Woodstock Festival: How We Got To “Three Days Of Peace And Music”
Woodstock, a three-day festival that started on Friday, 15 August 1969, wasn’t the only memorable festival of its time, but it remains the touchstone. The mythology holds that Woodstock changed lives and transformed the world — and what promoter wouldn’t want to claim that?
Billed as “An Aquarian Experience: Three Days Of Peace And Music”, the epic event that would later be known simply as Woodstock become synonymous with the counterculture movement of the 60s.
Among the 32 bands and musicians who played the festival were Jimi Hendrix, , Tim Hardin, Grateful Dead, Canned Heat and Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose legendary performance was finally released, 50 years later, as part of the event’s anniversary celebrations, as Live At Woodstock, via Craft Recordings.
How did we get to Woodstock?
David Crosby said that describing Woodstock as “the big bang” was apt: every festival organiser since has secretly wanted to emulate its popular appeal. But it was the jazz festivals at Newport, in the 50s, that gave the music festivals of the 60s their inspiration. Even in England there were small-scale open-air events that might just have passed for festivals — and these, too, were organised by jazz enthusiasts. The size and scale of festivals has, however, always been determined by technology, particularly the PA system that allows the audience to be able to hear the performers at an acceptable volume.
The first real American rock festival was held at Mount Tamalpais, in California, on the weekend of 10–11 June 1967. Billed as the “Fantasy Faire And Magic Mountain Music Festival”, it had an eclectic mix of performers ranging from Jefferson Airplane, , Country Joe And The Fish and The Byrds, to Dionne Warwick and Smokey Robinson. More than 15,000 people showed up for what was a non-profit event which cost just $2 to get in, with all profits going to a nearby child-care centre.
While the Fantasy Faire was first, Monterey International Pop Festival is the one that everyone remembers. Its line-up reads like a Who’s Who in rock and pop music of the era: Otis Redding got his first exposure to a rock audience, while others on the bill included The Mamas And The Papas, Jimi Hendrix, , Janis Joplin and Ravi Shankar. One of the earliest festivals to be captured on film, the footage did much to enhance Monterey Pop’s reputation and myth.
Listen to the Summer Of ’69 playlist on Spotify.
1969: the year of the music festival
It could be argued that 1969 was the year of the music festival. Across North America and Britain, large-scale events seemed to be happening almost every weekend in the summer of ’69, including at Isle Of Wight, tucked away off England’s south coast. The earliest festival that summer, however, was in Canada: Aldergrove Beach Rock Festival, which took place across 17–19 May 1969, and, bizarrely, starred the New Vaudeville Band and Guitar Shorty. In Britain, the first Hyde Park show of the year starred Blind Faith, with Richie Havens opening proceedings in front of 120,000 people.
The following weekend, Denver got in on the act and played host to 50,000 fans who gathered to watch Poco, CCR, Joe Cocker and the very last gig by The Jimi Hendrix Experience; gate crashers lobbed firecrackers, bottles and debris at the police, and the police threw tear gas in return. The same weekend, at a recreation ground in England, Bath Festival Of Blues And Progressive Music was held. Top of the bill were Fleetwood Mac, supported by John Mayall. Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin, The Nice and Keef Hartley also appeared.
And then we got to Woodstock…
When the idea of a rock festival was first mooted by Woodstock’s organisers, they thought it would attract 50,000 people. Woodstock Ventures, the company set up by the four guys that conceived of the festival, leased some land in upstate New York at Wallkill: the 300-acre Mills Industrial Park offered great access to the freeways, and, most importantly, water and electricity was already on the site.
The four originators of the festival had started out with the idea of referencing the zodiac for their “Aquarian Exposition”, and began running adverts for the event in the press. They also schmoozed the writers from Rolling Stone and The Village Voice to accentuate their hip credentials.
The problem was: the Wallkill residents were not keen on the idea of hippies taking over their town. To their delight, at a meeting on 15 July 1969, the Wallkill Zoning Board Of Appeals banned Woodstock Festival from taking place in their town. It was a disaster… or was it?
Finding the site
Elliot Tiber, the proprietor of a local White Lake resort, read the news and saw an opportunity to save his struggling hotel complex. He knew he had something vital for the venture’s success: a permit to run a music festival from the town of Bethel. Tiber got Michael Lang, one of the Woodstock organisers, on the phone and, the next day, the rock entrepreneur was in his car, on his way to White Lake. When he arrived his first reaction was disappointment: the boggy, 15-acre site was far from big enough.
