The Woodstock Music and Art Fair – (2) – The Festival That Almost Wasn’t

December 1968. Eight months till the festival. Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld found a couple of venture capitalists who would finance them. But the backers were much more interested in the festival idea than the recording studio. Together, the four of them formed a company called Woodstock Ventures. Based on projections from Miami Pop, Lang came up with a back-of-the-envelope cost of $500,000. ($3.2M in today’s dollars.)

They initially planned a two-day festival for 100,000 people at $5 or $6 for tickets. ($32 – $39 in today’s dollars.) Eventually the idea grew to a three-day concert with expectations of 200,000 attendees per day. (Lang seems to have forgotten the whole “camping-out” thing. Did he really expect that previous day’s attendees would just up and leave?) The idea became to ease into the festival, with folkies playing on Friday, the bigger (and more rock-oriented bands) on Saturday and Sunday.

Now calling it “An Aquarian Exposition: The Woodstock Music and Art Fair,” the next step was to find a location. (The plan was to have the festival take place the weekend of August 15th, 1969.) Lang was working on two fronts (at least) simultaneously: finding a location and booking bands. (Top bands got $15,000 – about $100,000 today – for a roughly one-hour set.)

He knew from his Miami Pop experience that if he could attract at least one top band, others would follow. And in short order he booked then red-hot Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose “Proud Mary” was burning up the charts.

(John Fogerty later said, “And this is the moment I will never forget as long as I live. A quarter mile away in the darkness, on the other edge of this bowl, there was some guy flicking his Bic, and in the night I hear, ‘Don’t worry about it John. We’re with you.’ I played the rest of the show for that guy.”) Lang also booked then-unknown Crosby, Stills and Nash on hearing a test pressing of their first album.

March 1969. Five months till the festival. Lang and company found a property called Winston Farm just outside of Saugerties, NY that seemed ideal. But when word got out that they wanted to host a large festival, phone calls stopped getting returned. No one, it seems, wanted a bunch of “dirty hippies” invading their bucolic farmland even for five minutes, much less a weekend. (Ironically, the 25th anniversary Woodstock festival would be held there.)

While he was fighting that battle and signing bands, his team was working on things such as how many port-a-potties they needed, food for all these people, security, staging, tickets, etc. (One guy went to Yankee stadium and timed how long it took people to use the rest rooms.) The good news is that Lang’s team weren’t newcomers to this but had done major festivals, worked at the Fillmore East, etc. But in addition to all the other logistics, no one had yet built a sound system like the one they’d need.

After Winston Farm got shot down late in March, they found an ugly, old industrial park sixty miles south in Walkill, NY. It was hardly a pastoral landscape and according to Lang, looked like it had been “raped.” But given the time pressure they were under, they figured they could convert the land into something usable. Things went as well as they could throughout much of the spring.

Meanwhile. Lang and Kornfeld knew they needed a security force and maybe even cops. But they did not want the kind of problems that occurred at the Denver Pop Festival just a few months prior, where tear gas was used to quell a much smaller crowd. (Denver was Jimi Hendrix’ final Experience concert. Noel Redding got the hell out.) So they interviewed several hundred New York City cops, mostly to find out which of them were “cool” (no guns) and which thought that barbed wire and clubs was the way to go.

By May, a mere three months till “go-time,” the anti-festival contingent in Walkill had pulled itself together. Some of Lang’s backers had initially misrepresented the size and intent of the show. So they routinely met a rough crowd at increasingly hostile town meetings. Townspeople could only foresee their bucolic pastures being completely overrun and envisioned a lot of the kids as Godless pot smokers with no morals. scream (This was the height of the “generation gap,” with constant clashes between parents and kids about hair length, culture, drugs and the Vietnam war.)

As it happens, one of the people who was suggested to Lang for security was an ex-Episcopalean priest who’d also had a law enforcement background. I suspect it could not have helped that he rented a room above a brothel and was swept up in a drug bust with the mayor’s daughter.

Meanwhile, back at the planning office, they were busily trying to design the stage, get concessions in place and hire more bands. Simon and Garfunkel and Dylan were floated but S&F were worn out from touring. And although Dylan was in Woodstock and connection was made, it never really worked out. Too bad. That would not, I think, have sucked.

