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Woodstock at 50: fascinating facts about the weekend that defined a generation

Where was it held? (Hint: not in Woodstock) Who almost got electrocuted? And why did so few people see Hendrix? On the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, we gather the facts.

Where was it held? (Hint: not Woodstock) Who almost got electrocuted? And why did so few people see Hendrix?

The Woodstock Festival was one of the most significant music festivals of all time — but not everyone realized it at the time. (CBC)

It was a concert that was supposed to draw 50,000 people — but in a single weekend, Woodstock attracted more than 400,000 and became one of the most important concerts of all time.

A music fan at Woodstock pop festival in his car covered in anti-war slogans for love and peace. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

For music lovers it was a gathering of some of the best musicians of the time; for peace activists it was a meeting place for like minds; for illicit drug enthusiasts it was a place to experiment; for the neighbours it was a giant headache; and for the organizers it was both a dream and a nightmare.

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of that famous — and infamous — concert, so to mark the occasion, we've gathered a flurry of facts.

Where was it actually held? (Hint: not in Woodstock.) Who was the farmer who shared his land? How did a member of the Grateful Dead almost get electrocuted? And why did most of the crowd miss Jimi Hendrix's set?

The festival was the brainchild of money-minded entrepreneurs

Woodstock might be associated with peace and love, but the idea originated with New York entrepreneurs John P. Roberts and Joel Rosenman. The investors were approached by music promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, who hoped to open a recording studio in Woodstock, N.Y. — a favourite area for top recording artists including Bob Dylan and the Band. Instead, Rosenman and Roberts suggested an outdoor concert featuring those artists.

"Joel and I had never done any of this before," said Roberts in the new PBS documentary Woodstock. "But because of ticket sales we actually felt that we were going to turn a profit."

 

It wasn't held in Woodstock

Despite its name, the music festival wasn't actually held in Woodstock, N.Y. Originally it was supposed to happen at a 300-acre industrial park in Wallkill, N.Y., but locals opposed the event and, after having given the festival initial approval, the town officials refused to issue a permit, saying they were ill-equipped to accommodate 50,000 people. The event ended up happening in Bethel, N.Y., roughly 70 kilometres southwest of Woodstock.

It happened on a dairy farm

The festival was held on a farm owned by Max Yasgur, who grew up the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and studied real estate law at New York University, then started a dairy farm, which grew to become the largest in the region. Before his death in 1973, Yasgur never revealed exactly how much he was paid for sharing hundreds of acres of land that weekend; but according to the New York Times, festival sponsors pegged the price at $50,000. (Others have said it was closer to $10,000.)

 

The neighbours were none too pleased

Needless to say, not everyone was happy that 400,000 people descended on the rural farming community of Bethel, which had a population of just 2,366. According to a 1969 New York Times article titled "Farmer with Soul," Yasgur received threatening phone calls and messages from neighbours angry about the hundreds of cars clogging the roads and the people flowing onto their properties. Signs in the town called for a boycott, reading, "Stop Max's Hippie Music Festival. No 150,000 hippies here. Buy no milk."

The festival had a couple of different names

Say the word "Woodstock" today and people know exactly what you're talking about — but at the time, the festival was also referred to as the Bethel Rock Festival and the Aquarian Music Festival. (Somehow "I was at Bethel" doesn't have quite the same ring.)

 

Creedence Clearwater Revival was the first act to officially sign    

Creedence Clearwater Revival was reportedly the first musical act to sign a contract for the event, for roughly $10,000 — around $70,000 today. "Once Creedence signed, everyone else jumped in line and all the other big acts came on," said drummer Doug Clifford in an interview. The next acts to sign on the dotted line were Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker and Ten Years After.

Organizers weren't ready in time

When the festival got the boot from the town of Walkill, organizers had just 29 days to find a new site and get everything ready. "The thing is that it was such a short time," said Woodstock lighting designer Chip Monck, who doubled as the weekend's emcee, in a Houston Chronicle interview in 2009.

"It was particularly difficult to try and re-create what we had in design. And obviously, as you know, no ticket booths, no fences, no staging roof, no ability to hang the light show, no ability to hang the 650,000 watts that were underneath the stage, no ability to build a secure barrier, which was a great help in a strange way. Lots of things were missing."

 

Advance tickets cost $6 to $18 — and then nothing

Tickets for a day pass were $6, and $18 for the weekend — roughly $42 to $126 today. But with the site unsecured, and thousands of people flooding in from all directions, the promoters had little choice but to give up on trying to collect ticket money and they made the event free. 

"I think it was Tuesday. The construction foreman tells us, 'We don't have enough time to finish everything. So which would you like to have us finish: the gates and the fences, or the stage? We don't have enough men and material to do both,'" remembered Rosenman in the PBS doc Woodstock.  

"I remember thinking, if we don't have gates and fences, then we're not going to collect tickets. We'll be bankrupt. And if we don't have a stage we'll be in jail because there will be a hundred thousand kids running around with nothing to do for three days," he said. "So that was the answer."

