The Women of Woodstock: A Look Back at the Few Female Musicians Who Played the Fest

Alvan Meyerowitz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Joan Baez performs at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair on Aug. 15, 1969 in Bethel, NY. 

Do a quick Google search of "women at Woodstock," and the results you'll get are overwhelmingly about the women not onstage but in the crowd. You'll find plenty of articles and photos about what they wore (or in many cases, didn't wear). But search results pertaining to the iconic 1969 festival's female performers -- like the number who actually made it onto the bill to play for half a million people at Max Yasgur's Bethel, New York farm -- are much more scarce.

Just seven of the 32 acts who took part in the legendary "three days of peace and music" featured women -- not including backing vocalists, or non-permanent accompanists like Maya Kulkarni, who played tambura with Ravi Shankar. Of those seven, only three made it into the original theatrical release of the 1970 Woodstock documentary that helped to cement the festival into history.

We all know about Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star-Spangled Banner," or Joe Cocker belting out "With A Little Help From My Friends" before the skies opened up. We know about the mud and the brown acid and the lack of bathrooms and the traffic and the naked hippies. But the sets from most of the festival's female artists haven't been similarly immortalized.

Sadly, it's not a problem that's unique to Woodstock (or Woodstock '99, where four rapes and countless more instances of sexual assault or harassment of female attendees were reported). Gender disparity at music festivals remains a problem decades later; a 2018 survey by Pitchfork found that women make up just 19 percent of the average festival lineup.

So, in an attempt to right some of those wrongs, we're shining a light on the women of Woodstock, recounting their performances, the impact they had and the careers they went on to have after the crowds dispersed and the mud began to dry.

Nancy Nevins of Sweetwater

Originally slated to open the festival, Nancy Nevins and the other members of Los Angeles psych-rock group Sweetwater found themselves stuck in Woodstock's infamous traffic. Richie Havens wound up kicking things off instead -- playing for nearly three hours to stall until other artists could get there -- and Sweetwater eventually ditched their ride for wings, flying in via helicopter and arriving in time to perform second. Sadly, just four months after Woodstock, Nevins was involved in a near-fatal car accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury and permanent damage to one of her vocal cords. Her injuries prevented her from ever recording a full album with the group again, but Sweetwater did reunite at Woodstock '94 to honor the legacy of the festival.

Melanie

Melanie Safka—known professionally as simply Melanie—was just a relatively unknown 22-year-old folk singer when she hit the stage at Woodstock, but her performance took her career to a new level and even inspired her breakout hit, "Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)," which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. The singer has admitted that she was terrified to perform in front of the festival's massive crowd and hoped that the rain would bail her out, saying in a 2018 interview that "it started to rain and I thought, that’s it, I’ll be saved because people are gonna go home now because it’s raining.

Of course, they’re going to go home! I mean, they’re not gonna sit there in the rain. I’m in this revelry of thinking that’s what’s gonna happen, and they called me and right as I’m waiting, I hear Wavy Gravy making an announcement about his collective passing out candles, and something inspirational happened: the crowd started lighting the candles.” The candles were lit right as she hit the stage, and the rest is history. The experience wound up being a spiritual one for the singer, as she recalls, “I left my body."

Joan Baez

Though she was originally supposed to close out the first night of Woodstock, Joan Baez took the stage in the wee hours of the next day, wishing everyone a "good morning" as she opened her set. For all the talk of "revolution" at the event, Baez was by far the most overtly political performer on the bill, and her performance was an outlier. Six months pregnant at the time, she told the rowdy crowd to "sit down, please" during her first song, and she spoke at length about the arrest of her then-husband David Harris, who was locked up for resisting the draft.

Reflecting on the experience in a New York Times interview this year, she recalled feeling like an outsider, saying, "Though a few people were singing about the war, like Country Joe, it was a joy festival. Nobody was really thinking about the serious issues. I was graceless enough not to just accept it. A revolution, I would think, involves taking risks and going to jail and all that stuff that happened in the civil rights movement and the draft resistance."