Other possibilities were Johnny Cash, Donovan, The Doors and Laura Nyro. It was felt that if either the Beatles or Stones were available, they would have overpowered the festival, turning it into something else altogether. Frank Zappa – who Lang knew from Miami Pop – turned it down. (You could envision a whole alternate Woodstock just with bands that didn’t appear.)

A new band, Santana, was hired because their music reminded Lang of that of Tito Puente (“El Rey de los Timbales”) whom he’d heard as a kid. (In fact, Puente wrote “Oye Como Va.”) And of course he got Hendrix whose management not only wanted more money but insisted he be the headliner. And while Hendrix did close out the show, Lang insisted on nobody’s name being any larger on the poster, given the egalitarian nature of the event.

Another thing that was happening was that publicity was being generated. Lots of it. And given the massive turnout, one must say they did a great job of getting the word out to head shops, DJ’s, record companies, rock newspapers, etc. Maybe too good a job.

While Lang and company were trying to negotiate with Walkill, they also had to contend with Abbie Hoffman and his underground friends who thought that Woodstock Ventures were “ripping off the people.” But Lang was good at finding out what people really wanted. And Hoffman’s group wanted a good thing, which was money to provide people at Woodstock information about their causes and to put together a daily survival sheet. (Good idea it turns out.)

By June, two months till, etc., etc., the shit started hitting the fan in the town of Walkill. They wanted to get an injunction to stop the festival because “citizens fear for the health, welfare, and moral well-being of the community and festival visitors.” Relations between the town and Woodstock Ventures continued to deteriorate.

And on July 15 – exactly one month prior to opening day – the town rejected Woodstock Ventures’ request for a permit. Stunned disbelief followed as they had spent a lot of time preparing the grounds and getting the word out. Instead of appealing – which would likely go past the “go live” date – they immediately started looking for another site. Because now they had a party, all the invitations had gone out and they had absolutely no fucking place to hold it.

As luck would have it, they were contacted by a motel owner named Elliot Tiber whose site was woeful but which they instead rented as an office. Tiber – who literally just passed away the other day – always maintained that he introduced Lang to Max Yasgur, whose farmland they wound up using.

But Lang says Tiber introduced him to a real estate agent who introduced him to Yasgur. When Tiber died on Aug. 7 – one week shy of the festival’s 47th anniversary – Lang said that without Tiber’s phone call, Woodstock might never have happened. But then a lot of serendipitous things had to happen to make Woodstock a reality.

Regardless, on a drive around the area – now in Bethel, NY, some 35 miles NW of Walkill – Lang saw a bucolic-looking hill that seemed perfect. It turned out to be land owned by the aforementioned Mr. Max Yasgur, a 49-year old dairy farmer. Yasgur was a locally well-known, hardworking guy who owned a lot of land and whose word was his band.

Fortune smiled. Yasgur turned out to be the right guy at the right place at the right time. Max was a very cool guy who had been following the goings-on at Wallkill with some dismay. He thought that Woodstock Ventures had been well and royally screwed. So he agreed to hold the festival and helped the band of brothers (and sisters) deal with local regulations and even some shake-down artists and other bullshit.

As Lang later said, “Without Max Yasgur, there would have been no Woodstock.” Joni Mitchell – whose manager had her do a talk show instead of playing the event – later wrote a song called “Woodstock” where she name-checked Yasgur.

Max_yasgur Ladies and gentlemen, Max Yasgur.

And so, with less than a month, they had to move everything over to Yasgur’s farm. Space prevents me from going into all the details. but suffice it to say that that was all the time they had to move everything, get food concessions and telephones (and the stage) in place, get ticket booths and fences set up and advertise the new location.

And while, yes, local opposition did occur, the Woodstock Ventures guys – learning from their Wallkill experience – were now more adept at dealing with objections. (It didn’t at all hurt that they spent a lot of money using local townspeople such as electricians. Money talks.)

And so somehow, by some karma or by Lang and Kornfeld’s force of will, or the universe or luck, An Aquarian Exposition: The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was going to be a reality. A nine-month in the planning last-minute reality. But a reality nevertheless.

