Over the period of August 15-18, 1969, approximately 400,000 people descended on Max Yasgur's dairy farm in rural Bethel, NY - about 40 miles southwest of Woodstock, NY - to experience what was billed as an "Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music." More than 50 years later, that festival is referred to simply as "Woodstock," and is considered one of the most important events in US musical history (in 2004, Rolling Stone ranked it at No. 19 on its list of "50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock & Roll").
But even more than a concert, Woodstock is regarded as a key cultural moment for the counterculture generation ("hippies" to some), an expression of "flower power." Organizers had only expected around 50,000 people to attend the festival and found themselves overwhelmed by the huge crowds. Although the festival was meant to be a for-profit event, many attendees were able to get in for free after the fences surrounding the field were knocked down. There were massive traffic jams in and out of the farm. It rained on and off for most of the festival, turning the venue into a cold and muddy field. And while drugs were easily obtainable, portable bathrooms, food, and water were in short supply. Despite all of this, the festival was remarkably peaceful and is remembered for its sense of community.
So what exactly was it like to attend Woodstock? Here are some firsthand accounts from the attendees and musicians who took part in one of the most iconic cultural events in 20th-century American history.
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Some Acts Played In The Middle Of The Night, Through Storms And Electrical Shocks
The Grateful Dead's set was plagued by weather-related electrical malfunctions with their equipment. The band's drummer Bill Kreutzmann said on Conan:
We were getting electrocuted on stage... We couldn’t even do a soundcheck because you couldn’t get near the microphones without drawing an 8-inch arc of fire.
But Kreutzmann didn't blame the band's subpar performance completely on the bad weather or on the faulty equipment. Instead, he claimed that the band had a history of not performing well at major events. "We had this thing about the big shows - 'blowing the big ones' - and I’m not sure why that was." The band thought their set was so bad, "we couldn’t allow it to be in the movie [the 1970 documentary Woodstock]. It was terrible."
Creedence Clearwater Revival was scheduled to go on stage after the Grateful Dead around 9 p.m., but the chaos of the latter's performance meant that CCR didn't hit the stage until much later. CCR's frontman John Fogerty provided a different reasoning for the Grateful Dead's performance, telling Conan O'Brien in an interview:
Things went sorely wrong after [Grateful Dead] hit the stage. Everybody was running late of course, hippies had been putting on this thing... But what they didn't tell us until the '90s is they had all taken LSD just as they went onstage... About the middle of their set, it went dead silent... It was quiet for about an hour and then they started playing again. And so, I think somebody [had] figured out how to plug into an amplifier...
And we had to follow that, so it was literally 2:30 in the morning... I come running out and I look down there and I see a bunch of people [who] look a lot like me, except, they’re naked. And they’re asleep. They were all kinda piled together. It looked like one of those pictures of the souls coming up out of hell...
So we start rocking out in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, trying to get things going here. Finally I went up to the mic, kind of apologetically... and I said "Well, I hope you're enjoying some of this, we're having a great time up here... We're rockin' out!" Then way out there, about a quarter mile out, some guy is flicking his lighter. He says, "Don’t worry about it John! We’re with yaaa!" So in front of a half a million people, for the rest of my big Woodstock concert, I played for that guy.
As for the storms, at least one artist reportedly was not afraid of being electrocuted - Alvin Lee of the band Ten Years After chose to sing in the rain after allegedly ignoring warnings he could be electrocuted. He supposedly said:
If I get electrocuted at Woodstock, we’ll sell a lot of records.
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The Vietnam War Was Not Forgotten
The Vietnam War was still raging in August 1969, although the first withdrawal of US troops had occurred the previous month. Given the counterculture nature of Woodstock, it isn't surprising that many attendees carried posters and wore clothing denouncing the conflict and calling for peace.
In fact, when tickets for the festival first became available, the organizers of Woodstock advertised that anyone who bought a ticket would be contributing to the protest against the war. Many of the musicians that performed at Woodstock were against the Vietnam War, and spoke out in opposition during their set.
One of the strongest protests came when Country Joe McDonald performed an impromptu eight-song set as the second act on the second night of the festival (he wasn't scheduled to perform then, but the scheduled artist, Santana, was nowhere to be found). He walked out on stage, yelled out to the crowd, "Give me an F!" and led a sing-along version of his powerful anti-war anthem, "The 'Fish' Cheer"/"I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag."
The musician said in an interview:
I never had a plan for a career in music, so Woodstock changed my life... An accidental performance of "Fixin’-to-Die," a work of dark humor that helps people deal with the realities of the Vietnam War, established me as an international solo performer; then the movie came out and the song went on to become what it still is today.
Ironically, it was members of the 102nd Aviation Assault Helicopter Command who stepped in to provide aid to the concertgoers, flying in food and medical supplies and transporting patients who needed more treatment than the on-site doctors could provide to hospitals. The organizers of Woodstock recognized this help. As one MC told the crowd:
They’re with us, man - they are not against us.
Many attendees had also been to Vietnam, and/or would go after the festival. One attendee remembered:
One thing that always comes to mind is that I met two friends that I did not know were going. They were with a guy I had not met before. He was on leave from Vietnam. When he went back to 'Nam he found out that his entire company had been killed in a battle. If he had not been on leave for two weeks, he would have died and never came home.
