the venue, Havens was asked to extend his set, which he did. Havens mesmerized the crowd for over three hours, playing every song he could think of. Day one’s set included Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and Tim Hardin.
Weather continued to be a factor in the set list. Credence Clearwater Revival didn’t take the stage until 3AM Saturday morning. In recalling his Woodstock experience, lead singer John Fogerty said quote, “We were ready to rock out and we waited… And finally it was our turn… There were half a million people asleep. And this is this moment I will never forget as long as I love; a quarter mile away in the darkness, there was some flicking his BIC, and in the night I hear ‘Don’t worry, John. We’re with you’ I played the rest of the show for that guy,” end quote.
Many acts played at Woodstock, with several getting their quote unquote big break at the festival including Santana and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The lineup ended up being a who's who of the music of that generation including The Who, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and of course the show’s closer, Jimi Hendrix.
Given the various delays of the festival, Hendrix’s start time was delayed until Monday. The concert promoters tried to convince Hendrix to go on earlier where he would have the widest available audience, but he refused. So come Monday, August 18th with only roughly twenty five thousand in attendance, Jimi Hendrix took the stage.
MUSIC CLIP: JIMI HENDRIX STAR SPANGLED BANNER
In one of the most captivating and memorable performances of the decade, Hendrix expertly brought his audience to attention, playing the national anthem on his electric guitar. I am not ashamed to admit I am severely jealous that I missed this performance.
And with the ending chords of Hendrix’s performance, the Woodstock festival was over. So why is it such a flashpoint in American history? Well, for one, it proved there was an audience for festivals. It won the 1970 Oscar for best documentary and spawned several imitations, including the Live Aid concert in 1985 to help raise money for the famine epidemic in Ethiopia.
The musical festival has only expanded over the years, with events such as Coachella, Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair coming in the aftermath of the famed festival. The promoters of Woodstock event tried to replicate the feeling of love and camaraderie with Woodstock 94 and Woodstock 99. While the 1994 version seemed to be a success, 1999 ended in a swarm of chaos and violence with reports of rape plaguing the festival’s headlines.
Replicating Woodstock proved a more difficult task than people originally imagined. It came at a perfect time in American history. A time before social media and cell phones; where people could come together, take a few drugs and vibe along to the music with their fellow festival goers. It proved to be a time of healing and transition for the counter culture generation and was a flashpoint in American cultural history.
But I think Woodstock’s impact can be best summed up by promoter and organizer Micheal Lang when he said quote, “woodstock was a test of whether people of our generations really believed in one another and the world we were struggling to create. How would we do when we were in charge? Could we live as the peaceful community we envisioned? I’d hope we could,” end quote.
Thank you again to Peter for suggesting a dive into Woodstock. This was one of those episodes where I wish I could hop into my delorean and witness for myself the events as they unfolded. If you ever want me to cover a topic, be sure to let me know. Your requests are consistently fascinating and I always learn so much. You can make your requests via the social media channels on Instagram, Twitter or the Facebook. Or you can visit the website at www dot civics and coffee dot com. Not only can you submit your topic requests, but you can also see source material, read transcripts and find out how YOU can support the show.
Thanks peeps. I’ll see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.