Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Music And Art Fair. To commemorate this legendary event, over the next four days I am re-posting the blog posts I first published in 2014 with some updates and a new photo. That I was lucky enough at the age of 19 not only to attend the festival, but work there, I felt that it would be enjoyable to share my memories. It has been said “that if you remember what went on at Woodstock you probably weren’t really there.” I beg to differ. I recall quite a lot of what I experienced there, as you will see in these blog posts. As I write this I am 69 years old and have been kept busy over the last month doing a number of newspaper, radio and television interviews. Most often I am asked what has stayed with me from Woodstock over these 50 years. That is easy. Along with the music, the most important thing was the spirit of Woodstock, that feeling of “WE,” the togetherness of mind, energy and brotherhood that defined my generation. We were all there for each other and to show the world we were a force to be reckoned with. The music of Woodstock was the soundtrack of my generation. And within me there still lives the free spirited, politically and environmentally active 19 year old rebel that I was back then. It always will…
DOWN ON YASGUR’S FARM ~ PART ONE
I had awakened early, the consciousness slowly crawling through my brain’s neuron connections shaking the opiated cobwebs from the night before aside. Outside the trailer a chilly morning mist had settled over the rolling hills and dales and wove its damp fingers through the still dark groves of trees that dotted the surrounding farm fields. It was Friday. Once the mist would burn away in the early morning sun, the countryside would begin waking up. I already heard a cacophony of birds, roosters and cows tuning up in the distance. As my mind slowly shifted into gear I began to think about my schedule for the day, my fifth day here. First off I’d stop by the office trailer and grab a couple of sandwiches. And then I’d report for my work shift and see what the bosses had dreamed up for us to do today. The trailer was a long affair, divided into three sections, a small entrance room followed by two large empty rooms separated by a wall but without a door that you could close. A number of other people were scattered on the floor still sleeping as I picked my way carefully between them. I was still in a lingering opiated haze as I made my way to the entrance and stood in the doorway looking out across the field. When I had first arrived four days ago it was a sloping green pasture with small groups of people settling in here and there. At the bottom end of the slope a large wooden stage, built over the last two weeks, dominated the field. Two large towers rose some distance in front of it on either side. What had been a cow pasture dominated by scurrying carpenters and construction workers on Monday now began to resemble a colourful gypsy encampment. It was Friday. I still had the sweet taste of rich black opium in my mouth and I was happy. Things were about to begin. As the world began to awaken on Yasgur’s farm, you could feel the electricity in the air.
It was summer. I was 19 and had just finished my first year of college. It had been quite a year. Although I had managed to get most of the required work done for my two semesters of courses, the majority of my time was spent in other pursuits. Socializing, smoking, drinking, balling, listening to and making music, attending demos and anti war rallies and marches and generally raising hell seemed so much more of an invigorating curriculum than Freshman English, Beginning German, Physical Education or English History. I had already had a couple of girlfriends and my hair was starting to reach my shoulders. Life was good. When I returned to Virginia Beach and my parent’s house at the end of May I had other plans for my summer vacation than what they thought I should be doing, which was to find some sort of summer job and be productive. I gave the obligatory expressions of intent, but I already had my job all lined up and it involved hanging out on the boardwalk, making music, staying as stoned as possible and writing my poetry. I was convinced that such an agenda was my profession and that it was certainly in the realm of being productive. I’d been having fun all through the fall, the winter and the spring so I had no intention of stopping now. By early August I was well immersed in hanging out on the boardwalk jamming with friends and had a good tan to take back with me to college in the fall, along with a sheaf of poems and songs.
A few weeks earlier I had, along with millions of other Americans and the rest of the world, watched as Neil Armstrong descended from the Apollo 11 lander and took those first fledgling steps on the surface of the moon, followed by Buzz Aldrin. For the occasion I had dropped a 12 hour Black Beauty and was speeding right along with Collins in the orbiting capsule looking down as the whole event was unfolding. Shortly thereafter the Atlantic City Pop Festival took place on August 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Hanging out with a crowd of friends two weeks after the moon landing on the beach one evening, the talk turned to music and bands when someone mentioned an upcoming music festival that was going to take place in Woodstock, New York, where apparently one hell of a lot of really good groups were planning to perform. In the fall of 1968 an album had come out called “Music From Big Pink” by The Band, who had been backing up Bob Dylan on his recordings and at his concerts. The album was a masterpiece and quickly became one of my favourites. It still is today. As we were discussing the Woodstock Festival while sitting on the beach, someone mentioned that The Band would be performing there. Suddenly a light went on in my head. The Band? I was thinking, man, I’d love to see them in concert and they’ll probably never get down here to Virginia. As the wine and the numbers were being passed around I began to seriously consider the idea of going to the festival, but then New York was a long way from Virginia and when I took stock of my finances things were looking rather bleak. I only had about twenty-five dollars and I had been considering blowing twenty of it on an ounce of weed, since my stash box was down to seeds and stems again. It was Friday, August 11th. Now there was a young fellow named David and his sister Susie hanging out with us who were from Washington D.C. They were planning to hitchhike up to D.C. the next morning, spend the weekend with their Mom and then head out for Woodstock on Monday morning bright and early. They wanted to know if anyone else was interested in going along. That sounded good enough for me. We agreed to meet the next morning. So I went home, packed a duffel bag with a couple of t-shirts, another pair of jeans, underwear, my old army jacket, some toiletries and my sleeping bag. I hit my parents up for another ten dollars as I was informing them of my plans. They did not share my enthusiasm.
The next morning we met up and quickly got a lift up to D.C. Their mother picked us up and took us to their apartment in Arlington. She was apparently a very liberal Mom, because she gave her kids the freedom to undertake the journey and didn’t seem the least bit worried. I was, mainly because her son was 18, but the daughter was only 16. I had visions of the cops stopping us for hitchhiking somewhere and throwing me in jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. So I asked their mother to write a letter of permission for the girl to be traveling with her brother and myself, which she did. The kids were cool, but their Mom was really with it. I had a girlfriend at that time who lived with her parents in Alexandria, so I called her up and we met the next day, Sunday afternoon, and spent a few hours together. I was bubbling about going to see The Band and adding that there was even a rumour that Dylan himself might make an appearance. And of course there were going to be a lot, an awful lot of other great groups over the three days. I got back to David and Susie’s apartment in time for dinner and we all sacked out shortly thereafter, intending to get out on the Interstate ramp real early to beat the Monday morning rush hour traffic. It was going to be a long haul from D.C. to upstate New York and we were hoping to cover it in one day. I had one last quick shower, and after breakfast David and Susie’s Mom drove us out to the Interstate ramp and wished us good luck. It wasn’t long before someone stopped and picked us up, giving us a lift to a truck stop about half the way to Baltimore. Ah, Baltimore. Visions of my childhood came into my head as I remembered living in Aberdeen and driving with my parents down old route 40 into Baltimore to the Farmer’s Market in the late 1950’s. A really strange bloke stopped and picked us up at the truck stop exit and drove us to Baltimore. All the way into deep, dark Baltimore. For whatever reason this asshole ended up dumping us out in the middle of one of the city’s worst ghettos. So there we stood three white faces in a sea of African-Americans and the longer we stood there pathetically trying to thumb a ride the more heavy the vibe became. We were getting really bad looks from an ever larger crowd that seemed to be gathering around us. At the last possible moment some kind soul stopped and we jumped into his car with audible sighs of relief. Mean looks followed us as we drove off down the street. He wondered how the hell we had ended up in that particular place and once we explained how we had gotten there and where we were heading he took us back out of the city and to the Interstate heading north. We thanked him for the timely rescue and stuck our thumbs out again. After that we had a succession of good rides up to New Jersey and then into New York State without further incident. Once we got closer to our destination I made a sign that said “Woodstock N.Y. Pop…” which seemed to help us get rides.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached White Lake and began to notice that we weren’t the only ones headed for Bethel, which was the nearest town to where the festival was located. As we stood on the outskirts of White Lake trying to catch a ride holding our sign and not having much luck, all of a sudden a big police cruiser comes rolling down the street, pulls over and stops. I looked at David, he looked at me and we both looked at Susie, who is grinning like the cat that ate the mouse. Wouldn’t it just be our luck, I was thinking, to almost make it to the festival and now get hassled by the heat? Inside the car sat the local sheriff, complete with his Smokey the Bear hat. He rolled down the window and asked us if we are headed to the festival. I answered in the affirmative and a large smile brightened up his face. “Well, I’ll give you kids a ride there. Hop in,” he said. The three of us looked at each other. Unreal. So we got a ride from White Lake to Bethel and out to Yasgur’s farm in the sheriff’s police cruiser. Now that was getting to the festival in style, almost like having a police escort. He explained to us as we were rolling along, past a lot of other kids trying to hitch or walking, that his daughter was hitchhiking somewhere and he figured it would be good karma for her if he helped someone to get to where they were going too. Unreal. We headed down a country road and then he pulled to a stop. “The farm is just down that road and over the hill,” he explained. “Now you be sure to be careful and have a good time,” he told us in his upstate New York accent as we climbed out of the car and he drove off.
We stood there for a few minutes and watched his car recede down the road and then, along with other kids slowly trickling towards the site, we walked up the hill and gazed down at the pasture and the stage, upon and around which there was a lot of activity. Behind the stage we could see a pond. I thanked them for their hospitality and their companionship along the way and parted with a promise to meet up again at some point over the next few days. I never saw David or Susie again. I wandered around a bit checking things out and then looked for a good spot to bed down for the evening, preferably where some serious smoking was going on. After that long trip I need a good buzz. I joined a group of kids at the edge of the pasture who were passing a few joints around and settled down for the evening. Stories were exchanged, dope and drink were shared and at some point, under the stars, I unrolled my sleeping bag and crawled in for the night. It had been a long day.
It was mid August and the nights in upstate New York were beginning to get a bit chilly. I woke up on Tuesday morning and, although my old army surplus sleeping bag had kept me warm, when I crawled out the air was fresh and crisp. As the world around me slowly came to life again, the reality of my present situation began to dawn on me. Here I was at a rock festival without a ticket and with a rather limited amount of financial resources. I hadn’t seen any evidence yet of any serious fences or crowd control, so I figured that I’d play it by ear and see what developed. But it was obvious to me that I’d have to do something to keep myself fed and stoned. As I wandered around the site getting my bearings I realised that it might be possible to make a bit of money by finding some work at the site. When I asked about jobs down at the stage one long haired fellow told me to go up to one of the trailers at the top of the slope and ask there. And that is exactly what I did. I ended up getting hired by a company called Food For Love, who were going to run the concession stands at the event. They were going to pay me $2.00 an hour to basically do manual labour. Plus I was given the most valuable thing one could possess, a Staff Pass for the festival. That wasn’t bad at all. Plus I got to sleep in one of their trailers at the top of the hill with a bird’s eye view of the whole area and the stage. So for the next three days I helped put up fences around their supply trailers to keep people from sleeping under them, which was dangerous because some of them were tilting and threatening to fall over in the soft ground of the pasture, and then I basically helped finish building their hamburger and drink stands. Now Food For Love would have been more aptly named Food For Cold Hard Cash and their story I will go into in more detail later on, but for now I was happy. I had a job, free food, a trailer to sleep in and…I was at The Woodstock Music & Art Fair. I spent the next three days working eight-hour shifts and my nights getting loaded and generally having fun.