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Some Remember That It Didn't Just Rain Rain, It Also Rained Daisies
It rained at Woodstock. A lot. Sometimes it poured. But apparently rain wasn't the only thing that fell from the skies during the festival.
As Redditor u/bobanddave stated:
One thing I remember was that we had a light shower on Saturday afternoon and everyone started chanting, "No Rain, No Rain..." for a while. Soon the sky cleared and a helicopter flies over and starts dropping what looked like several bushel baskets worth of daisies on the crowd. I might still have the book around somewhere with the daisy I pressed into it.
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Things Were Just As Chaotic For The Musicians
Scheduling changes were all over the place at Woodstock. According to Cynthia Robinson, who sang and played trumpet in Sly and the Family Stone, Woodstock's organizers wanted them to close out the second night of the festival. But that spot was taken from them after another group objected to the lineup. Robinson told radio station WGBH:
We really didn't care [when] we went, but a lot of people did... The group that was supposed to be the headliner came, "No, we're supposed to go on last, we're the stars of the show!" And Sly just said, "Okay, fine. They want it, let 'em have it man." Just like that. And not in any angry way. Because we never even thought about [that], we never went up there with the mind, "Oh, we going to blow those guys away, it was never like that..."
Although neither Robinson nor any of the other members of the band revealed which group she was talking about, the Who immediately followed them on stage on Day 2, followed by Jefferson Airplane, who ended up closing out the Saturday lineup at 8 a.m. on Sunday.
Sly and the Family Stone also said one of the most memorable parts for them wasn't at the festival, but at the hotel 20 miles away where all the bands were staying. Drummer Greg Errico said:
I could picture vividly - we had the whole top floor, all the groups. Actually we had the whole Holiday Inn, but I remember the top floor where we were... and you know in the old Holiday Inns the doors would open to the rooms [that] would adjoin... It was like one big, you know, convention. And it was Janis, Hendrix, us, the Who, were all running around, the Southern Comfort's going and the whiskey and beer...
We hadn't been up [to the festival] yet. And we know there were helicopters and there was roadblocks and all this stuff that was kind of out of control was on the news. And so we're kind of like trying to gauge what's going, what are we getting into here, what's happening... It was, you know, all the groups wondering, what are we going to do? Are all these people there? What's going on up there? There's no food... it's out of control, it was like fear and excitement and anxiety...
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The Awful Traffic Forced Richie Havens To Improvise A Three-Hour Opening Set
The traffic leading into Woodstock was so bad that many people ended up just abandoning their vehicles and getting to the venue on foot. One woman remembers she and her family were heading to their vacation spot in White Lake, NY, when they got caught in the festival traffic:
All I remember about the traffic is that there was LOTS of it, and it never budged. Vehicles with drums and guitars hanging off them, in every color of the rainbow, with people emerging from their cars and vans to break into impromptu song whilst waiting for the traffic to move. It was surreal.
The traffic also delayed the artists and the start of the festival. Richie Havens was scheduled to be the fifth artist to perform. Instead, the folk singer ended up opening the festival. He had planned to do a 20-minute set. In a 2004 interview for NPR, Havens explained he ended up playing for nearly three hours, as Woodstock's organizers asked him to stay on stage until other artists arrived. Havens recalled:
So I'd go back and sing three more... This happened six times. So I sung every song I knew.
Havens's famous ad-libbed "Freedom" performance to the tune of "Motherless Child" had a big impact at Woodstock, which took place at a time when the country was divided by issues like the Vietnam War and the fight for civil rights. Havens said:
The word "freedom" came out of my mouth because this was our real particular freedom... We'd finally made it to above ground.
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Good Or Bad, The Musical Acts Were Memorable
The sound system at Woodstock was not designed for such a huge crowd. The rainy weather also hampered the musicians. Still, according to those who were there, several of the performances stood out - but not always in a positive way.
Jimi Hendrix closed the festival early Monday morning. One attendee who stuck around for his performance remembered:
There were relatively few people still there. It was a disgusting mess of mud and wet blankets. It was time to go home and shower. And then there was this amazing talent playing "The Star-Spangled Banner." I knew I was watching history. The importance of Hendrix’s performance and the power of his talent and showmanship was breathtaking and the highlight of the Woodstock concert.
Hendrix's performance of the national anthem was considered "unorthodox" by some and thus controversial at the time. When asked about it on The Dick Cavett Show, Hendrix responded:
All I did was play it; I'm American so I played it... They made me sing it in school so, it was a flashback, you know?... It's not unorthodox... I thought it was beautiful, but there you go.
According to members of Sly and the Family Stone (who performed immediately after her), Janis Joplin ended up being called back to do three encores. One attendee raved about her set:
[Her] phenomenal voice: gritty, edgy, passionate, vibrant, and like no other.
Another attendee singled out the performance from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young:
They were so bad they were good.
While another remembered the Who:
...they were going nuts on stage.
Still, some attendees felt the acoustics left something to be desired:
The sound system wasn’t that great. The few places where you could actually hear the music were shoulder-to-shoulder people... I really didn’t hear the music until the movie came out.