Woodstock’s pervasive influence in modern culture simply cannot be overstated: It influenced festival formats. It influenced ticket sales. It influenced modern security and safety concepts. But most significantly, it thrust the counterculture movement of the 1960s into visibility. Three Woodstock performers, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin have previously graced the cover of CULTURE—and for good reason.
The 50th anniversary of Woodstock quickly approaches this August. Today it’s difficult to distinguish fact from folklore when discussing Woodstock, but in 1969 nearly half a million people gathered in peace. When the original concept of a concert arose—no one expected it would eventually attract upwards of 400,000 to 500,000 attendees. The gathering was technically the third-largest “city” in the state of New York during that weekend.
In retrospect, its humble beginnings are quite amusing. Founders John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang originally imagined that if they threw a festival, they could raise enough money to open a small studio and rock ‘n’ roll retreat in Woodstock, New York. Kornfeld was vice president of Capitol Records, and Roberts and Rosenman were entrepreneurs that formed Woodstock Ventures Inc., which is still around today.
Before the festival was ever conceived, Bob Dylan and other musicians frequented the town of Woodstock because of its secluded art scene. Two nearby towns rejected the concert, but dairy farmer Max Yasgur came to the rescue, last minute. The original flyer read, “Woodstock Music & Art Fair presents an Aquarian Exposition in White Lake, N.Y. 3 Days of Peace & Music.” It seemed innocent enough, but the imagery of a dove landing on a guitar helped to elevate the event to a cultural revolution. Artist Arnold Skolnick was paid $15 for his iconic artwork representing peace and music.
“Performances by Joplin, Hendrix and Santana were among the most pivotal moments in rock ‘n’ roll.”
What separated this music festival from others in the past was its unprecedented lineup. The lineup included Creedence Clearwater Revival, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Santana, Blood Sweat and Tears, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Ravi Shankar, Sly & the Family Stone and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Hundreds of thousands showed up to celebrate peace and love, just as the flyer promised.
The festival was held Aug. 15-18, 1969 at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. Roberts and the other promoters initially predicted that they could draw 50,000 attendees—which was a lofty estimate in and of itself. Eight times as many people showed up. People began arriving days before the fencing had even gone up—forcing promoters to prioritize and feed them before the perimeter was completed. When people kept pouring in, Lang and the other promoters gave up and decided to make Woodstock a free event, further adding to the spirit of anti-establishment and bartering that hippies adopted. The situation escalated dramatically. At that point, the U.S. Army was enlisted to air-drop food and supplies for the viral event. Otherwise, it could have been a disaster.
Heavy rain, mud and lack of food and water couldn’t stop Woodstock from shutting down. Only a dozen police officers were supposed to contain what ended up being half a million people. Promoters were forced to hire nearby pig farmer workers to control the crowd by dousing them with water or hurling pies at them. They were led by leader “Wavy Gravy” and also helped calm down hippies who were having bad trips from psychedelics or “white-outs” from too much cannabis. Eyewitnesses claim that “99 percent” of people at Woodstock were smoking cannabis, and bits of video footage prove that at least some police officers allowed them to partake.
Performances by Joplin, Hendrix and Santana were among the most pivotal moments in rock ‘n’ roll. Joan Baez famously performed “We Shall Overcome” on the festival’s first day during the thick of a thunderstorm while hippies danced in the mud. The second day, Santana, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Joplin performed, with a final performance from Jefferson Airplane. When John Sebastian, formerly of Lovin’ Spoonful performed, he said an “old lady just had a baby” but the Woodstock birth was never verified. Hendrix was last musician to perform at the festival in the early hours of Monday morning, the extended day after the original schedule. By the time Hendrix performed “The Star Spangled Banner,” the crowd had mostly thinned out, but the memory would live on forever.
Musicians who foolishly declined to perform at Woodstock include Led Zeppelin, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, The Doors and The Rolling Stones. Woodstock inspired copycat festivals in 1989, 1994 and the infamous Woodstock ’99, complete with Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit—when attendees pillaged, sexually assaulted other visitors and caused unnecessary violence. Four instances of sexual assault were reported that year. Fortunately, other years were much more incident-free, but it would be another 20 years before another Woodstock was approved for its 50th anniversary. This year’s Woodstock 50 will include Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper, Robert Plant, The Killers and Portugal. The Man. The event takes place Fri, Aug. 16-Sun, Aug 18 in Watkins Glen, New York.