Memories from the Woodstock Music Festival, 50 Years Later

16 August, 2019

Many Americans are remembering the Woodstock music festival, which took place 50 years ago this week.

Hundreds of thousands of people traveled to New York's farm country for the event. Some of those attending drove there by car and then walked on foot. Others arrived by helicopter.

The attendees danced at sunrise on a wet hillside and tried hard to avoid heavy rainfall. They slept little, called their parents to tell them they were safe and stood in wonder at the total number of festival goers.

By the show's end, the attendees left behind wet clothes, bedding and other belongings. But they also gained a sense of community from having been part of one of the most famous events in American music history.

Woodstock took place about 130 kilometers northwest of New York City on land owned by farmer Max Yasgur. Some of the most popular and influential musicians of that period performed for the crowd. But the lasting story of Woodstock is that over 400,000 people came to the farm and lived there for four days without causing a disaster.

Fifty years later, memories of the wild weekend remain strong among people who were there to watch and those who came to perform.

FILE - In this Aug. 16, 1969 file photo, hundreds of rock music fans jam a highway leading from Bethel, New York, as they try to leave the Woodstock Music and Art Festival.
FILE - In this Aug. 16, 1969 file photo, hundreds of rock music fans jam a highway leading from Bethel, New York, as they try to leave the Woodstock Music and Art Festival.

One of the more common memories attendees share is how difficult it was to get to the festival.

Ilene Marder was 18-years-old in the summer of 1969. She traveled to the show from her home in New York City. She told the Associated Press that people were leaving their cars in the middle of the road and walking to the festival. Many just refused to wait in line.

"There was an immediate sense that something was happening that never happened before," she said.

Singer Nancy Nevin's band, Sweetwater, was supposed to be the opening act at Woodstock, but got caught in traffic. Luckily, the group was able to find someone working the event who provided a faster method of transportation: a helicopter.

Nevin remembers the first time she saw the crowd from above.

"It didn't even look like a crowd, she said. "It didn't even look like people, it was a big spread, multi-colored as far as you can see."

Kevin Rheden was also 18 at the time, but lived in the Hudson River Valley. He said that everywhere people were smiling, and everything felt peaceful.

"I can't describe it except to say that the hillside was just like a waterfall of love," Rheden said. "It's like I'm not alone. There are other people out there that think like me, dress like me, look like me and live like me."

David Crosby of the musical group Crosby, Stills & Nash remembers the behavior of individuals he saw when he was not performing. He says the sight of people sharing food gave him hope. This was especially important, he said, because it was just a year after the assassinations of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's brother, had been killed six years earlier. In addition, the United States was also several years into the Vietnam War.

"There is the significant thing," said Crosby, remembering Woodstock. "For a minute, we were hopeful. ... For a minute, we were behaving like decent human beings."

Even with the peaceful nature of the festival, little went as planned. At first, it was meant to be an event that people had to pay to attend. But fences came down and the show became free. The concert ran later than expected. Food was hard to find. And it rained.

Lighting director Chip Monck was told by Woodstock organizer Michael Lang that he had an extra job: hosting the show. The organizers had forgotten to pay someone to do so.

"Michael just ... said, ‘Oh, by the way, ... you're it because you don't have anything to do in the daytime,'" Monck remembered.

Jorma Kaukonen and his band Jefferson Airplane arrived Saturday and were to perform that night. They ended up playing on Sunday.

Ted Neumann, then a college student, said: "It was just one (act) after another. Just talking to each other in the field and saying, ‘Well, it can't get any better than that.' And then the next thing seemed even better.

More than 30 acts performed, and a few had career-defining events. But as the concert ran into Monday morning, many missed what would become widely considered one of guitar player Jimi Hendrix's best performances ever.

Photographer Henry Diltz remembers it well.

"I woke up Monday morning to ... "Ladies and gentlemen, Jimi Hendrix," he said. "When he played ‘The Star-Spangled Banner' ... I remember my first thought was, ‘Why is he playing that? That's the song of the government that we hate for trying to send us off to war ... That's their song. No, wait a minute. That's our song. He's reclaiming it for us.' ... It went out from these huge speakers and it echoed against the ... hillside because many people had left. ... Everyone was standing there with their mouths open."

The people who left behind a dirty, worn hillside knew they had been part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Max Yasgur, the farmer who owned the land where Woodstock took place, died in 1973. Mary Miller is one of his relatives. She says the festival changed him in many ways.

"He became more reflective and because he became more known, people would reach out to him ... to reunite families, kids that had run away, things like that, she said. "He spent his last years doing a lot of that."

Kevin Rheden says he found a sense of meaning at the festival.

"I knew everything was gonna be all right no matter what I did or where I was going to go," he said. "It wasn't just my long hair or the clothes that I wore. It was something in my soul that I connected with other people. It's a memory that I have and the older I get, things fade. But that feeling inside me has not left me."

I'm ­Pete Musto.
and I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

John Carucci and Marcela Isaza reported this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. What are the most famous musical events in your country's history? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

dressv. to put on or wear a given type or style of clothes

assassination(s) – n. the act of killing someone, such as a famous or important person, usually for political reasons

decentadj. having or showing respect for other people, considered right and good, and honest

host(ing) – v. act as the leader and representative of an event

photographern. a person who takes pictures using a camera as their job

reclaim(ing) – v. to get back something that was lost or taken away

echo(ed) – v. to fill a space or area with sounds

reflectiveadj. thinking carefully about something

souln. a person's deeply felt moral and emotional nature

fadev. to become weaker