50 Things You Didn’t Know About Woodstock on Its 50th Anniversary
Fifty years ago in upstate New York, a counterculture was born. Here's everything you never knew about the famed music festival.
At the height of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, just a month after Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, and just a week after the Manson murders took place in the Hollywood Hills, a crowd of half a million made their way to a muddy field beside a lake in the Catskill Mountains for what was to be a three-day festival of peace and music. No one could have known it at the time, but the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, which began just after 5 p.m. on August 15, 1969, would become a generation-defining, cultural touchstone that, a half-century later, continues to resonate, fascinate, and inspire imitations.
So, what was it about Woodstock? Read on…
It started out as an investment opportunity
Ironically enough, the epic music festival that’s come to be known as “Woodstock” and which is synonymous with the 1960s counterculture, was organized by a group of four young men who pretty much epitomized anything but the counterculture:
- Capitol Records exec, Artie Kornfeld (left in photo)
- Florida-based promotor, Michael Lang (middle in photo)
- John Roberts and Joel Rosenman (right in photo) a couple of Ivy League-educated sons of wealthy families who were looking for an investment opportunity.
The original plan had nothing to do with a music festival
Lang and Kornfeld approached Roberts and Rosenman to invest in their dream of building a recording studio. However, the group quickly changed course, abandoning the idea of an indoor studio in favor of an outdoor music festival.
It didn’t take place in Woodstock
The Woodstock Music and Arts Fair took place in Bethel, New York. Bethel, a town in Sullivan County, New York with a population of under 5,000 people, is around 70 miles southwest of Woodstock, New York. Visiting the Woodstock/Catskills area? Here’s what else you should see.
So then why “Woodstock”?
The newly formed investment group originally wished to build their recording studio in the bucolic, quaint, and artsy Ulster County town of Woodstock, New York and therefore named their enterprise, “Woodstock Ventures.” Woodstock was and is a haven for musicians, including Bob Dylan, who was a resident of Woodstock at the time of the festival.
Bob Dylan didn’t perform at Woodstock
Despite that Bob Dylan was known for making music in Woodstock (he famously recorded music with The Band there), he declined an invitation to perform at the Woodstock festival in Bethel. He chose instead to perform at a music festival on the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom. Can you guess which Bob Dylan album is worth a fortune today?
Woodstock was never going to be the festival venue
Once the organizers decided to put on a music festival instead of building a recording studio, they stuck with the name “Woodstock Ventures” despite that the town of Woodstock never wanted anything to do with their outdoor music festival.
The original venue was in an industrial park in Wallkill, New York
When neither Woodstock nor nearby Saugerties panned out as a venue, Woodstock Ventures set its sights on Mills Industrial Park in the town of Wallkill. They got as far as securing $10,000 for the space before the Town Board got cold feet and wriggled out of the deal based on a town code technicality.
The technicality involved a toilet
When Woodstock Ventures told the Wallkill Town Board to expect about 50,000 attendees (as it turned out, a vast understatement), the Board promptly passed a law requiring a permit for any gathering of over 5,000 people. When that wasn’t enough to put a pin in the festival, the Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals officially banned the concert on the basis that the planned portable toilets would not meet town code.
“I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm”
This famous lyric from the most famous song ever written about the festival (unsurprisingly, it’s called “Woodstock”) refers to the actual location of the festival, which was a 600-acre farm in the White Lake hamlet of Bethel belonging to 49-year-old Max Yasgur.
The song, “Woodstock” was written by someone who didn’t attend Woodstock
“Woodstock” was written by musician Joni Mitchell, who wasn’t even there (for reasons we’ll delve into later). But her boyfriend at the time was Graham Nash, and he was there and told her all about it. The song became one of Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s most recognizable classics.
Who was Max Yasgur?
