Music On The Road: The History Of Woodstock

Woodstock 1969 almost didn’t happen. Town officials nixed the first venue, in Wallkill, N.Y., because townspeople feared that 50,000 “hippie” concert goers might endanger its citizens with looting, rioting and other mayhem. The formal reason for banning the concert was that the “portable toilets would not meet town code.” Elliot Tiber, the owner of the El Monaco Motel in Bethel, offered 15 acres, but his acreage was too small. Tiber introduced Woodstock promoters, Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman and Artie Kornfeld, to Max Yasgur, a dairy farmer, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Rosenman and Roberts financed Woodstock. Originally, Woodstock was supposed to be a recording studio retreat, but became a music and arts festival. Woodstock Ventures, their company formed specifically for this undertaking, was profit seeking, much like most concerts today are. Ticket sales topped 186,000 at $18 each, that around $105 in today’s money. The four promoters figured a couple hundred thousand people would show up. When it became clear that many more were on their way to Woodstock, the promoters cut the fence enclosing the concert and allowed concert goers to enter free. Whether this angered those who paid for their tickets is unclear. Half a million “hippies” showed up for the August 15 through August 18 concert, making Woodstock’s concert of “peace and love” the largest concert festival to date.

Yasgur rented his 600 acres to Woodstock Ventures for $75,000. Nearby residents were paid $25,000 to rent their land for the mass overflow of revelers. Recent rains had caused the area’s roads and fields to be a muddy mess, but this stopped no one. Rain during the concert didn’t dampen spirits. Yasgur has reservations about being involved in such a mammoth venture, but decided that it was good for a country torn about war to get together peacefully uniting for one thing—to have a good time listening to 130 performers perform, feeling waves of peace and love, even if it was often drug-induced.

The three-day festival’s logistics may have been a headache for sound engineers and concert promoters, but for an event of its size, it held very few reported problems. Two verified deaths didn’t even bring it down. Drug use and sex were plentiful and free. One person died from a heroin overdose. One unsuspecting person sleeping in a sleeping bag in a nearby field was run over by a tractor. Amidst the tragedy, at least one birth was verified, although two births were reported and four unverified miscarriages. By the time, Jimi Hendrix played on Monday morning at 9am, the audience had dwindled, trash overtaking the fields.

DAY ONE PERFORMERS

Swami Satchidananda

Richie Havens

Country Joe McDonald

John Sebastian

Sweetwater

Incredible String Band

Bert Sommer

Tim Hardin

Ravi Shankar

Melanie Safka

Arlo Guthrie

Joan Baez

DAY TWO PERFORMERS

Quill

Keef Hartley Band

Santana

The Incredible String Band

Canned Heat

Grateful Dead

Mountain

Creedence Clearwater Revival

Janis Joplin with the Kozmic Blues Band

Sly & The Family Stone

The Who

DAY THREE PERFORMERS

Jefferson Airplane

Joe Cocker

Country Joe & the Fish

Ten Years After

The Band

…TECHNICALLY, DAY FOUR PERFORMERS

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Johnny Winter

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Sha-Na-Na

Jimi Hendrix (The Gypsy Sun & Rainbows Band)

Five acts expected to play who canceled included Joni Mitchell, who appeared on Dick Cavett instead; and Ethan Brown, who was arrested for LSD prior to the concert. Nine bands declined invites to Woodstock, many because they thought, “it wouldn’t be a big deal” and for a myriad of other reasons. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Jethro Tull and the Moody Blues. Jimi Hendrix insisted on being last to play…he did, nine hours later than expected at 9am Monday and played 16 songs in two hours.

In retrospect, most of the Woodstock performers seem legendary. In truth, when they took the stage in 1969, most were not yet famous. Woodstock’s legacy isn’t free love, peace and spontaneity. It’s capitalism. Copycats have been emulating Woodstock ’69 for over 40 years. Today’s concerts have big time sponsors, top-rate concessions that keep the concert venue green, and state-of-the-art security. Top musicians are paid millions for their gigs. And it doesn’t hurt that you don’t have to go to the bathroom where you sit or trudge over wall-to-wall people to find the pond behind the stage. Just head to the head without much of a line, arguably one of the best parts of Woodstock's legacy.

If you’d like to delve a bit more into Woodstock history, including subsequent Woodstock concerts, check out these links: