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Three Days of Peace and Music

LdyLunatic

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New York -- They came on foot, hitching rides from as far away as Miami and then hiking through the rolling countryside. They came by bus. They came by car. And they all converged on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York. They kept coming even after the highways were clogged with traffic, after the alfalfa field was crammed with people shoulder to shoulder. Half a million people gathered on August 15, 1969, for what would become the most famous rock concert ever, Woodstock.
Now, 37 years later, those three days are ensconced in American history as an iconic moment of the 1960s. An event that could have been a disaster—inadequate facilities, skeletal security force, not enough food and water—erupted in a spontaneous, if brief, utopia.
With an advertising budget of less than $200,000, the festival’s organizers—all under the age of 26 and bankrolled by someone’s trust fund—expected, and planned for, around 200,000 people. They were quickly overwhelmed. The flimsy ticket booths couldn’t handle the crowd and, because of the virtually non-existent security, crashers climbed the fence around the concert area, eventually pulling it down. A stage manager, who called himself Chip Monck, served as emcee, and his onstage patter helped keep the crowd calm. He announced, “The people who backed this are going to take a bath, a big bath, and that’s no hype. They decided your welfare is a lot more important than a dollar.” It was now a free concert. Over the sea of people wafted the scent of marijuana, but the Sullivan County police threw up their hands. There weren’t enough cells in the county to hold all the people smoking pot.
By the end of the first day the crowd had grown to 500,000. It dawned on the festival’s organizers and the area’s residents that the situation was potentially dangerous. The medical facilities were inadequate for hundreds of young people struggling with bad trips and the beginnings of a dysentery outbreak. Food and water were running out. To make matters worse, a huge storm turned the entire hillside into a mud pile.
Despite the conditions, and the music dragging hopelessly behind schedule, the audience remained remarkably well-behaved. People shared what little they had with their neighbors and helped people on bad acid trips to the medical tent. Dr. William Abruzzi, in charge of first aid, noted, “There has been no violence whatsoever, which is really remarkable for a crowd of this size. These people are really beautiful.”
“Generation gap” was the buzzword of the day, with the younger set’s language, dress, music, politics, and morals seemingly setting them against their parents. After the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago the year before, many locals were jittery about an “army of freaks” descending on their town. But the gentle demeanor of the young crowd seemed to bridge that gap. One police officer noted, “Notwithstanding their personality, their dress, and their ideas, they were and they are the most courteous, considerate, and well-behaved group of kids I have ever been in contact with.” Area residents, many of whom had been charging for water the day before, let their hoses run and handed out blankets. The Air Force set up a post to airlift people to medical facilities and arranged food drops.
Meanwhile some of the biggest names in rock played on, including the Who, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Grateful Dead. There were moments of musical transcendence, including Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s performance of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” at a little after three in the morning on Monday, Joe Cocker’s ecstatic rendition of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill” to a hushed crowd after dedicating her performance to her husband, who was serving time for refusing the draft. The festival was brought to a close on Monday by Jimi Hendrix, whose hyperintense “Star-Spangled Banner” was played to a nearly empty field as the audience filtered out to search for their cars or seek rides home.
The backers of the festival lost $2 million, but the organizers called it a success because of its peaceful atmosphere. There were two deaths, one from an overdose and one from an accident, and only a handful of arrests, a triumph given the size of the crowd. When asked about the financial shortfall, the producer Michael Lang replied, “Today is a time to think about what happened here—the youth culture came out of the alleys and the streets. This generation was brought together and showed it was beautiful.”
Max Yasgur, the farmer who had rented out his field for the festival, announced from the stage, “I think you people have proven something to the world, not only the town of Bethel or to Sullivan Country, but to the world . . . a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and God bless you for it.”
Just how remarkable a feat that was was demonstrated less then a year later, when a free concert at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco erupted into violence between the audience and the ****’s Angels who were providing security. One man was stabbed to death. Subsequent Woodstock festivals were dismal affairs with riots, fires, and sexual assaults. It seemed as if the spirit of 1969 evaporated when the last fan squelched off the muddy field.
For the writer Michael P. Tremoglie, the 1969 festival was just a gathering of hypocrites without any political bite. He recently wrote in the conservative magazine Human Events, “The Woodstock audience could not feed themselves, let alone the poor. The Woodstock crowd needed to rely on the very people they spurned—the establishment—to feed them.” For others it was proof that, in the absence of coercion, goodwill and peace and understanding could flourish. The significance of Woodstock as a cultural happening cannot be denied, though is meaning will be puzzled over for years to come. In the words of Michael Bourne, writing for Down Beat, “Surely why all that happened did so is an object of any and all speculation. . . . But no conclusion will be certain, because no one can ever truly estimate all that occurred, just as no single private in a foxhole can estimate the full spectrum of a consequential battle strategy.”
Elizabeth D. Hoover is a former editor at American Heritage magazine.
Source: American Heritage (NY)
Author: Elizabeth D. Hoover
Published: Tuesday August 15, 2006
Copyright: 2006 American Heritage
 

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