Part One: “Going on down to Yasgur’s Farm”
It was August of 1969, arguably the most significant year in all of Baby Boomerdom. Among other events: two men had walked on the moon; Nixon was sworn in as President, and later initiated the bombing of Cambodia, essentially ending the draft; the Mets won the World series; the Jets defeated the Colts in the Super Bowl; the Stonewall riots gave rise to the gay rights movement; a Rolling Stones’ fan was tragically killed at that infamous concert in Altamont, CA. And a little shindig in the pastoral farmlands of Bethel, NY erupted into one of the seminal moments of the post-war baby boom fraternity. Named after the town where it was originally planned (until zoning regulations necessitated its relocation), the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, more than any other single event, defined our generation.
I attended the Woodstock festival with my cousins Joe and John. I recall that as we inched slowly into White Lake NY, a hamlet within the town of Bethel, on Friday afternoon, August 15th, there were townsfolk along the sides of the road announcing that the village was already bereft of food, water and gasoline. We drove for a bit and finally stopped to pitch our tent, as so many others had, in the expansive front yard of some benevolent farmer, who, along with his wife, dog, and several children, sat bemused on the front porch observing the spectacle.
Somebody nearby was talking about a pond deep in the woods across the road from where we were tenting, so we followed the crowd through the forest. After a while we came upon a pristine mini-lake filled with not-so-pristine contemporaries cavorting happily in the cooling water. Their clothes, strewn along the shore or hanging from random tree branches, added splashes of tie-dyed brightness to what had become a cloudy late afternoon. Of course we joined them.
Later that day, as we made our way slowly toward the concert grounds, I could barely contain my excitement at the prospect of mingling with the 40,000 or so hippies predicted to attend for three days of peace, love and music. Of course ten-times that number actually showed up, and in addition to all that peace, love and music, there were also rain, mud, and weed in abundance. We found a spot high on the hill and waited for a long time until Richie Havens appeared and played and sang, it seemed, forever. It was many years later that I learned the reason why I only remembered Havens on that first night: the other opening night acts couldn’t manage to get into White Lake on time. Havens transported all of us to Heaven for a few soulful hours.
At some point in the wee hours of Saturday morning the rain began. We were less than comfortable in our tent, since the four-man canvas structure had swelled considerably with several shelter-less concert-goers, including a very pretty and seriously well-endowed young girl who proudly claimed to be a Playboy bunny. We didn’t have the heart to send her out in the rain, which had already rendered her Grateful Dead t-shirt virtually non-existent. It was still raining heavily after dawn broke on Saturday, so the three of us reluctantly agreed to head back home rather than brave the deluge.
A relative lifetime intervened before I would get myself back to the garden…
Part Two: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
My wife Jan and I (and Sam the Wonderdog) are frequent visitors to Woodstock, NY, and to Bethel, NY, the actual location of the Woodstock Festival. There, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts exists as a brilliant beacon that is the eternal flame of Woodstock Nation. I had originally thought it was somewhat ironic that the town of Woodstock became the epicenter of the state-of-mind that was, and remains, “Woodstock.” After all, the music-and-art-fair which was created in the town’s name actually took place nearly sixty miles southwest. But the town of Woodstock, NY, had its own rich history as a cultural and counter-cultural community long before the Music and Art Fair had ever been conceived.
Bob Dylan lived there and wrote many of his greatest songs in the house everyone called “Big Pink,” on Parnassus Lane near the Woodstock/Saugerties border. (It’s actually a vacation rental home now!) And his bandmate Levon Helm (he of The Band fame) lived there as well, in a converted barn which became famous for hosting the Midnight Ramble concerts which continued until shortly before his death in 2012. This transplanted southerner loved his adopted town and the people there returned the favor. Music promoter Albert Grossman started his record company in the neighboring town of Bearsville, which attracted many of the top musical performers of the day.
The main reason why Michael Lang wanted to host his music-and-art fair in Woodstock was the fact that the town was the epicenter of folk/rock music on the east coast, in addition to being a haven for artists from every discipline. He moved it to Bethel either because of unfavorable zoning laws or because he couldn’t find the right location, depending upon which version you believe. And Bethel, of course, is the home of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and the Woodstock Museum. If you’re a Boomer, I urge you to visit both of these remarkable places; I promise that you won’t be disappointed.
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969 was, at its core, a celebration of peace and love, as expressed through the camaraderie experienced by young people of all races and creeds, enriched by the music that nurtured us. Even though the Vietnam war was still raging then, I remember it as a period of hope. It was a moment in time when peace and love for all seemed not only attainable but within the ability of our generation to achieve. I don’t know what happened to us and our dream, but these days we seem as far away from the promise of “Woodstock” as ever before.
We go to Woodstock, NY and Bethel Woods because somehow the dream is still alive in these places, if only faintly. And in going, it fills a cranny in our souls that we may have forgotten even existed. We get this feeling each and every time we visit; it only lasts for a little while, but somehow that’s enough.
(If you’re interested in the fascinating history of Woodstock, NY, I urge you to read “Small Town Talk,” by Barney Hoskyns.)