Some of the planned acts were: Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Canned Heat, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Ten Years After, The Band, Johnny Winter, Blood Sweat and Tears, Paul Butterfield and Jimi Hendrix. This was a superb cross-section of some of the best folk, rock and blues of that era.

Next post – Day 1. August 15th, 1969.

Sources: The Road to Woodstock: From the Man Behind the Legendary Festival. Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren; Woodstock: The Director’s Cut. The Documentary. Directed by Michael Wadleigh.  

3 thoughts on “The Woodstock Music and Art Fair – (2) – The Festival That Almost Wasn’t

  1. Just random thoughts…

    I didn’t realize that it was one month before the festival that Lang and group had to find a new site. They did a phenomenal job and the sound system was astonishing. You could hear clearly from just about any place at the festival. Glad you made mention of Elliot Tiber. He was instrumental because, as a business owner and community member, he was the rational voice needed to help other community members see a good thing in having the festival.

    I was also surprised to hear there were police officers. We saw none. I guess they blended in with the crowd very well. I think, more than a few, would’ve had some anxiety knowing there were police around with all the drugs and all. Thanks for exchanging costs to today’s dollar and the funny story on the ex-Episcopalian priest. Funny thing that Hendrix was suppose to be the headliner. He came on dead last on Monday day at 3:00AM in the morning? That is what I read. Most of us hippies left by Sunday night to go to our perspective jobs on Monday. Some hippies, eh?

    My very best personal moment at Woodstock was when I arrived. Older people, who were sitting on their porch swing, got up and gave us the peace sign. I couldn’t believe somebody old loved us. 🙂 Next best personal moment, people jumping on my old Pontiac car for a ride. I had 4 in the back and 4 in the front. It was fantastic!

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  2. It was a tremendous scramble to get this festival done. A real herculean effort by all accounts.

    As to the sound, yeah,and the recording is fantastic too. The story about the guy behind the sound system – Bill Hanley – is interesting in and of itself. A Boston guy, he totally came up with the sound system. He was one of those “take the radio apart to see how it works” kinda guys as a kid. He did sound for the Newport festivals, Fillmore East and even a Beatles tour. (At that point I don’t think he could overcome the screaming of the girls). So he seemed to be the logical choice.

    “I built special speaker columns on the hills and had 16 loudspeaker arrays in a square platform going up to the hill on 70-foot towers.” Hanley is known as “The Father of Festival Sound,” so you can thank him for all those ampitheater shows, etc. A true unsung hero,

    And here’s a thing: “Moving into the next decade Hanley’s social conscience lead him to work on several large scale anti-war protest rallies, even sending the entire Woodstock sound system to South Africa for their Anti-Apartheid movement.”

    As to the police, my recollection from Lang’s book is that the NYC police chief was ok with it at first, then wouldn’t allow them. So a lot of them went there unofficially and got paid under the table. Maybe that’s why you don’t hear much about it. I believe they were wearing some kind of helmets and vests, but nothing that would scream ‘police.’

    As to Hendrix, actually if you go to the Wikipedia page for Woodstock, they lay out all the starting times of the sets. If that is accurate, Hendrix didn’t start till 9am Monday!

    No surprise the hippies had to go back to work. Someone has to sell leather belts and vests. 😀

    Good thing you didn’t own a Volkswagen. More room for ‘freaks.’

    Keep the personal stories coming. First-hand reporting is always the best .

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    1. I never heard of Bill Hanley. Thanks for the heads up. Just read his Dad is from Medford, MA so I am assuming that is where he was raised. Saw all tributes to him as a sound engineer. So happy Lang took the time and looked for the best people to make the festival happen. Nice to hear Hanley is a humanitarian.

      Also, saw a lot of long-hair freaks working their asses off at the festival. People saw these hippie freaks and probably immediately thought they were just lazy. I found the people I met at Woodstock to be very intelligent people.

      Yes, I do remember helmets and vests. I thought they were festival workers though so yes, they blended in. Glad no one knew at the time. I was with a whole group of people who would’ve freaked out if they knew they were police.

      Thanks again for the info about Hanley. Truly amazing artist!

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