Before mid-August in 1969, no one knew just how big the Woodstock music festival would become. It was organized by people who had originally just wanted to build a music studio in the upstate New York village. When word got out that a event was in the works, locals had fought to cancel it. And, while over 50,000 tickets were sold in advance of the event, ultimately more than 400,000 flooded to the venue on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm.
What unfolded over the next three days from August 15-18, 1969 became legendary—as a music event and as a generational moment. As a long-haired man identified as "Speed" told the New York Times on August 18, 1969, "The whole thing is a gas. I dig it all, the mud, the rain, the music, the hassles." Below are five things that made Woodstock so memorable.
Woodstock’s organizers ran out of time to put up fencing around the venue.
During the months leading up to the festival, Woodstock’s organizers faced an all-out war from locals who tried to stop the event. While the village of Woodstock, New York had been home to a group of artistic, idealistic people since the early 20th century, many residents of the older generation considered the young "hippies" to be slackers and even, in some cases, dangerous.
Over the years the village had passed ordinances that targeted behaviors like shirtlessness, public consumption of alcohol and loitering. When word got out that a music festival was being planned, the village’s board passed a slew of regulations that effectively halted the festival’s prospects in the town of Wallkill. That’s when organizers found a new home for the event on a dairy farm in nearby Bethel, New York.
A last-minute scramble to prepare for the concerts meant that there was no time to build fences around the venue. They stopped selling tickets, word was out—and all bets were off. Youth from around the country were on their way to Bethel.
Richie Havens ended up starting the festival because everyone else was stuck in traffic.
Woodstock’s first act on Friday evening was supposed to be Sweetwater, but its members—and those of three other bands—got stuck in traffic on the narrow country roads leading into Bethel. So organizers found a last-minute replacement in folk singer Richie Havens. Havens performed an extra long set, playing every song he knew while Woodstock staff finished building the stage around him.
After multiple encores, a sweat-soaked Havens came out to play one more song without any idea what it was going to be. That’s when he improvised “Freedom / Motherless Child”
“When you see me in [the Woodstock movie] tuning my guitar and strumming, I was actually trying to figure out what else I could possibly play!” wrote Havens in 2009. “I looked out at all of those faces in front of me and the word ‘freedom’ came to mind.”
The Who’s lead singer accidentally dosed himself with LSD—and said Woodstock was miserable.
The Who’s Roger Daltrey had, like so many others, spent hours in the traffic jams trying to get to the event. Then he and his band had waited backstage some 10 more hours before performing. Daltrey later said there wasn’t any food backstage that wasn’t laced with LSD and he accidentally dosed himself when he made a cup of tea before going onstage.
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“Looking out unto the predawn gloom of Woodstock, making out the vague shape of half a million mud-caked people as the lights swept over them, I felt in my sleep-deprived, hallucinating state that this was my nightmare come true,” Daltrey wrote in his memoir, Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite. “The monitors kept breaking. The sound was sh**.”
The festival opened under blue skies but a brutal thunderstorm rolled in.
Back in 1969, there were no weather apps or 24-hour weather channels and few attendees had come prepared for bad weather. "We didn’t bring any rain gear or ponchos," says then 22-year-old Nancy Eisenstein. "And back then people didn’t have bottled water. We figured, ‘I’ll get there and there will be water. I’ll get there are there will be food.’”
Another attendee, Carl Porter, remembers watching the skies open up onto the crowds. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he remembers. “Waves and waves of torrential water hitting hundreds of thousands of people who had nowhere to go. It was pathetic. ‘Drowned rats’ doesn’t even come close to describing it.”
Woodstock was one of the first concerts at which Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played as a group.
Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Graham Nash had recently recruited Neil Young to join their band and add to their acoustic sound. Some say the four first sang together at the home of folk legend Joni Mitchell in Laurel Canyon. While they didn’t always get along (Young only agreed to sing at Woodstock if he wasn’t filmed), their voices together produced stunning harmonies. Woodstock was only their second concert appearance together.
In one memorable part of the concert and the documentary, Stephen Stills tells the crowd: “This is the second time we've ever played in front of people, man. We're scared sh**less.”
A crowd of only 30,000 heard Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the U.S. national anthem.
Jimi Hendrix had been booked as a headliner at Woodstock, but he didn’t take the stage until the event was nearly over—Monday morning at 9 a.m. Part of the reason is Hendrix had a clause in his contract stipulating that no act could follow his performance. By the time Hendrix began his set, the exhausted Monday-morning crowd had dwindled to about 30,000.
But for anyone who witnessed it—or has even watched the clip on YouTube—there’s no forgetting Hendrix’s interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Its melody is drenched in feedback and bombarded by whammy-bar sirens, wails, machine gun fire and auditory “bombs bursting in air.”
Hendrix's subversive interpretation of the national anthem was a fitting end note for the three-day festival that came to epitomize a counter-culture generation.