The Woodstock Music Festival site today is on the National Register for Historic Sites and part of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
We arrived on Saturday mid-day, August 16, 1969. (See the previous post, Woodstock Memories).
People were moving around, in front of the stage and up the hill, standing and chanting. Country Joe was leading the chant about fixin’ to die in Vietnam.
The hillside was densely packed in front of the stage and on our right, so we decided to try to cross to the other side. First, we took a path in front of the stage, only to have our shoes sink into the mud. Turning back, we followed a clear corridor in the crowd up the hill, and then another path, single file, across to the far side.
We were riding the high of anticipation. We heard people talking, learned the band playing was Santana. The place was rocking. What a great soundtrack for what I was feeling. What I felt others were feeling too. For what the experience was like on many levels.
We reached the other side of the hill, and there, on what was like the arm of an easy chair, we found a good spot. We could see the side of the stage. My brother spread the little blanket and with relief and a feeling of accomplishment we sat down. Not far away another corridor ran to the top of the hill.
People were in small groups, some couples, sitting in their own spaces, sleeping or dozing, talking, or getting up and moving around. When Santana finished their set, I told my brother, “I’m going to look for food. I heard there were food vendors at the top of the hill.”
As I walked uphill I stopped several times to look at the crowd. I got to the top and headed for some wooden structures. They were empty. A couple of people said the food ran out yesterday.
A row of port-o-sans stood nearby with people waiting in line. A woman coming away said, “It’s disgusting.”
Some people, I later heard, were using the woods lining the hillside.
I turned around and walked back downhill. I told my brother the news: there’s no food or water.
A man and woman sitting near us must have heard me.
“Would you like a coke?” the woman asked.
I was embarrassed to answer. I hated to take something they might need.
But we said, yes, and they handed us the coke. That sustained us for hours. My brother and I talked about what bands might have played already, and which were yet to play. We didn’t know. Announcements were being made from the stage. We were ready for a concert, and at the same time, with so much to absorb, with all that was before us, time and space and what was important took on a different quality.
This was more than a music festival. This was something else.
An army helicopter came over and looped around.
“They’re going to suck us up and take us directly to Vietnam,” someone said.
“I think they’re dropping flowers,” another person said.
Canned Heat played their bluesy rock, and the witty “Going Up The Country, “perfect for the journey we’d just made – and were now making in a different way.
From time to time I walked about twenty feet toward the center of the hill to where two vans were parked, and looked down at the stage. Creedence Clearwater rocked.
Walking toward a spot where I could see the full stage. Note the people without shoes and socks on. The ground was wet and muddy. We were sitting in a less muddy spot.
I was staring at the hospital tent across the road, white with vertical pink stripes, and a smaller tent not far away. A helicopter lifted off near the tents and flew low over us. The noise shredded the music. I was annoyed, distracted. Another one took off, and then another, and after a while the sound melded into the music, into the murmuring and cheering from the hillside, part of the soundtrack of the experience.
A man staggered toward the fence. I heard people say, “He’s tripping. He needs help.” Two men appeared and helped him, half-carrying him away. Later, a woman came down the hill and freaked out along the fence. Someone following her told us, “She’s freaked out by the crowd. It’s got to her. We’ve been here since yesterday.” He helped her along the fence and down to the road.
I wondered at that. Could it become too much for a person? And taking drugs in such a situation. Things could go awry. This was not helped by the lack of food, water and shelter. I wasn’t into drugs, and no one tried to get me or my brother to take any.
Suddenly I thought, I should take a picture of the crowd. Walking uphill, some people smiled at me, others were sleeping, but most were sitting as if they were in the best place in the world. Not in the mud, on wet grass, in summer heat and humidity, but in a place of the heart and appreciation of living, as if beyond space and time, in a collective imagination.
Woodstock Music & Art Fair, Saturday, August 16, 1969. Photo: Mary Clark
The crowd became part of my mental experience. More than just sensory experience. Watching the helicopters come in and lift off at the hospital across the road, I was looking at the lake behind it, and for a moment I experienced “seeing” into the future. I saw a world where people related to one another in a new way, not with social pressure or any kind of violent force. It was a completely different atmosphere.
What was happening here was one of the possibilities for human beings. For how we could live together without an overload of rules, with behaviors decided by those involved in quiet negotiation, respecting one another’s space.
When evening was coming on, people lit the way with flashlights for those walking up and down the path near us.
Night fell and the music played on, punctuated by silences and announcements. For me, the highlight of the evening in terms of music was Janis Joplin’s performance. Her voice was filled with many notes and frequencies besides the dominant one. It came down over us, expansive, resonant, and made an immediate connection. (Later I heard she was stoned and her performance was shrill and fragmented. That’s not what I heard. Maybe it was the difference between being directly in front of the stage and getting the dominant notes versus hearing her through the large amps placed partway up the hill. That technology may have caught all the notes and nuances.)
After Janis, Sly and The Family Stone came on. Many in the crowd rose to their feet, higher and higher. I rose but quickly sat back down. I put on my jacket and zipped it tight, but the damp chill of the ground made its way through. I tried to hold on because I knew my brother wanted to hear The Who. I thought it was about 1 or 2 a.m. and did not want to leave so early. So I lay down and shivered. Finally, I said, “I have to leave.”
He wanted to stay, so I said, “You stay, and I’ll walk back to the car. You can come later.” (Obviously, I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I may have breathed in quite a lot of pot in the time we were there.)
“No, I’ll go with you,” he said.
We made our way to the fence, along it and down a short slope to the road, a way we’d seen others do it during the day. We began walking and must have taken a turn too soon. It was very dark on the road. Only a few people were walking near us.
“I don’t think this is the way we came,” I said. “We might be lost.”
He asked if we should turn back, and I said no, let’s keep going. I think this is the right direction. In truth, I was happy, floating along.
I heard the other people having a similar conversation.
A sound came rolling over the hills. The Who. The unmistakable chords of Pete Townsend.
“You’re hearing The Who,” I said.
“It’s not the same thing,” he groused.
I’ll never forget the sound of The Who rolling over the hills.
We saw a lake through a line of trees, glimmering with lights here and there. A couple or small group of people approached, headed the other way. We told them we didn’t know where we were and where we wanted to go.
“Just keep going and when you get to the end, turn left, and you’ll find the road you’re looking for.”
They were right. Soon we were walking away from the town of Bethel. Time grooved by and I began to wonder, but with only a slight thrill of panic, whether we would ever get back to our car.
Dawn came, and a familiar shape appeared in the near distance.
“There it is.”
The little white Corvair. What a welcome sight.
The sound of the doors opening gave me a sense of comfort. I drank from the thermos. We were on our way home.
(Later I would learn that Janis sang at 2 a.m., and Sly and The Family Stone about 3 a.m. The Who started at 5 a.m. We must have left about 4 a.m. or later.)
I realized a number of things afterward. I realized that I liked people, that I liked being with people. And that they could organize themselves, just coming together to do something because they wanted to do it and make it work and then go away. They could express themselves, whatever they thought and felt was fulfilling. Woodstock was a social and emotional, an intellectual and artistic experience. People made up their own things to do, games to play, an art gallery out in the trees.
For me it was also very personal. I didn’t feel judged as I did in high school and college. The people at the festival were interested in things other than themselves, than in appearances and status.
We wanted to be free and we were saying, we can do it. It was a glimpse of the potential for people, for what we can do if we want to.
Woodstock was a phenomenon, those performances and the coming together. It won’t happen again for a long time. I hope, someday, such large peaceful gatherings will be commonplace.