Raised on a farm in 1919, Yasgur studied real estate law at NYU and then returned to farming in the 1940s. A married father of two, he became the largest milk producer in Sullivan County and was known across the county as a hard-working, pipe-smoking, man of his word. When he heard about the troubles the young men were having in securing a venue for their festival, he offered his 600-acre farm. Despite the hefty price tag of $75,000, Woodstock Ventures jumped at the chance. It was just one month before the festival was to begin.
The moment Woodstock became “countercultural”
With Yasgur on board and permits promised by the Bethel Town Attorney and Building Inspector, the Town of Bethel nevertheless refused to issue the permit. A “Stop-Work” order was issued for Yasgur’s premises. This is the moment things became “countercultural” as Yasgur stood firm against the town and encouraged the young men involved to ignore the order.
How “countercultural” became “chaotic”
With less than a month to go before the festival was to begin, Woodstock Ventures began constructing a stage, concession stands, bathroom facilities, gates, fences, and all other infrastructure needed to host a music festival. Originally, they planned for 50,000 attendees, but by August 13, 1969, two days before the concert was set to start, at least that number had already arrived and were camped out waiting for the festival to begin, and at least another 100,000 tickets had been pre-sold. Nearly half a million people showed up in total, so to say the organizers were ill-prepared was an understatement.
Only some people paid admission
As many as 186,000 $6 tickets were sold. But with the gates and fence incomplete when the crowds began arriving, the organizers realized there was no way they could check tickets or charge on-site admissions. So they stopped trying and opened the festival up to the public for free.
The traffic wasn’t exactly “tripping”
The roads surrounding Bethel couldn’t possibly accommodate all the traffic, and traffic was at a near standstill for 20 miles outside the farm. That meant not only that the people of Bethel were extraordinarily inconvenienced, but also that the performers had trouble getting to the venue. Impatient concert-goers abandoned their cars on the roads leading to the venue, effectively turning the roads surrounding Bethel into a parking lot.
How the “bomber death planes” turned into “butterflies”
Mitchell’s “Woodstock” lyrics included the following line: “And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation.” While this was, no doubt, a reference to Woodstock’s transformative vibe of peace and love, it may also have been a reference to the assistance provided by the U.S. military, which kept the festival going amid the chaos by deploying army helicopters to deliver performers and much-needed medical supplies and food.
Another source of food
When the Monticello Jewish Community Center heard about the food shortages at Woodstock, they sprang into action, supplying thousands of sandwiches that were eventually flown into the area from a nearby air force base. Hungry yet? Try one of these weird but awesome food festivals.
The rain didn’t help
Woodstock is synonymous not only with 1960s counterculture but also with hippies covered in mud. It rained almost continuously during the festival, and while Accuweather can’t confirm the precise amount of rainfall, these quotes the site collected on Facebook should paint a picture:
- “Muddy roads and fields.”
- “Violent thunderstorms wreaked havoc.”
- “[It was] raining toads.”
The three-day festival ended up lasting four days
Woodstock was billed as a three-day festival. But the chaotic conditions, including crowding, inclement weather, and rampant drug use, led to delays, and the festival ended up stretching to a fourth day.
The set list was determined by traffic conditions
The first performer was supposed to have been Sweetwater, but they were stuck in traffic, so to get things going, the organizers asked folk musician Richie Havens to step up and perform the first set. Many acts had to be helicoptered in, including Arlo Guthrie and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
The first set lasted three hours
Once Havens began, “Every time he tried to leave the stage, organizers convinced him to keep playing, as they still hadn’t rounded up the next act,” according to History. At some point, Havens ran out of music of his own and was left to improvise. He played Beatles tunes.
A helicopter ended the first set
It wasn’t until one of those aforementioned U.S. Army helicopters landed with more performers, some say onstage, that Havens was finally “allowed” to leave the stage.
