How Was Woodstock Originally Reported 50 Years Ago?

Richie Havens
Paul DeMaria/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Richie Havens performing at Woodstock Music Festival on Aug. 15, 1969 in Bethel, New York. 

When future Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg covered the original Woodstock as a reporter for Billboard, his overall take on the festival was positive, if not a tad hyperbolic. "Woodstock was a celebration of joy which wiped out, at least temporarily, the persistent feelings of meaninglessness that permeate our culture," he wrote. "It was perhaps the dawning of the age of Aquarius. Questionable as a business venture, it was, at least, a moment of triumph for the better side of man, in a time when the devil seems so often to be winning."

Goldberg's rose-colored assessment wasn't necessarily the norm for contemporary Woodstock coverage. Depending on what source you read in 1969, the festival was a beatific good time, a haven for heavy drug use, or even a chaotic, apocalyptic mess. An August 16 extra edition of the Times Herald Record from nearby Middletown, New York, was delivered with the blaring headline, "400,000 Flood Site; Rock Crisis Eases Off." Inside was hard news coverage -- including a report on the tragic death of a man who was run over by a tractor -- but also breathless and gossipy coverage of a woman who embraced nudity while walking around a nearby town, as well as the numerous drug arrests. A UPI report emphasized the festival's poor logistics, hospitalizations, bad trips, sickness, and deaths, and reported on disgruntled attendees trying to leave the event.

Buried at the end of the UPI article, however, was a quote from an employee of the farm on which Woodstock was being held, that they "haven't had a bit of trouble with these kids." That nugget was highlighted more prominently in the Associated Press article, which ran under the headline "Peace and Sharing Dominate Festival" in the Spokane Daily Chronicle. In fact, consistent throughout all of the contemporary Woodstock coverage was how polite and well-mannered festival attendees were -- one of the few moments of journalistic consensus in 1969 reports, alongside mentions of intense traffic jams, huge amounts of mud and bad weather.

"Nonwithstanding their personality, their dress and their ideas, they were and they are the most courteous, considerate and well-behaved group of kids I have ever been in contact with in my 24 years of police work," Lou Yank, head of the constabulary in Monticello, told the Associated Press. Dr. William Abruzzi, Woodstock's chief medical officer, concurred: "There has been no violence whatsoever, which is remarkable for a crowd of this size."

In the lead-up to the festival, however, people feared the worst from the massive crowds. In July 1969, Woodstock ended up having to pull up stakes and move from its original site of Wallkill to Bethel, located 30 miles west. According to contemporary stories, the culprit was fierce opposition from residents, who were concerned about the influx of people into Wallkill -- the Poughkeepsie Journal noted a new Sears Roebuck store was opening around then and was slated to draw big crowds -- and the potential for overwhelmed police, as well as adequate availability of housing, food and sanitary resources.    

As it turns out, Wallkill might have been right to worry: Festival attendance far outpaced original estimates, which led to occasional exploitation (the Village Voice recap mentions "a few of the local people [that] started selling food and water at outrageous prices"), what amounted to free admission due to a breakdown in the ticketing system, and lawsuits. An August 27, 1969 New York Times article noted that New York State was investigating the festival because so many paid ticket-holders couldn't get in to see the show. (The NYT noted in November 1969 that one of the organizers, John Roberts, donated $15,000 out of pocket for refunds.) In 1970, the neighbors of Woodstock site host Max Yasgur sued him because so many attendees camped out and destroyed their nearby farm.

Interestingly enough, the Woodstock lineup -- now considered legendary -- wasn't necessarily much of a focus for journalists. "The music, while being at the center of the storm, was not the storm itself," Goldberg wrote. "The spirit of cooperation was at times more remarkable than the music that inspired it." Although that belief has been challenged over time, notably and recently by the lavish and extensive new Rhino boxed set of the event, contemporary 1969 Woodstock coverage did downplay the musical happenings.

Goldberg himself reviewed a few acts, although the Who, Janis Joplin and Santana were merely listed as also performing. However, Associated Press, UPI, and even Village Voice articles about the festival barely mentioned the music. A Cleveland Plain Dealer interview with locals who had attended even called Woodstock an "art fair" in the headline. Rolling Stone came through with a detailed article that covered the ins and outs of the music. However, its article also highlighted something mostly overlooked thanks to the dearth of music commentary: the lack of diversity in the festival lineup and attendees.

"Sunday’s marathon was opened by Joe Cocker, his fingers epileptic butterflies, his voice harsh and driving, but grey rather than black, driving home the absence of R and B artists," the reviewer wrote. "As with most of the festivals, white was right. No Sam and Dave. No Wilson Pickett. No Stevie Wonder. No Aretha. No Temptations. No Fats Domino. Which is perhaps understandable when the audience itself is largely white."

As with any major event, hindsight is always 20/20, and cultural significance largely accumulates over time, not in the moment. But what's also striking about revisiting Woodstock's 1969 coverage is just how little focus there seemed to be on any bigger-picture, "What does it mean?" analysis. The New York Times interviewed attendees about their experiences in a roundtable, and the Associated Press and Newspaper Enterprise Association also published syndicated columns about the festival experiences. However, the event was portrayed more like a curiosity or major happening to puzzle through, more than something that signaled a decisive cultural or generational shift, or something that represented any kind of societal response or reaction to the Vietnam War. 

