Remembering Woodstock 47 Years Ago

Author: Jim Johnson

It was 47 years ago today — August 18th, 1969 — that the Woodstock Music and Art Fair wrapped with Jimi Hendrix‘s incendiary set after more than three days of music in Bethel, New York. More than 450,000 people converged upon the small upstate town to hear rock’s biggest bands perform. Although Woodstock was neither the first nor last major festival concert, the fact that the youth of America were able to congregate in one place with no violence during one of the most turbulent years of the decade, gave birth to the notion of the “Woodstock Nation” and gave a voice — and a face — to the hippie ideal.

Artists who performed at the legendary festival included Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald & the Fish, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Mountain, Janis Joplin, theWho, the Band, Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead, Sly & the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Blood, Sweat & TearsSha Na Na, John Sebastian, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Joe Cocker, and many, many more.


The first day of the festival served to ease the crowd into the music and feature folk groups. The headliner the first day was Joan Baez, who talked about her expectations during the helicopter ride to the grounds: “It was pretty clear on the helicopter ride into Woodstock this was going to be (laughs) a historic weekend. And it was. I mean, I was in the helicopter with Janis Joplin and my mother and my manager. My overwhelming sense was, ‘What a treat. I get to be back at this end of the place where everybody, all the entertainers are, meet them all and get fed and treated like a queen (laughs) and hang out in the mud.’ It was amazing.”

Creedence Clearwater Revival performed on the second day of Woodstock, when the bill featured harder rock acts. CCR’s Doug Clifford recalled the feeling of the crowd at that time: “Here you have a half a million people, or whatever it is, under the worst of conditions — no bathrooms, no food, no water, no shelter. It’s raining, and the vibe was just mellow. People were just doing anything they could to help each other out and they were just grooving. They figured, ‘Hey, we’re here. It is what it is,’ and you don’t see that, especially in this day and age.”

Photographer Elliott Landy was commissioned by Michael Lang, one of the festival’s organizers, to take photos of the three-day event. Chances are if you’ve seen a photo from the festival, Landy was the one who took it. Landy said he believes that Bob Dylan had a huge influence on the transformation of the now-legendary small town in upstate New York: “At the time, Woodstock was just becoming the mecca for music in the ’60s. It became that because Bob Dylan moved there and in the ’60s, Bob Dylan and the Beatles were the biggest bands around. And Bob was really, at that time, the most influential, and he lived in Woodstock. And because he lived in Woodstock, a lot of other people went up there — the Band went up there, and Richie Havens went up there, and Janis Joplin was there — even Jimi Hendrix was there for a while. A lot of people kind of coalesced, I guess, in Woodstock during that period.”

Landy says the experience of Woodstock is something he’ll never forget — for three days, the outside world didn’t exist: “The experience of Woodstock, what Woodstock was about, was it took a person who was part of the bigger, of the larger world — with all its tax problems and its bank problems and its money problems and family problems and responsibility to family and blah, blah, blah — and it cut everybody off from everything. You were part of a new universe. It was almost like you were transported and put into a new world, and the world was Woodstock.”

Organizer Michael Lang said that Jimi Hendrix’s manager Michael Jeffries drove a hard bargain in cementing Hendrix as the festival’s closer: “One day I went to his agent’s office, to try to sort of definitively try to get this done or not, and came up with the idea of offering him two shows. I wanted him to open the festival with an acoustic set, and close with the band. And I would pay him $15,000 per set. So now, he’s getting $30,000. And the other problem was that I’d established this idea of alphabetical billing and everybody getting 100 percent billing, ’cause I sort of wanted this equality between everybody. And I had no problem with any other group except Jimi again, because Michael wanted him to have 100 percent star billing, and I said, ‘Well, you’ll get it. So will everybody else (laughs).”

Sly & The Family Stone drummer Greg Errico (pronounced uh-REE-co) remembers that in addition to their performance, the time period before the band played sticks out in his mind: “I remember being at the Holiday Inn where we all were staying — Jimi and the band, Janis and her band, and us — and we had commandeered the whole third floor. And I remember the chaos going on, with alcohol flowing back and forth and what have you. And I remember arriving in a helicopter, and seeing this sea of people, and stepping off and feeling the thickness. It was indescribable.”

Recently departed Ten Years After singer-guitarist Alvin Lee recalled that Woodstock was just another one of the outdoor festivals the group did that year, and that it only stands out to people because of the movie: “I did the Texas Pop Festival and the Atlanta Peace Festival, which were equally good if not better festivals than Woodstock. But, without the movie and without it being declared a national disaster, y’know, it didn’t quite catch the media’s attention, like at Woodstock. That whole period of ’69, all those festivals were great — Woodstock’s just the one that got remembered ’cause of a movie was made of it.”

Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (pronounced YOR-ma COW-co-nen) sees Woodstock differently than Alvin Lee. Kaukonen says that it really was a defining moment in history: “Woodstock was such a seminal event for all of us. I mean, obviously, it’s not the same to me as somebody who had actually been there as a participant and sort of lived the experience, y’know? But I just remember I think it was the first time that we — y’know, that our generation — had sort of a collective identity going on. It was, it was a powerful moment.”

Michael Lang, recalled how the Woodstock organizers cajoled the Who into playing the festival: “John Morris did that, and the way that they did that was he and Frank Barsalona — who was the Who’s agent — invited Pete to Frank’s house for dinner, got him drunk, (laughs) and then wouldn’t let him go until he agreed to play. I forget the show, they were doing something in the area the week before and wanted to go home. It was the end of the tour. And they weren’t hippies, this vision was not their vision, but Frank was convinced that it was important to their career, and he and John managed to talk him into it.”

Pete Townshend says that the finale to the Who’s set wasn’t as organic an experience as the rest of the Woodstock Festival seemed to be: “That was a bit contrived, ’cause actually it was me that looked at my watch and realized that if we kept ‘Listening to you, I get the music’ going long enough, the sun would come up. Y’know, I grew up in a showbiz family, and I know that stuff — and I knew it would be a wonderful moment. And we had been waiting a long time to perform, but we did play ‘Listening to you, I get the music’ something like 40 times, round and round and round and round — and finally it peeped up. So it wasn’t exactly a poetic moment for me, but it was just another kind of moment of cynical English triumph.”

Townshend has been able to look back on the experience with the clarity that hindsight provides, and he explains what he felt then, and what he’s learned since: “What I felt was, ‘I’m not American. I’m not part of this.’ I had a rotten time. I wanted to go home. I didn’t want to be there in the first place. Y’know, what history has told me is that this is my country as an artist.”

He still regards the Who’s 1969 Woodstock as a watershed event in the Who’s live career: “It was about the most important single concert that we ever did. It was more important than Monterey, much more important than our first show in New York, much more important than anything that followed.”

Michael Lang was asked at what moment he realized that he was helping to create cultural history: “I guess by Saturday, when everybody had arrived — or anybody who was gonna get there arrived. We knew that this was a historic moment in any case. Whether it resonated or not, nobody thought of that, but we knew that this was extraordinary.”


CHECK IT OUT: Santana performing “Evil Ways” live at Woodstock:

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