Jimi Hendrix had the last word
Jimi Hendrix’s contract with the organizers stipulated no act could perform after him. Despite the chaos that had thrown the schedule off track, the organizers honored Hendrix’s contract. At 9 a.m. Monday morning, after most of the crowd had already begun to head home—because the festival had been scheduled to end on Sunday night—Hendrix performed the festival finale, including his epic version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s debacle
Creedence Clearwater Revival had been the first big act invited to play at Woodstock. Originally scheduled to go on in the prime spot of just-after-midnight on Saturday night, Creedance had to wait until after 1 a.m. due to delays, including technical difficulties during the Grateful Dead’s performance. Most of the audience was asleep. Lead singer John Fogerty described the scene to Culture Sonar as “bodies from hell, all intertwined and asleep, covered with mud.”
Jerry Garcia had a “great weekend” but a “terrible set”
“The weekend was great, but our set was terrible. We were all pretty smashed, and it was at night,” he’s quoted by Biography as having said in 1971. Not only was he terrified the stage was going to collapse, the rain was causing the band’s guitars to spark. “Every time we touched our guitars, we’d get these electrical shocks. Blue sparks were flying out of our guitars.”
Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll
An abundance of psychedelic drugs was freely available during the festival. In addition, as History tells it, “more than a few couples at Woodstock…made love whenever and wherever the mood hit.”
Psychedelic drugs posed problems for the performers
It wasn’t just the audience members who were “tripping” but also the performers. Sometimes it was by choice. Sometimes not. The Who’s Roger Daltrey noted in his memoir, Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite, that it was almost impossible to find food backstage that wasn’t laced with LSD.
Roger Daltrey ended up getting dosed
“I was fine right up until the moment I decided to have a cup of tea,” observed Daltrey, who was not, at the time, a drug user. Turned out that tea was laced with psychedelics, and he wasn’t happy about it at all, according to Vulture. “It was billed as an Aquarian exposition—three days of peace and music. But it was chaos,” he’s quoted as having said.
Performer Melanie hallucinated, but not because of drugs
Melanie Safka, who performs under the name Melanie, was only 22 when she performed at Woodstock. Relatively unknown at the time, her performance made her a star. But she was so terrified during her performance that she recalls an “out-of-body experience,” though without taking any drugs. “I was completely alone, and so terrified. I was certain this was my doom and I left my body.”
Woodstock launched Martin Scorcese’s career
The 1970 documentary film, Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh, was Martin Scorcese’s launching pad as a filmmaker. Having been hired as an assistant director, he was given the opportunity to do some editing work on the 120 hours of footage that had been taken. “I went to Woodstock as a schlep, and I came back as a schlep, but now I’m an assistant editor,” he’s quoted as having said in the aftermath. Check out one of these film classics, including one by Scorcese that takes place during the Vietnam War.
Creedance is notably missing from the doc
“Since 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s performance…has been glaringly absent from all documents about the festival—including the Academy Award-winning documentary the following year,” wrote Billboard magazine. “We weren’t in the movie on purpose,” Fogerty tells Billboard, because they didn’t like the music clip the documentarians had chosen to represent their performance.
There were only 12 police officers on hand
That’s not a typo. There were “no more than a dozen police officers to keep an eye on 500,000 people,” notes History.
Basically, security consisted of the “Please Force”
Political activist, “hippie icon, flower geezer, temple of accumulated error,” and founder of California’s Hog Farm commune, Wavy Gravy (born Hugh Romney) was flown in by Woodstock’s organizers to provide security, which consisted of unorthodox but largely amusing tactics like saying “please” and threatening to throw cream pies at unruly audience members.
The Please Force provided daycare
Not only did Wavy Gravy’s Please Force provide (some semblance of) security, they also set up a playground for children. Yes, there were children at Woodstock, and it’s possible that overall, they were better behaved than most of the adults.
Who played at Woodstock?
A total of 32 acts performed, according to Biography, which lists all and names the top acts as:
- Joan Baez
- Grateful Dead
- Creedence Clearwater Revival
- Janis Joplin
- The Who
- Jefferson Airplane
- Joe Cocker
- Blood, Sweat and Tears,
- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Who didn’t play Woodstock, and why
In addition to Bob Dylan, the following acts were among those notably absent:
- Jethro Tull
- The Doors
- Joni Mitchell, because her then-manager, David Geffen, had her booked on The Dick Cavett Show for Tuesday, August 19 and was afraid the traffic would keep her from getting back in time.