Licorice McKechnie and Rose Simpson of The Incredible String Band

The Incredible String Band was originally booked to play on day one of the festival, which featured more folk and acoustic acts, but they refused to perform in the rain and were eventually rescheduled for day two. It's a decision that cost the UK psych-folk group dearly: The Saturday crowd, expecting to hear more rock-oriented performers that day, was not receptive to them, and as a result, they were left out of the iconic Woodstock documentary. Ultimately, it signaled the beginning of the end for the group, as they released the disappointing Changing Horses album three months later and scrapped a planned US tour the following year.

Rose Simpson -- who played bass, violin and percussion and contributed vocals -- left the band in 1971, and Licorice McKechnie (vocals, percussion) followed suit in 1972. Simpson became Lady Mayoress of the Welsh town of Aberystwyth in 1994, and is reportedly working on a memoir. McKechnie’s whereabouts have been unknown for nearly 30 years now; she was last seen in Sacramento in 1990, and private investigators hired by her family have been unable to locate her.

Janis Joplin

Her performance with Big Brother and the Holding Company at Monterey Pop in 1967 made her a star, but thanks in part to a lengthy delay, Janis Joplin's Woodstock set doesn't rank among her finest. Fresh off of recording her solo debut, I Got Dem Ol' Kosmic Blues Again Mama!, Joplin was made to wait 10 hours at the festival before she eventually took the stage at 2 a.m. on Sunday—and she reportedly spent the majority of that time drinking and shooting heroin. As Pete Townshend wrote in his 2012 memoir, "She had been amazing at Monterey, but tonight she wasn't at her best, due, probably, to the long delay, and probably, too, to the amount of booze and heroin she'd consumed while she waited. But even Janis on an off-night was incredible."

Despite it not being her strongest show, the crowd still insisted on an encore, and Joplin obliged, performing "Ball and Chain." But nevertheless, she was unhappy with her performance and requested that it be left out of the Woodstock documentary and its accompanying soundtrack album. She passed away the following year at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose.

Cynthia Robinson and Rose Stone of Sly and the Family Stone

Sly and the Family Stone's energetic 3:30 a.m. set at Woodstock stands as one of the festival's best, and it wouldn't have been the same without the important contributions of members Cynthia Robinson (trumpet, vocals) and Rose Stone (vocals, keyboard). Sandwiched in between sets from Janis Joplin and The Who, the soul/funk legends performed classics like "Dance to the Music," "Everyday People" and "I Want to Take You Higher;" they reissued the latter single after the Woodstock documentary came out in 1970 and it peaked at No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Both women were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the group in 1993. Rose Stone went on to become a background vocalist for the likes of Michael Jackson, Ringo Starr and Phish, and Robinson continued to play with Sly Stone after the rest of the group disbanded in 1975. She died of cancer in 2015.

Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane was at its peak popularity in the late '60s, propelled by the success of 1967's Surrealistic Pillow (which included mega-hits "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit"), and they are the only band to headline all three of the era's iconic festivals—Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont. Their Saturday night headlining slot at Woodstock, however, wound up getting pushed all the way to 8 a.m. Sunday, and Grace Slick famously kicked it off by declaring, "You have seen the heavy groups. Now you will see morning maniac music, believe me. Yeah, it's the new dawn." In addition to their well-known hits, Jefferson Airplane debuted some tracks from their Volunteers record during the set.

Though the performance is regarded as a classic, Slick doesn't have the fondest memories of the experience. "Woodstock was basically a mess," she told Forbes in 2014. "We really didn’t get to see anybody. We were in a hotel and the roads were all clogged, so they sent a helicopter to pick us up and drop us backstage a half an hour before we were to go on. Things kept getting screwed up. ‘You’re not on now, you’re on in a half hour,’ then they’d say, ‘You’re on now; oh no, now you’re not.’ We originally went to the stage at 9 p.m. and didn’t play until the next morning."


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