In fact, the political event mentioned more in passing was the Chicago Democratic National Convention. In a New York Times roundtable of attendees, a man named Bill noted that seeing the Army and helicopters on the Woodstock site reminded him of Vietnam, a college student named Dan said it was "apolitical, if anything. Chicago was very political. Woodstock was just like government and politics and laws just didn't exist." The Village Voice, meanwhile, quoted an attendee as saying, “It’s incredible. Last year there were less than 10,000 of us in Chicago and now look at this army," and then editorializing, "It’s difficult to say which was the more revolutionary event." Such vague allusions were more common. "The largest grouping of Americans in history has to be taken as a political event," Goldberg wrote. "Political without the fear, clichés, and martyrdom of other political events. Its candidate was music and peace."

Discrepancies between Woodstock's myth and reality have developed over time mainly because articles about the festival mischaracterize small facts, or leave out narrative details altogether. For example, to this day, nobody can agree on exact attendance; over the years, figures such as 300,000, 350,000, 400,000 and 500,000 have all been published. The rampant drug use and overdose reports that permeated original coverage have been flattened into a brief descriptor -- for example, 1989's "a countercultural happening, an extravaganza of sex and drugs" -- or muted: In 1999, the first Woodstock was deemed "a communal mud bath that symbolized peace, love and free expression."

Over time, these mischaracterizations have chiseled away at what Woodstock was really like. A 1999 New York Times article mentioned nobody left early from the original Woodstock, which was also incorrect; an August 18, 1969 wrap-up from the same paper noted that "By midnight, nearly half of the 300,000 fans who had camped here for the weekend had left." A 1973 New York Times op-ed about a Summer Jam in Watkins Glen called it "a more peaceful scene than Woodstock" and projected meaning onto the '69 festival: "To many, irrespective of political viewpoint, it seemed an act of mass defiance by the young, a rejection of conventional mores and habits of thought, an act of defiance with potentially explosive implications for a nation riven by the Vietnam War."

Yet the idea that Woodstock was immediately a contentious dividing line between generations also isn't borne out by contemporary coverage. Afterward, the Associated Press ran a first-person essay from a 44-year-old self-described "square" and "prude of the first order" named Sunn Rasch, who found the Woodstock audience well-mannered and the event itself enlightening.

"It was a scene of children trying to say something to us," she wrote, adding later, "Asking me to describe how the exposition changed me is like asking somebody to define a spiritual experience. For that is what it was to me… to the young people I met… and eventually to those of the community who gave of themselves and their food."

To many in attendance, antagonism between the crowd and authority figures -- whether law enforcement or community members -- also wasn't a factor. An NEA syndicated column features interviews with a police officer and a couple, who had nothing but good things to say about each other. Goldberg saw similar harmony, as he wrote in Billboard: "In short, the often omnipresent 'we-they' paranoia which usually divide hippies from 'straights,' cops from crowds, performers from audience and insiders from outsiders disappeared."

Perhaps most of all, it's easy to forget now that Woodstock wasn't started with lofty ideals. "Lost in the lore surrounding the first Woodstock is the fact that it was intended to be a money-making venture, a $3 million production that was to cost each concertgoer $18 for three days," the New York Times noted in 1994. And the festival was bankrolled by four people with connections -- including John Roberts, who came from a rich family with ties to the invention of Polident.

By September 1969, these four festival principals were already going their separate ways, with the New York Times article on their split running with the telling sub-headline, "Split of organizers reflects difference of ideas among entrepreneurs on mining the youth 'underground.'" The article goes on to explore the rise of marketing to (and of) youth culture, with the telling line: "Several large Establishment-oriented corporations and Wall Street investment firms are interested in cashing in on the youth market that Woodstock so dramatically provided exists." The subsequent merchandising of Woodstock -- which became more pronounced in news coverage and in culture as the decades progressed -- was already in motion. (In Billboard's coverage following the original festival, co-creator Michael Lang was even reported to be planning an even bigger festival at the same site the following year.) 

Rolling Stone saw through the marketing in its recap. "The festival wasn’t produced as a spirit-expanding musical experience in the first place. With their heralded under-30 grooviness, the four men who put the fair together contented themselves with being promoters of certified record company stars and token new, and white, talent. Tough shit for the kids crammed into the mud, waiting from 40 minutes to more than an hour for whatever act could be sent on next."

And an Atlanta-based newspaper called The Great Speckled Bird wrote what was perhaps the most comprehensive—and astute—assessment of Woodstock at the time. The piece sensed the coming cultural shifts, and weaved in references and parallels to politics -- but more correctly, saw Woodstock with clear eyes:

"What had begun as a music festival hype had turned into a three-day experiment in living off the land, produced by a war on the young by a profit-oriented, obsolete piece of capitalist machinery -- 'the music industry.'"