- John Lennon, who reportedly had immigration issues
- Led Zeppelin
- The Moody Blues as they were performing in Paris that weekend
- The Byrds
- Iron Butterfly was scheduled to appear but experienced airport delays
The highest-paid performer was Jimi Hendrix
- Blood, Sweat and Tears at $15,000
- Joan Baez at $10,000
- Creedence Clearwater Revival at $10,000
- The Band, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane, at $7,500 each
The lowest-paid performers
Quill was paid $375 for performing. Others at the bottom of the Woodstock pay scale include:
- Santana at $750
- Sha Na Na at $700
- Keef Hartley at $500
The youngest performer at Woodstock
At 19 years old, Santana’s drummer Michael Shrieve was the youngest band-member to perform at Woodstock.
The oldest performer at Woodstock
The oldest performer was sitar player Ravi Shankar, who was 49 at the time. He actually found hippies distasteful, and Woodstock was the last music festival he ever played. He died in 2012 at the age of 92.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was a brand new group
When Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performed at Woodstock, it was only their second gig together, and according to drummer Dallas Taylor, they were “not well-rehearsed,” according to Biography. David Crosby judged his performance with Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young as “stoned and funny and fine.” Neil Young wasn’t quite as happy with the performance. “Woodstock was a bullshit gig, a piece of shit,” he told biographer Jimmy McDonough. “We played [expletive] awful. No one was into the music.”
The financial cost
All told, the four organizers spent nearly $3.1 million ($15 million in today’s money) on Woodstock—and took in just $1.8 million. Roberts’ wealthy family agreed to temporarily cover the enormous costs, but required repayment. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Rosenman and Roberts were finally able to pay off the last of their debt.
The medical cases
When the festival was finally over, the New York State Department of Health recorded 5,162 medical cases over the nearly four days, 800 of which were drug-related.
Not everyone survived Woodstock
Sadly, one attendee died after being run over by a tractor. Another two died due to overdoses. In addition, eight women reportedly experienced miscarriages during the festival. Joan Baez, who was six months pregnant at the time, was not one of them.
Peace prevailed, mostly
Woodstock remained true to its “peaceful” billing except for one act of violence that happened when social agitator, Abbie Hoffman, jumped on stage during The Who’s performance to commandeer a microphone. “Many remember Abbie Hoffman being whacked in the head by the guitar-wielding Pete Townshend,” the Globe and Mail reports, but in Lang’s Woodstock memoir, he defends both Townshend and Hoffman.
Woodstock, the bird
Snoopy’s loveable yellow bird best friend in the Peanuts comics was named “Woodstock” after the festival because, like the festival, the little bird character “almost didn’t come to be.” Fortunately, he did—and these joyous Peanuts quotes are guaranteed to make your day just a little bit better.
Twenty-five years after turning down the first Woodstock festival, Saugerties hosted Woodstock II, the 25th-anniversary celebration of Woodstock. This time, Bob Dylan showed up. So did some of the original Woodstock performers. They were joined by newer groups such as Nine Inch Nails and Green Day, and about 300,000 audience members. Like the original Woodstock, the weekend was muddy and rainy.
Since late last year, one of the original organizers, Michael Lang, had been planning to commemorate the original festival’s 50th anniversary with an upstate New York outdoor music festival featuring around 80 major music acts, including some of the original performers. But plans went awry, and on August 1 the New York Times announced that Woodstock 50 is officially dead. Of course, that’s pretty much where the organizers were on August 1, 1969…so who knows? However, Anniversary Weekend is a big deal for the site of the original festival, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts—performers set to take the stage that weekend include some original Woodstock performers like Arlo Guthrie (performing before a showing of Woodstock: The Director’s Cut), Santana, and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Now that you know all about Woodstock, read on to find out the truth behind 18 history lessons your teacher was wrong about.