Fifty years ago this weekend, Aug. 15-18, a festival took place in Bethel, New York, that captured the imagination of music-lovers, hippies, peaceniks alike. Myself included. This “Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” — as officially billed — defined hippiedom and music concerts for a generation.
It was held at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, some 46 miles southwest of Woodstock, New York. Why wasn’t it then called the “Bethel Rock Festival,” given its location? I ask, because the “Woodstock” name for this music and arts festival is iconic, even though Woodstock declined to host this event.
When I tell people that I was at Woodstock — no lie — they look at me, amused and confused, saying, “That’s hard to believe. You don’t look like a hippie.” This bald guy then tugs at imaginary long hair that once rested on the nape of my neck and covered my forehead and ears — and I laugh it off. Yeah, a lot more than hair has come and gone since 1969, when I was a rebellious 19-year-old and wannabe hippie.
When asked what it was like at Woodstock, that’s where my memory fails, and research begins. I am borrowing from other sources to get the line-up of performers and other facts straight. If people can tell you with perfect recall what it was like or who was there, that’s a sure sign they were not there. The field was covered with a blue haze from pot-smokers — me included — which also clouds the mind and memory.
Speaking of clouds, it rained all weekend, turning fields to mud and strait-laced people into skinny-dippers, just to clean up in a nearby river. Helicopters kept buzzing overhead to airlift overdosed druggies to nearby hospitals, as no ambulances could get through the roads blocked by abandoned vehicles. Those choppers also brought the music groups who, likewise, did not have access to or “escape from” the event.
My friend Steve and I traveled from downstate New York, arriving early enough to get a seat on the hillside sloping to the music stage. We were close enough to see the acts on the screen, and we could hear the performers just fine, thanks to huge towers of music amplifiers. With sleeping bags serving as shelter and bedding, we sheltered in place each night, falling asleep on one music act and waking up to another.
We were among relatively few who paid to get in. After the first 30,000 did so, the place was overrun by waves of hangers-on and groupies. It became a free music festival; emphasis on “free love” and more. By Sunday, some 400,000 had stormed the farmer’s homestead, trampling fences to get past gatekeepers and ticket-takers, who had long since abandoned their post. With upstate New York highways and byways one big traffic jam and access roads blocked off, latecomers and freeloaders hiked for miles to get in.
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Painted Volkswagen busses, and other camping vehicles parked nearby, created as much buzz for me as the helicopters. I loved all their Aquarian names, flower power, and Vietnam protest signage. Nude bathers and skinny-dippers were another draw, I must admit; I had no camera, but I can’t un-see what I saw.
Superstars Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, John Sebastian, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Country Joe & the Fish, Blood Sweat and Tears, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Sha Na Na, and Jimi Hendrix took over. Other groups were forgettable. But for these groups I had pre-recorded their music on my reel-to-reel eight-track tape player — a huge monstrosity, later replaced by cassette players, then CDs, then the MP3.
We kept hearing rumors that Bob Dylan would crash the party by helicopter, but that was not to be. Other big names declined, or were unable, to appear — including Led Zeppelin, The Byrds, and The Beatles. Some performers snubbed the event, not knowing the big deal it would ultimately become.
I went to Woodstock also assuming No Big Deal, but the event grew on us and in the imagination of music-lovers and concertgoers nationwide. Never again would Woodstock Nation gather — not that people haven’t tried. Tribute bands at “Woodstock 25” (in 1994) and “Woodstock 1999” tried, but price-gouging, rain and mud created “Mudstock” and left people down and out — like a bad acid trip. “Woodstock 50” tried to get off the ground but was cancelled two weeks before the anniversary event.
Max Yasgur said of the first Woodstock on his farm, “I think you people have proven something to the world.” That “something” — peace on earth, goodwill and human rights for all, “make love not war” — that social activism lasted for more than one “groovy” weekend. And that’s something our polarized hate-filled world still needs.
Rev. Dietrich Gruen is pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus and Bethany Presbyterian of Randolph.