And now it was Friday morning and the festival was about to begin at some point in the afternoon. All sorts of rumours were being passed around about how entrance to the festival would be controlled but by Thursday it was obvious that with the masses of people flowing in that there wasn’t going to be much anyone could do to control the entry to the grounds. Because they had to move from the site that was originally intended for the festival the promoters had made the decision to put all their efforts into getting the stage ready in time and gave up on building the fences. What fences existed were taken down on Thursday night. At that point they knew that they were going to take a massive financial hit. On Friday afternoon as the festival was getting underway it was announced that it had been declared a free festival and no one gave any more thought to the issue of collecting tickets. My job too was morphing from being a hired hand and gofer into having to work security, first specifically for Food For Love, but as the festival progressed, just generally making sure that people were safe and not putting themselves into dangerous situations. I went from working a normal eight hour shift to working eighteen hour stretches. But I am getting ahead of myself.
At around 5:00 PM that afternoon it was obvious to the folks putting on the music that Sweetwater, the first group scheduled to perform weren’t going to make it on stage on time. They had been delayed. So they asked Richie Havens to go out and play the first set. When he went out and opened the festival no one, least of all Richie himself, had any inkling that when he got to the end of his set list and went on to improvise a version of “Motherless Child” turning it into the incredible rendition of “Freedom,” it would become one of the defining moments, not only of the festival, but of rock music itself. I had the evening shift, my job now being to keep an eye on Food For Love’s complex of stands and truck trailers so I was watching his performance while making my rounds. He was followed by Swami Satchidananda who gave a ten minute invocation for the festival. In rather rapid succession Sweetwater played a 40 minute set, followed by Bert Sommer and then the amazing Tim Hardin who did a quick 25 minute set. By the time Ravi Shankar got on stage to do a 35 minute set it had started to rain. And I had my first serious problem. We had a bloke flipping out on some bad acid flailing wildly and requiring restraint. It was imperative that we get him over to the first aid tent, which, unfortunately, was clear across the area in front of the stage where everyone was sitting. Since he wouldn’t or couldn’t walk someone decided to pack his ass in one of the cars the company had up on the hill and drive him slowly straight through that audience. Along with another colleague it was my job to clear a path through that mass of people to get this guy to the doctors. In the rain. Now, I don’t know what poor Ravi Shankar might have thought, but throughout his performance, as we worked our way through the spectators, people in front of our procession were rising, clearing out of the way and then sitting back down behind us after we had passed. That in itself was noisy and then added to that we had to shout at them to get them to move, so I think that he might have noticed the disturbance. At any rate, we got the poor fellow to the first aid tent and trudged back through the crowd. The rain eventually let up and Melanie came on around 10:50 PM and was followed by Arlo Guthrie who lauded the crowd telling them “That’s far out man…lotta freaks!” Joan Baez took the stage at around 1:00 AM and did an hour long set wrapping up what had been an amazing day of music. My shift over, I had wandered down to the side of the stage and saw her do the last few songs up close and even got to listen to her talking to a small group of people and exchanged a few words with her as she was leaving. I had always liked her music, but listening to her talk about her anti-war efforts impressed me even more. She was, and still is one fine performer and human being.
Now I don’t recall exactly when he started, but some time earlier, on Wednesday or Thursday, a long haired bearded fellow wearing a knee-length leather coat started to show up about once an hour, making the rounds of our trailers with a huge pipe, always filled with opium and proceed to get everyone really ripped. He wasn’t selling it, although he would hand out little white speckled pieces of this sticky black opium and continuously fill his pipe. He maintained this hourly routine each evening for the duration of the festival. Bless his sweet opiated soul. He had come by late on Thursday night and got me righteously zonkered before I crashed. And, after I wandered back up to my trailer following Joan’s set, he showed up and once again I blissfully collapsed into a peaceful opium induced sleep.
To be continued…
© 2019 nightpoet all rights reserved