On this day in 1969, the Woodstock Music Festival opens on a patch of farmland in White Lake, a hamlet in the upstate New York town of Bethel.
Promoters John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield and Michael Lang originally envisioned the festival as a way to raise funds to build a recording studio and rock-and-roll retreat near the town of Woodstock, New York. The longtime artists’ colony was already a home base for Bob Dylan and other musicians. Despite their relative inexperience, the young promoters managed to sign a roster of top acts, including the Jefferson Airplane, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival and many more. Plans for the festival were on the verge of foundering, however, after both Woodstock and the nearby town of Wallkill denied permission to hold the event. Dairy farmer Max Yasgur came to the rescue at the last minute, giving the promoters access to his 600 acres of land in Bethel, some 50 miles from Woodstock.
Early estimates of attendance increased from 50,000 to around 200,000, but by the time the gates opened on Friday, August 15, more than 400,000 people were clamoring to get in. Those without tickets simply walked through gaps in the fences, and the organizers were eventually forced to make the event free of charge. Folk singer and guitarist Richie Havens kicked off the event with a long set, and Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie also performed on Friday night.
Somewhat improbably, the chaotic gathering of half a million young “hippies” lived up to its billing of “Three Days of Peace and Music.” There were surprisingly few incidents of violence on the overcrowded grounds, and a number of musicians performed songs expressing their opposition to the Vietnam War. Among the many great moments at the Woodstock Music Festival were career-making performances by up-and-coming acts like Santana, Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; the Who’s early-morning set featuring songs from their classic rock opera “Tommy”; and the closing set by Hendrix, which climaxed with an improvised solo guitar performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Though Woodstock had left its promoters nearly bankrupt, their ownership of the film and recording rights more than compensated for the losses after the release of a hit documentary film in 1970. Later music festivals inspired by Woodstock’s success failed to live up to its standard, and the festival still stands for many as a example of America’s 1960s youth counterculture at its best.