On August 15, 16 and 17, 1969, just a month after the famous moon landing of Apollo 11, the world witnessed another giant leap of sorts. This time it was the Woodstock music festival in upstate New York. An estimated 500,000 people converged on one small town to hear three days of music. The fact that this many people would come this far for the sake of song told us something about the human experience at that time -- although exactly what it told is unclear.
Even though you probably weren't there, it's quite likely you've heard of the event known as Woodstock. You might have heard that there were sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Or maybe you heard that there were problems with food, sanitation, parking, traffic and even potable water. You've possibly heard that the music was fantastic -- a musical lineup that's unlikely to be ever reproduced in any era. And all of this is true, so let's take a look at exactly how it all happened.
The first thing you need to recognize is that 1969 was prime time for "counterculture" in America. The counterculture included drug use, anti-war protests, anti-capitalism, the concept of free love, the Women's Liberation movement, communal living and much more. America was divided. On one side were a group of Americans sporting "America: Love it or Leave it" bumper stickers and supporting the Vietnam War. On the other side were a group of Americans known as the hippies -- a term that became mainstream sometime around 1967.
The second thing to recognize is rock music was becoming a very big phenomenon. Woodstock was about counterculture musicians like Joan Baez, Grateful Dead, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Booking dozens of counterculture bands all in one place turned Woodstock into a magnet that attracted people from all over the country.
Bringing Woodstock to Life
Four people are responsible for the idea that became Woodstock: Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman. Roberts and Roseman were young, independently wealthy and looking for an idea that would launch them as entrepreneurs. Kornfield worked at Capitol Records. Lang was a concert promoter, who in January of 1969, organized a large (for the time) music festival in Miami attended by 40,000.
Lang hooked up with Kornfield and hatched the idea for another music festival, but they needed money. Their lawyer led them to Roberts and Roseman, and the four met for the first time in February of 1969. By March Woodstock Ventures, Inc. (WVI) was formed to organize the event. Woodstock, N.Y. was chosen because a lot of musicians were already there -- both Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix owned homes in the area, for example.
By April, WVI had secured a site and was already running small ads to build buzz. They also started booking their first bands: $12,000 for Jefferson Airplane, $12,500 for The Who. While these sound like ridiculously low numbers today, at the time these amounts were twice what the bands were getting for their gigs. That shows you how much times have changed. Woodstock was the event that made many of these bands famous, and at the same time showed everyone how big an appetite the public had for music.
Then in July, just a month before the event was to occur, the town of the original site passed laws that essentially banned the festival. The organizers scrambled and found a new site -- a 600 acre farm field owned by Max Yasgur in Bethel, N.Y.
By the beginning of August, close to 200,000 advance tickets had been sold. What had started as a music festival for perhaps 50,000 people had grown to an event with 200,000 paying customers, and more than twice that many would eventually arrive.
The problem was there was no way that the area could handle that many people. So when the concert-goers started arriving, traffic backed up for miles and miles. Cars were abandoned in the middle of the road and people walked to the festival.
On the day of the event, two amazing things happened. First, the festival turned into a free event. There simply was no way to handle the crowd, so the organizers went with the flow. The fence surrounding the venue was trampled to the ground and disappeared. Second, that the music occurred at all. With all the roads blocked, the organizers had to hire Army helicopters to fly in the performers.
And then there were the conditions, which were at times appalling. On Friday night, five inches of rain fell. Helicopters were flying in food. Hundreds of people were cutting their feet on broken bottles and pop tops. Overall, more than 5,000 medical problems were documented, many of them caused by drug use.
It's hard to believe today that such a thing could spontaneously happen like that. It was like a perfect storm -- the perfect time in the counterculture movement, the perfect venue, the perfect buzz, the perfect innocence and naiveté (imagine trying to book that many rock bands today at such a low cost). It was a perfect fiasco in almost every regard except for one -- the music worked. It's that essential success that made Woodstock world famous.