A Bit of History
Long before “festival fashion” became a lucrative product category, more than 400,000 people converged upon Max Yasgur’s 600 acre dairy farm in upstate New York to attend the defining cultural event of their generation. August 15, 16, & 17 marks the anniversary of the original Woodstock Music Festival in 1969.
Photographs of the event offer an intense nostalgia for a time I’ve only experienced through surviving artifacts.
In many minds, that weekend remains the most epic summer BBQ of our time, though certainly packed with a plethora of additional recreational activities and technically billed as a “music and art fair”. There are countless modern descendants of the music festival that managed to inspire a pair of poorly executed sequels, but in typical fashion, nothing beats the original.
The performance roster was a veritable who’s who of modern classic rock radio including Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Santana, Mountain, CSN&Y (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), Joan Baez, Ritchie Havens, Credence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, Canned Heat, Johnny Winter and Ten Years After. Essentially a capital venture arranged by several inexperienced concert promoters, the three-day concert ultimately became a financial disaster – until royalties for the 1970 documentary film came rolling in.
Fun fact: a young Martin Scorsese edited the sing along sequence featuring Country Joe and the Fish.
Homage for the Hard-Core
Visiting the actual festival site had been a personal bucket list item for a number of years. In seventh grade, I acquired a copy of the movie soundtrack. I later ran across a vinyl copy of Woodstock Two (performances from the original event that didn’t make the film due more to length than any sort of commentary on their quality or significance). Box set collections have since emerged, whereby one can virtually spend an entire weekend with headphones to relive the entire festival in the audio sense.
The town of Bethel is quiet and somewhat remote. The old location of Max Yasgur’s farm is even more so.
Off route 17B, Hurd Road threads through forest and field before reaching the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. It then continues on to the crossroads where the festival’s commemorative marker is located. Part of the original site now hosts a performing arts center and museum. The location of the main stage and surrounding field remain largely intact – pictured in the background behind the festival marker.
A map from the Bethel Woods website offers a revealing comparison of current and past landscape features. Work is under way to provide visitors with a better idea of the festival’s layout, though this has yet to materialize. Much of the festival site is now privately held land (trespassing is discouraged). The performer’s pavilion (you know, rock star VIP) is now in the backyard of a residence, and Filippini Pond (once host to thousands of skinny dippers) sits behind a series of country homes.
I’ve seen many retrospectives over the years – the stock footage, the film, the constant cultural citations that an event such as this receives across many decades. Yet none of these actually measures up to physically being there, in the place. Added to its lack of urban soundscape, the site is rural enough to possess that feeling I often associate with the country – complete with that soul scrubbing, heady open air.
There is a similar ambience to battle fields, I suppose, though the two are miles apart in significance.
Check out Bethel Woods for more information. Safe travels.