Woodstock – (3) – Day One – August 15, 1969

The brown acid that’s going around is not specifically too good. You aren’t taking poison acid. The acid’s not poison. It’s just badly manufactured acid. You are not going to die. We have treated 300 cases and it’s all just badly manufactured acid. So if you think you’ve taken poison, you haven’t. But if you’re worried, just take half a tablet.”
—-Stage announcement

Wikipedia: “The influx of attendees to the rural concert site in Bethel created a massive traffic jam. Fearing chaos as thousands began descending on the community, Bethel did not enforce its codes. 

Eventually, announcements on radio stations as far away as WNEW-FM in Manhattan and descriptions of the traffic jams on television news discouraged people from setting off to the festival.” (By several accounts, as many as 1,000,000 people were turned away or discouraged from coming.)

By Friday morning, the 200,000 people that they anticipated had already showed up. The problem is that they kept coming. And coming. By Friday afternoon, traffic was tied up within a twenty-mile radius of the site.

And these kids may or may not have had tickets. It was hard to tell how many people actually did because there was nobody available either to take or sell tickets. There were no real ticket gates, box office or fence. Well, in the movie you can see a small, pathetic makeshift fence that people are trampling over. But given time constraints, a decision had had to be made: build a fence and ticket offices or build a stage.

And it was a pretty easy decision since no stage, no acts. No acts, the mood of the quite pacific crowd might turn if not ugly, at the very least dissatisfied. And so by that afternoon the announcement was made from the stage which confirmed what everybody pretty much already knew. That it was, and would be, a free concert. And that the backers would “take a bath.”

Michael Lang’s next priority, once the stage was built, was to get some music going. There were records being played but the crowd was restless for the real thing. Lang tried to get several of the performers to go on first but no one wanted the job.

He kept working folk singer Richie Havens but Havens wanted no part of it. But Lang practically begged him.

And so at 5:07 pm, Havens walked out on stage. And played. And played. And played. And since there was no act ready to follow him, Lang kept sending him out there.

Havens eventually ran out of songs and – inspired by the event –  just started singing the word “Freedom,” hoping it would lead somewhere. Eventually this segued into “Motherless Child.”

This shows how a talented performer can command a crowd with just a few acoustic instruments. Not to mention make shit up on the fly. (Lang had commissioned documentary filmmaker Michael Wadleigh to film the concert. Twenty-six-year old Martin Scorsese was an assistant director and editor.)

I strongly encourage you to watch the videos as, not only is the music good, it will give you a better feel for the event than just my meager words alone. Plus for at least some of you, well, you’ll now know what your parents were up to: 😀

And while the music was great, to many people it became just a soundtrack to their enjoyment of being together, of grooving together. They’d spend the day wandering in from their campsites, skinny-dipping, getting high, getting laid, trying to forage food, etc.

Lang had hired the Hog Farm, a commune, to help set up free food kitchens. Asked by Lang how he’d deal with a fight breaking out, co-founder Hugh Romney aka Wavy Gravy said, “With pies in faces.” (Romney didn’t get the name “Wavy Gravy” till another festival a few weeks later. He was called that for fun by no less a personage than B.B. King.) Anyway, no pies needed as exactly zero fights broke out. Now this may be due in part to the prodigious amount of pot being ingested. Seems to me that people were overall just pretty chill.

Sometime around 10 pm, during Ravi Shankar’s set, rain began to fall. Rain had been the scourge of Woodstock all during its development and it continued to be during the festival. There was some lightning and in fact, some concern that the stage would either start sliding in the mud or that the canopy would dump a ton of water on someone’s head. Neither of these things happened and much of the crowd, to their credit, stuck it out.

Arlo Guthrie came on late in the evening. He made the announcement that the “New York State Thruway is closed, man,” which turned out to be untrue. Other than a few closed exits, that never happened. (The James Franco lookalike in the sleeveless vest walking with Arlo is Artie Kornfeld.)

What comes across from watching the movie and talking to people who were there is that the draw may have initially been about the music. But it very quickly became less about that and more about a shared event, a collective feeling, especially as the site quickly became overrun with little food or supplies available. Then it became more about taking care of each other, making sure that everybody had enough food or medicine. Or dope.

The townspeople, who by all accounts were pre-disposed to expect a bunch of foaming-at-the-mouth, drugged-out, sex fiends, were pleasantly surprised. Rather than the invading army they anticipated, what they got was a bunch of polite, friendly, “wonderful kids.” In the movie, the chief of police says they’re “good kids, good Americans.”

I think they realized that any of them could have been their kids. One of the townspeople said he hadn’t been able to shop in two days and was reduced to eating corn flakes. But it didn’t seem to bother him. Somehow the pleasant vibe that Lang and Kornfeld had tried to create was permeating. (Either that or there was a contact high.)