This is where Max Yasgur makes his triumphant entry — or, more to the point, Tiber suggests they go and see the dairy farmer who owned a plot of land of around 600 acres that would be perfect for the festival. Initially, Yasgur had been sceptical — he was used to his friend’s failing festival schemes — but eventually he agreed to meet Lang, who drove over to the now-famous sloping site that was almost perfect for a huge concert.
A deal was quickly done. There was the issue of placating the Bethel residents, who broadly shared the same views as those in Wallkill. Central to this was the Woodstock Ventures position of never saying there would be more than 50,000 people showing up for the weekend — despite their certainty that there would be. Yasgur, of course, towed the party line, as he wanted to get the $75,000 rental fee, while Elliot Tiber just wanted to fill the 80 rooms of his resort. A sign on Yasgur’s dairy farm pleaded with music fans: “Don’t bother Max’s cows. Let them moo in peace.”
They just needed a new poster to get fans to come. Graphic artist Arnold Skolnik created the now famous poster: as emblematic of the 60s as any image, and made more so by the copywriter that came up with the now famous line: “three days of peace and music”.
Oh, and then they booked the acts…
Woodstock Festival: The Bands
Day One: Friday, 15 August
At 5pm on Friday, 15 August, Richie Havens launched Woodstock Festival with a 45-minute set that opened with ‘From The Prison’. He also played ‘High Flying Bird’ and performed covers of three songs: ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Hey Jude’. “Woodstock was not about sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. It was about spirituality, about love, about sharing, about helping each other, living in peace and harmony,” said Havens.
Havens was followed by an unscheduled 10-minute blessing by yoga guru Sri Swami Satchidananda, whose followers included jazz musician Alice Coltrane.
Psychedelic rock band Sweetwater, from Los Angeles, had been due to open Woodstock but were stuck in traffic and eventually had to be flown to the festival by helicopter. Their delayed 30-minute set included a version of ‘Motherless Child’.
Bert Sommer’s performance of Simon And Garfunkel’s ‘America’ earned a standing ovation from the crowd. The New York folk singer later wrote the song ‘We’re All Playing In The Same Band’ about the Woodstock experience.
Folk singer Tim Hardin fitted 10 songs into a 25-minute set that finished at 9.45pm on the Friday. Among the songs he performed were ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ and ‘Reason To Believe’, the latter of which was later a hit for Carpenters.
By the time the famous Bengal Indian Sitar maestro came on stage, at 10pm, the rain was falling heavily at Woodstock. Shankar entertained the crowd with a three-song set that included the instrumental ‘Tabla Solo In Jhaptal’.
One of only three women who performed at Woodstock, Melanie Safka, who turned 72 in 2019, played many of her own fine compositions, including ‘Beautiful People’. She also covered Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.
Arlo Guthrie’s memorable Woodstock performance, which featured a version of ‘Amazing Grace’, was also noted for its storytelling elements, including a wild, jokey tale about Moses and his disciples eating acid brownies.
The famous folk singer closed a chaotic first day of Woodstock with a set that actually took place in the early hours of Saturday morning, during a torrential downpour (it has recently been given a digital reissue by Craft Records). She was six months pregnant at the time. After playing ‘I Shall Be Released’ and a lovely version of the Gram Parsons classic ‘Hickory Wind’, her serene playlist ended with the traditional ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ and the civil-rights anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’. Day one of Woodstock wrapped up at around 2am.
Day Two: Saturday, 16 August
Quill, founded by two singer-songwriters and brothers from the Boston area, Jon and Dan Cole, gained national attention with their set, which officially opened day two of the festival at 12.15pm.
Country Joe McDonald
The crowd at Woodstock was half a million strong by the time Country Joe McDonald started his 30-minute set; they gleefully rose to their feet and joined in anti-war chants with the singer.
Santana — the band led by guitarist and songwriter Carlos Santana — were the only group to play Woodstock without a record behind them. Their 45-minute set, including a brilliant version of ‘Soul Sacrifice’, made them overnight stars. Their performance was considered one of the highlights of both the festival and the 1970 documentary film Woodstock, which was directed by Michael Wadleigh and included Martin Scorsese as an editor. Woodstock won an Oscar for best documentary film.
