This week marks the anniversary of Woodstock, the most famous music festival in rock ‘n’ roll history, which took place August 15-18, 1969. The grooviest event in music history, The Woodstock Music Festival was full of peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll in upstate New York.
Conceived as “Three Days of Peace and Music,” Woodstock was a product of a partnership between John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield and Michael Lang. Their idea was to make enough money from the event to build a recording studio near the arty New York town of Woodstock. When they couldn’t find an appropriate venue in the town itself, the promoters decided to hold the festival on a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York–some 50 miles from Woodstock–owned by Max Yasgur.
By the time the weekend of the festival arrived, the group had sold a total of 186,000 tickets and expected no more than 200,000 people to show up. By Friday night, however, thousands of eager early arrivals were pushing against the entrance gates. Fearing they could not control the crowds, the promoters made the decision to open the concert to everyone, free of charge. Close to half a million people attended Woodstock, jamming the roads around Bethel with eight miles of traffic.
Soaked by rain and wallowing in the muddy mess of Yasgur’s fields, young fans best described as “hippies” euphorically took in the performances of acts like Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The most memorable moment of the concert for many fans was the closing performance by Jimi Hendrix, who gave a rambling, rocking solo guitar performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
With not enough bathroom facilities and first-aid tents to accommodate such a huge crowd, many described the atmosphere at the festival as chaotic. There were surprisingly few episodes of violence, though one teenager was accidentally run over and killed by a tractor and another died from a drug overdose. A number of musicians performed songs expressing their opposition to the Vietnam War, a sentiment that was enthusiastically shared by the vast majority of the audience. Later, the term “Woodstock Nation” would be used as a general term to describe the youth counterculture of the 1960s.
Max Yasgur was paid $75,000 for the use of his alfalfa field for the venue. 32 bands performed and as an unknown and unproven business concern, the organisers, Woodstock Ventures, had to pay inflated sums to get the top rockers to sign up. Jefferson Airplane were the first, paid $12,000, double their usual fee. Even hippy band The Grateful Dead demanded cash in hand before they would play, as did Janis Joplin and The Who.
About two dozen ticket booths should have been in place to charge $24 admission, but they were never installed because of a the crush of festival-goers. Attempts to get people to pay were abandoned on day one, the fences were torn down and Woodstock was declared a free event. Organisers at Woodstock Ventures were at least $1.3m in debt afterwards. It took more than a decade for backers to recoup money, through audio and recording rights.
Several acts that were scheduled to perform did not make it to the stage.
- Jeff Beck Group (The band broke up in July, forcing cancellation)
- Iron Butterfly (Stuck at the airport)
- Joni Mitchell (Joni’s agent put her on “the Dick Cavett Show” instead)
- Lighthouse (Feared that it would be a “bad scene”)
- The Moody Blues (took a gig in Paris at the last minute)
- Ethan Brown (Arrested for LSD three days before the event)
Some declined the invitation to attend
- The Beatles (John Lennon said he couldn’t get them together)
- Led Zeppelin (Got a higher paying gig)
- Bob Dylan (Turned it down because of his disgust for hippies hanging around his house)
- The Byrds (Turned it down because of a melee during their performance at an earlier Pop Festival)
- Tommy James & the Shondells (they said they were misinformed about the size and scope of the event)
- Jethro Tull (thought it wouldn’t be a big deal)
- Spirit (They had other shows and wanted to keep their commitment)
- Mind Garage (Figured it wouldn’t be a big deal so they took a different gig)