Fifty years ago, my dad had recently graduated from Bradley University and was living in Chicago when one of his college friends called him and asked if he wanted to go to a festival in New York that weekend. The two drove the entire way in her red convertible Karmann Ghia.
“We went there totally clueless,” my dad, David, tells me today. “We had no camping gear, no rain gear and we didn’t bring extra food. We just basically brought a few days worth of clothes and some snacks for the ride.”
About two days later, they arrived at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York — one day before the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was scheduled to start. It was my dad’s first time in New York.
So, you get to the festival. Then what?
When we got to the festival we met some of our friends, some from Chicago and some from New York, who had been a little smarter and brought camping gear and food, so we had some shelter to sleep and get out of the rain. There was only one road to get into the festival, and it’s the road you see pictured, with a 5-6 mile-long line of people in cars. When we got there, that line hadn’t started yet, but it was crowded. Once we met our friends and realized we needed food and some things, we naively said, “We’ll go find a store, get that stuff and be right back.” We drove down that road and went to this general store, and it was miraculous that we found our way back to our friends before the line had gotten really crazy. It was amazing.
What was your reaction when you got there?
My first reaction was, “This is something I’ve never seen in my life.” It was just masses of people. It sounds trite, but there was a sense of community and people sharing and caring — the whole peace, love, music and drug thing was a reality.
One of the things that everyone remembers was how much mud there was everywhere. It was sort of chaotic but there was some order in that there were sections where people were taking care of people who were having bad acid trips and calming them down. There was an organization from California called the Hog Farm, and they came out to the festival in their hippie buses and trucks and set up food lines, to feed people who had no food. They were serving rice and vegetables and other things, as much as they could. A lot of people survived off that. I think I ate it once.
What did you do during the day?
The music was going on constantly, for the most part. But you couldn’t necessarily just sit there for hours and hours. You’d go wander around. It was in a beautiful area, there was a little lake or pond where people went swimming. There was a lot going on that you could occupy your time with. No cell phones, no technology, so it was just find your own amusement. One thing that was critical was to know where your campsite was, that was your home base.
At night when the sun went down, the whole place transformed into something magical. When you walked around at night, you would just see things that you couldn’t explain… I mean, one night I was walking around and I came upon a campsite and I’m sure everybody was on acid but there were maybe 15-20 people just chanting and dancing and being totally free and unencumbered by anything. That’s kind of what was going on, lots of dancing. You didn’t see the mud [at night], all you saw and heard was music. Then, in the morning, you’d get someone over the intercom system waking everybody up and a few hours later, the music started up again.
I didn’t realize there was an intercom system in use. So there was some structure?
There was some, but a lot of it was ineffective for the scope of what happened. Most of the announcements were made from the stage, so they could be heard pretty much throughout. And they were making very important announcements, like “So-and-so please come to the side of the stage, your wife is lost,” or “Please call 911, your parents are looking for you.” The most famous message from the stage was probably when they announced, “Please do not take any of the brown LSD because it’s harmful.”
Did it ever feel unsafe?
No, never. I never saw any confrontations or arguments or fights between people. It was just really peace and love, the whole three days. Just like it says on the poster.
What artists gave some of your favorite sets?
The best groups that I saw were Santana, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Band and The Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia and everyone. It’s amazing to think about all of the bands that played; it was the best group of musicians and acts at the time, and maybe of all time.
Have you been back since?
I did go back, several times. Maybe 20 years later and another 10 years after that. Woodstock is a beautiful area with a very artsy community. The first time I went back, I wanted to just go and see it as a regular place. [When we got to Bethel], what struck me was how small the farm looked. It was just some land.
Why do you think the anniversary concert failed?
I don’t think it could ever be recreated. It’s something that was a one-time experience and everybody should enjoy it for what it was. The entire Woodstock event, for most everyone who were there, was a life-altering experience, and I say that because no matter what paths people took after that in their lives, whatever happened to them, the meaning and experience of Woodstock was always in their souls.
How did you feel once the weekend was over?
I think we waited for most of the day after it ended to let people get out of there somehow. We weren’t in a hurry to leave, and if you left when everyone else left you’d just be sitting in traffic for a day, and that was it. But eventually, we got home. And a week later we were asking ourselves, “What just happened?” It was so surreal.