by William H. Benson
August 15, 2002
On the weekend of August 15-18, 1969 Max Yasgur’s 37-acre alfalfa field near Bethel, New York in the Catskills was converted into the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. The town of Woodstock, New York had refused just weeks before the weekend to grant permission for the festival to be held on their premises. And so the crowd streamed onto a hay field instead, some fifty-five miles away from Woodstock, swelling to an estimated 450,000 people, ten times that expected–mostly young, white, middle-class, and reasonably well-behaved.
A twenty-mile traffic jam along Highway 17B forced people to abandon their cars and swarm through Bethel to the farm. The crowd eventually bumped up against the fences until the fences gave way, and then the ticket takers (six dollars for an advance ticket) were forced to give up. So the crowd poured in, pitched tents, and settled in. For as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but young people “walking, lying down, drinking, eating, reading, singing.”
The police gave up trying to enforce the laws, especially those against drug use, and the audience, realizing this, seemed to relax, caused little trouble, and adopted their own rules of behavior, language, and costumes. They swam in Max Yasgur’s lake, waded in his marshes, and some even helped milk his cows. This counter-culture first promoted by hippies, flower children and other assorted oddballs had blossomed at least for a weekend at Woodstock into something new, what Abbie Hoffman later called “the Woodstock Nation.”
But then problems accumulated. Torrential rains turned the alfalfa field into a quagmire of mud. Food, water, and toilet facilities proved inadequate. Mounds of garbage piled up. Bad drug reactions marred the otherwise peaceful festival. Three people died that weekend, but as an offset two babies were born. Eventually, helicopters delivered water, food, and medicine to a crowd, estimated as big as Charlotte, North Carolina or Cleveland, Ohio were then.
And then there was the music–the reason they had all gathered. Striding across the stage that weekend included some of the top performers in 1969: Santana; Joan Baez; Arlo Guthrie; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Sly and the Family Stone; Joe Crocker; the Who’s Who; Jefferson Airplane; Jimi Hendrix; the Grateful Dead; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; Credence Clearwater Revival; the Band; and Janis Joplin.
Missing were the obvious–such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, the Doors, and Led Zeppelin, who all chose for their own reasons not to attend.
The Woodstock Nation’s demand to end the war in Vietnam finally came to fruition two years later, but the call for promoting drug use fell on deaf ears. The Establishment just said “No!”, and has continued to say “No!” ever since, solidifying its position and rightfully so.
For on September 18, 1970 Jimi Hendrix died in London of a drug overdose, and sixteen days later Janis Joplin was found dead in a Los Angeles motel room, a supply of heroin nearby. The evidence remains overwhelming that no matter how pleasurable, drugs destroy lives.
Today, thousands claim that Woodstock gave them a “totally different outlook on life.” It was “three days of peace and music”, a “total experience”, a “happening”, “days and nights of heady music”, music that had a hard edge, an anti-war posture, with calls for peace, and laced with disguised messages about drug use. Woodstock had converted Max Yasgur’s farm into the land of H. G. Wells’s “lotus eaters”, bonded by rock music, drugs, brotherhood, and defiance of the Establishment.
One author put it this way. “To be part of it was to feel the delirious siege mentality that reigned among the 450,000 utopians who were determined to show that the counter-culture could come together in their own alternative world without cops, guns, Nixon, or napalm. . . . When it was over, the myth of victory was triumphant. . . . Woodstock Nation came to symbolize youth’s righteous crusade to change the world, and the most militant kind of love.”