The Woodstock Festival was the largest and most spectacular gathering of the type known as the 'be-in'. The first to be called by this term was the 'Human Be-In', a free event held in January 1967 in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. There a crowd of young people, including those who were associated with the beat movement of the late 1950's and their younger bohemian successors known as hippies, along with a wide assortment of college students and curiosity seekers, participated in what the organisers had promoted as a "gathering of the tribes." The rationale for this festive occasion was to bring together Bay Area activists who had been involved in the movements for civil rights and free speech and opposition to the Vietnam War with counterculture activists, distinguishable from their more conventionally political counterparts by their belief in dropping out of society instead of working to reform it.
As a focal point, a low stage was erected on the park's polo grounds and invited to speak were such luminaries as poets Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lenore Kandel, the Buddhist spiritual leader Suzuki Roshi and antiwar activist Jerry Rubin. Also showcased were several of the bands most representative of the "San Francisco sound," including Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Despite these attractions, the Be-In conveyed a palpable feeling for the estimated 20,000 persons in attendance that their community of opposition was larger, more colourful and diverse than any of them had previously imagined. Dozens of be-ins and love-ins were organised across the country over the course of that year, the most famous of which included the love-in held in Los Angeles and New York's Central Park be-in, both of which took place on Easter Sunday 1967.
The Woodstock Festival happened in a kind of backhanded way. Two New York venture capitalists, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, placed an ad in the New York Times stating simply "Two young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions." The ad immediately caught the eye of Michael Lang, a self- identified hippie rock promoter, who had just organised his first moderately successful festival in Miami. He and partner Artie Kornfeld were seeking finance to build a recording studio in the Hudson River Valley town and bohemian enclave of Woodstock (Ulster County), N.Y. The town had been known as a haven for artists and writers since the turn of the century, and by the mid-1960's had begun to attract a host of well known musicians such as Bob Dylan and the Band. Roberts and Rosenman were unimpressed by the basic proposal since they had already financed a recording studio and were looking for new ventures to pursue. However, Lang and Kornfeld's prospectus included the idea of staging a rock festival to promote the studio's opening and raise funds for its operation. That part of their proposal captured the investors' fancy and together the four men embarked upon the project of organising a festival at Woodstock.
Lang pursued contacts in the entertainment industry and secured the services of John Morris who had recently been fired as manager of Bill Graham's Fillmore East auditorium in New York City. Morris successfully signed every act that had been booked to perform at the Fillmore East that same summer. Having these and other musicians would make the Woodstock Festival the largest gathering of rock and pop talent ever assembled on a single bill. When it was determined that there was no site in the village of Woodstock to accommodate a crowd expected to number 30 - 50,000, their search by helicopter into what seemed like every nook and cranny within a few hours drive of New York City led them eventually to the Sullivan County dairy farm of Max Yasgur. For $50,000 (and $75,000 in escrow to cover damages) he agreed to lease them several hundred acres including a 37½ acre alfalfa field that formed a natural amphitheatre and would make an ideal performance space. In total, 'Woodstock Ventures' leased 600 acres from Yasgur and other landowners for the festival grounds.
The promoters failed utterly in restricting access to the site while preparations were being made, with the result that some 50,000 people had already arrived there before the fences had been completed. Realising how difficult, probably impossible, it would be to clear the field and force those early arrivals to show their tickets at the gate, the decision was taken to bow to reality and declare that it would be, henceforth, a free Festival. This guaranteed that the promoters would lose money on their venture, mitigated only by the hope that revenue from the release of the film and audio recordings would help them recoup their losses (which, more than a decade later, it did).
Meanwhile approximately 85,000 others congregated in one of the other adjoining areas.
There were, for example, a pavilion set up for the display of an American Indian Art exhibit (this was the "Art" part of the "Aquarian Exposition"); a tent designated as "Movement City," where various radical political groups distributed literature and talked with visitors; an unauthorised area where dope dealers congregated to sell various drugs including LSD, marijuana, mescaline and hashish; and a children's playground with elaborate equipment that was soon taken over by older "flower children." In the same general vicinity of the Hog Farm food service tent there was a free stage set up for use by anyone - local bands, poets, jugglers, mimes or speakers. It reportedly saw extensive use throughout the festival. Joan Baez was perhaps the only major act who showed up to play a more intimate set on this stage - the rest were amateurs or lesser-knowns. Nonetheless, all weekend the free stage remained a focal point for those who wished to sit in close proximity to the entertainers.
Among the most commented-on recreational activities indulged in by Festival-goers throughout the weekend involved swimming in one of the three lakes or ponds located near the site. One could be found behind the campgrounds near the intersection of Perry and West Shore Roads, one was "Filippini Pond" behind the crew's mess hall north of West Shore Road, and the last was east of Perry Road, across from a hayfield. Local landowners lodged objections to these trespassers, but to little avail. Some of the swimmers wore suits, but soon skinny dipping became the order of the day. Photographers took great delight in the spectacle of young people frolicking in the nude. This unashamed social nudity at Woodstock established a trend for those who attended subsequent festivals.