Joan Baez, who was six months pregnant, came on at about one in the morning. Somehow she’d hung out all day, patiently waiting her turn, giving tea to fellow folkie Melanie who’d had a coughing fit. She talked about her husband David Harris who’d recently been imprisoned for resisting the draft.

She sang the beautiful, “Joe Hill,” about the labor activist of the early 2oth Century. Hill was executed by firing squad on controversial murder charges:

If I’m an honest reporter, then I have to report that Woodstock – peace and love notwithstanding – by some accounts could be somewhat of a hassle to negotiate. I did a little research, expecting everybody to glow about the festival’s wonderfulness. Most did, a few didn’t. A reporter from the New Republic was there with some friends. He agrees that everyone was friendly and peaceful. (They had gone in the vain hope that Dylan might show up.)

But after a couple of rainstorms, their clothes were “hopelessly soaked and muddy.” Joan Baez was a pinpoint somewhere out there in the darkness. Chemically altered kids walked within inches of their faces preventing much sleep. After getting locked out of their trunk, and taking endless trips back and forth to the port-a-potties, they realized they’d had enough, got in their car on Saturday and got the hell out of there. They watched the rest of it in TV.

But for those who hung in there – for the vast “glass half-full” crowd – my sense of it is that the reality of being in a disaster area only heightened their sense of community, perhaps their sense that if they left they’d never experience something like this again.

So for them, the rain and logistical difficulties were outweighed by the “miracle of a multitude at peace with one another.” They were part of something greater than themselves. And they were a community. A community of self-styled “freaks.”

Next post – Day 2. August 16, 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; What Woodstock Was Really Like: New Republic, Hendrik Hertzberg.


7 thoughts on “Woodstock – (3) – Day One – August 15, 1969

  1. Driving to the Woodstock festival with my two friends, I heard the announcer on the radio telling everybody to turn back. There was no way in and no more room for anyone at the festival. Being the calm cool-headed person I was at the time, I freaked out and then proceeded to find a way to turn around and go back home. My two friends in unison yelled at the top of their lungs,” NOOOO! Keep going we know a way in!” So I trusted them – no not really. What I didn’t know was we had all the food in my car for the people who got to the festival earlier during the day.

    What the first group of people at Woodstock didn’t know was there was no food at the festival and they were starving. My friends didn’t want to tell me the reason they asked me to go to Woodstock was to get the food to their crowd. I was the only one left who had a car. (It used to be my crowd as well but too much use of drugs drove me away.) The reason they were not going to ask me if I wanted to go was because of all the drugs that would be at Woodstock. I tell this story to people because, for me, I see a difference in how people respected differences much more during that time than today. Maybe people think it was the drugs that kept everyone mellow, but I disagree. Since our mantra at that time was, “Make Love not War”, everyone knew we had to show by example that peace (and acceptance of others) could work.

    As for the music, we got there late Friday night and, after everybody finally ate, we headed to the festival. Our camp site was two miles from the festival site so by the time we got to the festival, we only heard Joan Baez singing. I was annoyed at first when I heard Baez singing because I thought someone brought a radio to the event and was playing her music. Only to realize, that even though we were maybe a mile or a mile and a half away from the stage, I was hearing the actual live event as clear as people who were closer to the stage.

    Just realized your blog coincides with the start date of the concert.:-) Nice. Great post!


  2. Folks I hope you’re reading restew’s comments. I enjoyed Woodstock through news reports, the album (which I played relentlessly) and the movie. (And from the few people I knew who went). This reader was there and so, first-hand reporting.

    Sounds like you got there very late Friday, early Saturday am. You haven’t said anything about the vaunted traffic jam. Were you able to drive all the way up? Did you have to abandon ship? Or had people all turned around by then? Just curious.


    1. Yes, we were in a traffic jam. Going incredibly slow. This is when I heard the announcer say the festival was closed. Traffic police were not allowing people off the exit to Woodstock. I am assuming most went back home because they only knew to get off the one exit. I wanted to go back, but as I stated in my last comment, my friends knew a way in. They knew another exit about 3 exits passed the Woodstock one. Since their friends were already there and they were 2 miles from the actual Woodstock event, we were able to get in through a back road. On the road leading to our friends, there was absolutely no traffic either way and it was raining very hard. Pretty intense. I’m thinking we got there closer to 11:30PM. i picked my friends out at 5 so 6 1/2 hours of traveling from Philly to up state NY.

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  3. I’m curious what this refers to: “They watched the rest of it in TV.” As I read it, I imagined something like C-Span 3 broadcasting it live. But clearly that wasn’t the case! Haha Was there much more than Cronkite and company airing snippets, or short live interviews? Thanks so much for your account of the festival! Peace.


    1. Yeah, pretty much just fear and loathing on the news. Movie didn’t come out till the following spring. BTW, I have no idea why I had to approve your comment as you’ve certainly commented here before. Sorry about that.


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