John B Sebastian
After John B Sebastian’s band, The Lovin’ Spoonful, broke up, he went solo and played a five-song set at Woodstock that included ‘Rainbows All Over Your Blues’. “Just love everybody all around ya and clean up a little garbage on your way out and everything gonna be alright,” Sebastian told the crowd.
Keef Hartley Band
Keith “Keef” Hartley, who was born in the UK town of Preston, replaced Ringo Starr as the drummer for Liverpool band The Hurricanes after Starr joined The Beatles. Hartley then started his own band. Their 45-minute Woodstock set included ‘Too Much Thinking’.
The Incredible String Band
The Incredible String Band had chosen not to play Woodstock on the Friday, because of the heavy rain, going on stage a day later, at 6pm. Their 30-minute acoustic set included ‘When You Find Out Who You Are’.
Canned Heat closed their blistering hour-long set with a powerful rendition of ‘On The Road Again’, with Alan Wilson’s dreamy singing and harmonica playing seeming to capture a mood of free-spirited optimism that delighted the crowd.
A sultry version of T-Bone Walker’s blues classic ‘Stormy Monday’ was one of the highlights of Mountain’s set. The band came on at 9pm, after a half-hour break from music, and the hard rockers from Long Island, New York — who included vocalist and guitarist Leslie West — played a well-received hour-long set.
Grateful Dead’s 90-minute Woodstock performance was cut short at five minutes past midnight after the stage amps overloaded during ‘Turn On Your Love Light’. “We played really awful at Woodstock. We were colossally horrible at Woodstock,” singer Jerry Garcia said in an interview for This Is Jerry: The Movie. “We were playing at night. They had these huge bright white lights on these towers 300 feet away, and you could not see anyone in the audience. The stage was made of metal and there were people behind my amplifiers, huge crowds shouting, ‘The stage is collapsing, the stage is collapsing.’ It is raining so there are bolts of electricity bouncing on the stage and looping on to my guitar. Plus, we were high and felt like bugs under a microscope. It was just horrible. For us, it was a nightmare, everyone else loved it and had a great time but we could not wait to get out of there.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Amid all the historic performances at Woodstock, CCR’s appearance sometimes gets overlooked because of their absence from the documentary film and soundtrack. Their set has, however, been recently released in full, by Craft Records, revealing that it was one of the highlights of the weekend. CCR were one of the few Woodstock acts who had already established themselves on the charts, thanks to the breakout success of their hit singles ‘Proud Mary’, ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and ‘Green River’. With their signature sound of raucous swamp-rock, the group cut through the wave of psychedelic rock and delighted the audience members who were still awake when their set finished at 1.20am.
Fourteen months before her tragic death, at the age of 27, Janis Joplin played a storming hour-long Woodstock set — with an ensemble of musicians called The Kozmic Blues Band — that included versions of ‘To Love Somebody’ and ‘Piece of My Heart’.
Sly And The Family Stone
Given that it was already 3.30am when Sly And The Family Stone started their Woodstock performance, the band performed with admirable energy, including spirited versions of ‘You Can Make It If You Try’ and ‘Dance To The Music’.
According to Roger Daltrey, writing in his memoir, Thanks A Lot Mr Kibblewhite, Woodstock was a tough gig for The Who. “The whole place was chaos. We were due on in the evening but by four the next morning we were still hanging around backstage in a muddy field waiting. And waiting some more.” Daltrey said there was no food backstage and all the drinks were laced with LSD… “Even the ice cubes had been done,” he added. The band played 25 songs in a frenzied set that included a shortened version of ‘My Generation’.
By the time Jefferson Airplane got on stage — as the closing act of day two — it was already 8am on the Sunday morning and singer Grace Slick told the crowd to expect “morning maniac music”. The band played for one hour and 40 minutes and did a fine version of ‘White Rabbit’. Years later, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen recalled his Woodstock experience: “We went on, like, 18 hours late, something ridiculous. My wife was there but I had this girlfriend who had also shown up, so I was really concerned with keeping the two of them as far apart as possible. My ex-wife used to claim that one of the reasons I played so long was that I was afraid to face her when I came offstage, and there could have been some truth to this.”