When the festival started a few hours later, the first performer on stage was Richie Havens. He greeted the crowd by loudly observing, "We've finally made it! We did it this time -- they'll never be able to hide us again!" He later wrote in his memoirs: "We were there because we felt good about ourselves, happy to be in the same place with so many brothers and sisters who shared this common bond. We were there to look at each other, meet each other, identify our support for each other. We were there to celebrate. We would share this experience the rest of our lives". For Havens, as it would be later described by other participants, the experience was first and foremost about "the feeling that Bethel was such a special place, a moment when we all felt we were at the exact centre of true freedom." Back on stage for an unprecedented seventh and final encore, Havens improvised the song "Freedom," which then became his signature tune. It also helped establish one of the Festival's key themes.
Another notable performer on that Friday was Country Joe McDonald who agreed to follow Richie Havens when Sweetwater had still not arrived. Without the rest of his band, the Fish, he agreed to play solo. McDonald opened his set with the infamous 'Fish Cheer': "Gimme an F!" he cried out, and the crowd, now numbering a quarter of a million, enthusiastically roared back "F!" "Gimme a U!" The call-and-response ended with what had to be the loudest uttering of an obscenity ever. Country Joe was followed by John Sebastian, The Incredible String Band, Tim Hardin and Joan Baez. The weekend's first downpour occurred during Ravi Shankar's set. The lightning and driving rain forced him and his accompanists to leave the stage. The following two days witnessed numerous stellar performances interspersed with more rain that turned the stage area in particular into a quagmire. Those who braved the elements witnessed sets by The Who; Janis Joplin and her new band; Santana; Crosby, Stills and Nash making their national debut; Johnny Winter; and Blood, Sweat and Tears, among several others. At dawn on 18th August, Jimi Hendrix and his five-piece band Gypsy Sun and Rainbows closed the festival. His performance has entered the realm of legend, in large part because of its brilliant and inspired rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."
What made the 1969 Woodstock Festival different from all other rock festivals? The answer may be found in a combination of several factors: it featured the largest line-up of musical talent ever assembled and provided the largest live audience in history for them to showcase their talent. Several groups such as Sly and the Family Stone; Santana; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and Richie Havens regarded their performances at Woodstock as career-making. Another factor was the notable lack of violence among the festival-goers. Because nothing had been organised on this scale before, the Woodstock Festival took on the aspect of a high stakes experiment where both the organisers and those in attendance grasped the need to improvise solutions to the many challenges they were faced with. Festival-goers reported feeling a sense of accomplishment and exhilaration that together they found solutions to these challenges. Later festivals tended to be better organised because of the Woodstock experience and, when they were not, crowds tended to be much less willing to put up with conditions they found wanting.
In 1969 rock critic Ellen Sander appraised the impact of the Festival this way: "No longer can the magical multi-coloured phenomenon of pop culture be overlooked or underrated. It's happening everywhere, but now it has happened in one place at one time so hugely that it was indeed historic .... It was major entertainment news that the line-up of talent was of such magnificence and magnitude (thirty-one acts, nineteen of which were colossal). These were, however, the least significant events of what happened over the Woodstock weekend. What happened was that the largest number of people ever assembled for any event other than a war lived together intimately and meaningfully and with such natural good cheer that they turned on not only everyone surrounding them but the mass media and, by extension, millions of others, young and old, particularly many elements hostile to the manifestations and ignorant of the substance of pop culture."
Woodstock was the culmination of a transformation in American popular music that had begun with Monterey. The Monterey Pop Festival introduced the emerging acid rock bands of the San Francisco Bay Area to a wider audience estimated at 50,000 people as well as to influential record executives and producers from New York and Los Angeles. Woodstock introduced the same wide diversity of talent, albeit on an expanded scale, to a truly mass audience and not just to those who attended the Festival. A subsequent documentary film (the Academy Award-winning 3-hour long Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh and released in March 1970) and several sound recordings helped establish what had, only two years before, been underground or avant-garde musical styles and ushered them into the mainstream.
What is apparent is that, although the original Festival can never be duplicated, the very notion of Woodstock retains an enduring grip upon many people's imagination. Woodstock as an idea is portable. Indeed, the 1969 Festival had been shifted from place to place in search of a site, before landing in Bethel. While festivals bearing the Woodstock name may continue to be held elsewhere and succeed by drawing on the cache of the original 'Aquarian Exposition', the Yasgur Farm site will no doubt maintain its vaunted status as the authentic location of one of the Sixties' most celebrated events.