The Woodstock Festival, held in August 1969, was a watershed moment in the 1960s counterculture movement. Expecting 50,000 attendees for a three-day music concert, the event instead drew an estimated 500,000.
The festival, billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music,” looms as large in the cultural imagination as the Apollo 11 moon landing that had captivated the world just a month earlier. But often lost in the haze of 1960s nostalgia is the fact that Woodstock, while undoubtedly a once-a-century cultural happening, was also a traffic-snarled, rain-soaked, mud-caked mess.
“There was nothing comfortable about it, for sure,” says Nancy Eisenstein, who hopped in a friend’s van from Boston to see some of her favorite musicians perform live at Woodstock. “I can’t believe I put up with what I put up with, but when you’re 22, you put up with a lot more than when you’re 72.”
Eisenstein bought tickets to Woodstock ($18 for three days) back in Boston, where the local radio station had been buzzing all summer about the festival lineup, which would include folk legend Joan Baez and iconic rock acts like Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. For Eisenstein, the biggest draw was The Who, which had just released its epic rock opera “Tommy.”
“We knew this was going to be the musical event of the century,” remembers Eisenstein, whose roommate joined her for the adventure.
Carl Porter also had a hunch that Woodstock was going to be big, but not nearly as big as it turned out to be. Porter’s family goes back generations in Sullivan County, New York, home to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, the last-minute location for Woodstock. Porter grew up in New York City and was plugged into the Greenwich Village folk music and counterculture scene. He’d heard rumblings for months about the festival and knew it was something he couldn’t miss.
Weeks before Woodstock’s opening day, Porter took leave from his army intelligence training in Texas to head back to his family’s homestead in upstate New York. There he watched as cars full of hippies with license plates from Washington State and California rolled past on the narrow country roads, their numbers doubling by the day.
“It was like a gathering storm,” says Porter.
Even though they got an early start on Friday, standstill traffic meant that Eisenstein’s ride had to park miles from the venue. So Eisenstein grabbed her only two possessions, a backpack and a sleeping bag, and started walking. She arrived early enough that Woodstock staffers were still collecting tickets (later that evening, when crowds overran the rudimentary fencing, the concert was declared “free!”) and there was still plenty of open space on the bowl-shaped cow pasture facing the Woodstock stage. Eisenstein and her roommate picked a spot 30 feet from the stage and laid out their sleeping bags under a clear, blue sky.
“Everything has to be looked at through the context of the time,” says Eisenstein, musing about her lack of preparation. “There was no 24-hour weather channel. It was hot and sunny on Friday, so we didn’t bring any rain gear or ponchos. And back then people didn’t have bottled water. We figured, ‘I’ll get there and there will be water. I’ll get there and there will be food.’”
Porter and his buddies also arrived early on Friday and staked a spot strategically close to the speakers. If they thought they’d be able to stretch out and relax, they were wrong.
“As time went on, people were encroaching and pushing closer together. Eventually, the crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder as far as we could see,” says Porter. “I couldn’t tell how many people were there, but I’d never seen anything like it. If you moved your leg, an arm would take its place and that spot was gone.”
After Joan Baez wrapped up a late-night set on Friday, Eisenstein and her friend curled up in their sleeping bags under a light but steady rain. They woke up cold and wet—and they wouldn’t dry out for the next three days. Porter, on the other hand, knew the woods around the concert site, so he found a nice dry camping spot under the cover of trees.
Eisenstein’s and Porter’s experiences highlight why some Woodstock attendees have nothing but groovy memories, while others are still digging the mud out from their toenails. Eisenstein succeeded in seeing some of her musical heroes up close and personal—including an unforgettable set by The Who. But her laser focus on keeping her prized lawn spot ultimately meant that certain comforts had to be sacrificed.
On Sunday afternoon, for example, a brutal thunderstorm swept in. Porter saw the ominous dark clouds amassing and made for the makeshift vender booths in the woods known as Bindy’s Bazaar. There, huddled under a tarp with dozens of other storm refugees, he watched the carnage unfold.
“I had a view of the field and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” says Porter. “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.”
Eisenstein was one of those drowned rats, soaked to the bone under a useless sleeping bag in an open field between two large metal towers. The brief but violent deluge reduced her section of the cow pasture to a sea of mud.
“It was a quagmire,” says Eisenstein. “It sucked your shoes off. It was not only mud, but cow manure and it was so dark it looked like chocolate syrup. So we tried not to walk a lot.”
A trip to the port-a-potties would take an hour each way, says Eisenstein, so one person would stay back and lay across the sleeping bags to save the spot. The half-dozen official food vendors ran out of supplies the very first night and Eisenstein’s trail mix and fruit didn’t last much longer. But again, the roommates didn’t want to budge, so they didn’t wander up the hill for plates of macrobiotic grub being served up by volunteers from the Hog Farm collective.
“They did airdrop in tons of sandwiches at one point, but I don’t remember being hungry,” says Eisenstein. “I was smoking a lot of dope, so should have been very hungry. I do remember there were people all around who brought picnic baskets and coolers. People were sharing all the time.”
For his part, Porter spent much of Woodstock weekend wandering the grounds. He never saw his friends again after the first night, but that was OK with him. He did sunrise yoga with strangers, munched on homemade granola and soaked up the communal vibe. (He also snuck home for a quick shower and a nap, an unheard-of Woodstock luxury.) He still feels a little sorry for the folks who never budged from the central mud pit.
Despite the discomforts, Eisenstein and her roommate stayed until the bitter end and were one of relatively few people (an estimated 35,000) who witnessed Jimi Hendrix’s immortal performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Then they bummed a ride in the back of a Ryder truck with 20 other vigorously unwashed companions. She’ll never forget boarding a transit bus in Boston’s Central Square still caked with manure-tinged mud and watching the other passengers scatter. Eisenstein, now the co-owner with her husband of Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, has no regrets.
“I’ve got great stories to tell and I’m glad I was there,” she says.
Porter retired from an IT career and lives about an hour from the Woodstock site. He volunteers at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on the historic site of the Woodstock Festival, which features a new museum exhibit called “We Are Golden” and an August reunion concert featuring original Woodstock acts like Santana and the Doobie Brothers.
Porter says he likes to visit the famous cow pasture on summer evenings and without fail will meet people from all over the world — Finland, China, Australia — who are drawn to Woodstock for what happened there decades ago. “I enjoy talking to them" he says, "and they’re excited to meet someone who was actually there."