Day Three: Sunday, 17 August
The Grease Band
The third day of Woodstock officially started with two instrumentals — ‘Rockhouse’ and ‘Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring’ — from Joe Cocker’s backing band. The band’s name was taken from a comment by Blue Note Records’ jazz organ great Jimmy Smith, who praised music with real soul as having “a lot of grease”. Grease Band guitarist Henry McCullough later went on to play with Paul McCartney And Wings.
English singer Joe Cocker went on stage at 2pm and said he was pleased with an early slot. “We were kind of lucky because we got on stage real early,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “It took about half the set just to get through to everybody, to that kind of consciousness. You’re in a sea of humanity and people aren’t necessarily looking to entertain you. We did ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’ by Ray Charles, which kind of turned everybody around a bit, and we came off looking pretty good that day. A lot of other artists didn’t enjoy themselves at all.” After Cocker’s set, which also included a career-defining version of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, a thunderstorm disrupted the music for 40 minutes.
Country Joe And The Fish
Country Joe And The Fish were an American psychedelic rock band based around Country Joe McDonald and Barry “The Fish” Melton. They took the Woodstock crowd by storm with their memorable audience participation chant, aka ‘The Fish Cheer’: “Give me an F! Give me a U! Give me a C! Give me a K! What’s that spell?!”
“We didn’t even know if we’d be able to do Woodstock because, quite frankly, the money wasn’t that good,” recalled Melton. “But, as it began taking shape as an event, we felt that despite the monetary offer, we’d be there. People give Woodstock more importance in some respects than it had at the time — because it was only one of two festivals of that era that got recorded on film. The other was the Monterey Pop Festival, and we played that also. Throughout that period of 1967–70, the pop festival emerged as the place, as an event of its time.”
Ten Years After
British band Ten Years After also had a breakthrough by appearing at Woodstock. Their rendition of ‘I’m Going Home’, featuring Alvin Lee as lead singer, was featured in both the subsequent film and soundtrack album. They also performed ‘Good Morning, School Girl’, the blues song written by Sonny Boy Williamson I.
The Band — Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson — played an 11-song set that featured gems such as ‘The Weight’, from their 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink. They finished their set at 10.50pm. “The crowd was real tired and a little unhealthy by the time we played,” recalled Helm.
Texas blues-rock singer and guitarist Johnny Winter came on at midnight, after more rain delays. He brought his multi-instrumentalist brother Edgar Winter on to perform three of his own compositions. The set closed with a rousing version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’.
Blood, Sweat And Tears
Blood, Sweat And Tears were an eclectic band whose influences ranged from The Rolling Stones to Billie Holiday. Their 10-set song included a version of the jazz classic ‘God Bless the Child’.
Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young
Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young took the stage from 3am till 4am on the Monday morning and ended up playing separate acoustic and electric sets. Neil Young skipped most of the acoustic set and was reportedly deeply unhappy about being filmed during the performance. Their performance ended with an acoustic encore that featured a version of the protest song ‘Find The Cost Of Freedom’.
Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Blues star Paul Butterfield went on at 6am and his 45-minute set was full of delights, including his virtuoso harmonica-playing on the songs ‘Driftin’’ and ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.’
Sha Na Na
Sha Na Na, who were formed at Columbia University in 1969, finally got on stage at 7.30am. Jimi Hendrix had suggested that they be added to the festival line-up. “We were indebted to Jimi for getting us the gig, and then for making sure we got to go on stage. We got paid $350 and that check bounced, and we got a dollar to be in the movie,” said singer “Jocko” Marcellino.
Jimi Hendrix would be dead, aged 27, within 14 months of Woodstock taking place. He came on at 9am as the last musician to perform at the festival. The crowd had thinned to around 25,000 people by that time. Though he was introduced as “The Jimi Hendrix Experience”, he referred to his backing band as “Gypsy Sun And Rainbows” and “Sky Church”. During a performance of the 12-bar blues ‘Red House’, Hendrix’s E-string broke, but he continued playing with five strings. He finished his 130-minute set with versions of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and ‘Purple Haze’, before an encore of ‘Hey Joe’.
When it was all over, Woodstock promoter Michael Lang flew out in a helicopter late on the Monday afternoon. He remembers seeing people beginning the huge task of cleaning up the site. They were using the garbage to create a massive peace symbol.
Looking for more? Discover what we think are the 15 best performances of Woodstock.
Originally published at https://www.udiscovermusic.com on August 15, 2019.