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Hundreds of thousands of people showed up

Organizers expected around 50,000 attendees, but more than 400,000 descended on the site; some estimates are as high as 500,000. By 9 p.m. on the Thursday night, traffic was already snaking 11 miles and was four cars wide. "That doesn't allow for too many lanes of automobiles," read the New York Post, "but then how bad could Mike Lang feel to be stuck in a traffic jam when every car that got past his happy face was actually headed for his pocket?"

 

Some of the biggest bands said no

Dozens of bands said yes, but some of the biggest bands from the time said no, among them Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull and Frank Zappa, and of course, the Beatles. 

The artist lineup was incredible

Most people know the big artists that played Woodstock — Santana, CCR, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix to name a few — but 34 acts were on the bill. The Friday lineup included Richie Havens, Swami Satchidananda, Sweetwater, Bert Sommer, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Melanie Safka, Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez.
 
Saturday was Quill, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, John B. Sebastian, the Keef Hartley Band, the Incredible String Band, Canned Heat, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, the Who and Jefferson Airplane.
 
Sunday included the Grease Band; Joe Cocker; Country Joe and the Fish; Ten Years After; the Band; Johnny Winter; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Paul Butterfield Blues Band; Sha Na Na; and Jimi Hendrix. Because of the many delays, however, the show went far, far off schedule.

 

CCR ended up feeling miffed

Credence Clearwater Revival experienced big travel delays, then didn't get to play until sometime between 1 and 3 a.m. Sunday morning because the Grateful Dead went on too long, which left a bitter taste in the band's mouth — to the point where lead man John Fogerty refused to allow their set to be included in the original Woodstock documentary.
 
"We followed The Grateful Dead and it was aggravating. They went way over their allotted time. Everybody has to sort of play ball," recounted Clifford in an interview. "It was a combination of many things. There was terrible weather. It was raining and I don't believe the stage was covered. Things got wet, the electronics got wet so there were those kinds of problems. But I think we did a really good job with our performance against those kinds of circumstances."
 
Fifty years later, CCR finally released an anniversary album featuring their memorable set.

Joni Mitchell wasn't there

One of Joni Mitchell's most famous songs is Woodstock, which is written in first person and describes the experience of traveling there. "By the time we got to Woodstock / We were half a million strong / And everywhere there was song and celebration," she sings. Only thing was, Mitchell didn't perform at Woodstock or even attend. (Her manager thought it would be more advantageous to play The Dick Cavett Show.)

Rather, she was inspired by what her then-boyfriend Graham Nash told her about the experience, and composed the song in a New York hotel room after watching footage of the event on TV. The song also became a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

 

The sound was excellent

Outdoor festivals can be a nightmare sound-wise, but pioneering audio engineer Bill Hanley devised a custom sound setup that became known as the "Woodstock sound system" — one that some said was the most advanced, most expensive and largest ever constructed. Hanley's system took full advantage of the field's bowl shape, and involved custom speaker columns powered by more than 10,000 watts of McIntosh tube power amplifiers.

"We built two speaker towers each of which had two levels containing its own speaker cluster," remembered Hanley in an interview. "The highest one was 70 feet high to accommodate the audience in the middle of the field and high up on the hill. The lowest one, at 20 feet, was for the audience nearest to the stage. There were four cabinets arrayed on both towers on each level, which had about 32 woofers each." (You can find more on the audio setup here.)

The stage was wet, and the electricity was coming through me. I was conducting! Touching my guitar and the microphone was nearly fatal. There was a great big blue spark about the size of a baseball, and I got lifted off my feet and sent back eight or 10 feet to my amplifier.- Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir

The Grateful Dead's set was electrifying — literally

By the time the Grateful Dead took the stage on Saturday night, it was pouring rain — which did not make for a good mix with the electrical instruments.

"It was raining toads when we played," remembered guitarist Bob Weir in Rolling Stone. "The rain was part of our nightmare. The other part was our sound man, who decided that the ground situation on the stage was all wrong. It took him about two hours to change it, which held up the show.

"He finally got it set the way he wanted it, but every time I touched my instrument, I got a shock. The stage was wet, and the electricity was coming through me. I was conducting! Touching my guitar and the microphone was nearly fatal. There was a great big blue spark about the size of a baseball, and I got lifted off my feet and sent back eight or 10 feet to my amplifier."

 

Janis Joplin's guitarist was from Stratford, Ont.

Just weeks before Woodstock, Stratford-born guitarist John Till joined Janis Joplin's Kozmic Blues Band, and says the toughest thing about the festival was the non-stop waiting. "We were all prepared to go on when we were supposed to be going on," said Till in a Toronto Star interview. "So everybody did whatever they had to do to get ready, but then there was the letdown of not going on."
 
"I think we came out the other side of our getting all jacked up and excited and getting ready to run out there and do our thing. We sort of let the air out of the tires. So when we went on two hours after we were supposed to, I don't think we had as much energy as we would've at the scheduled time. But it was a job. You just do the best you can," said Till, who didn't realize the event was noteworthy until later.

"I had no idea it was going to take on the aura or its place in history that it did."

I had no idea it was going to take on the aura or its place in history that it did.- John Till, Canadian guitarist for Janis Joplin

 

It wasn't supposed to be political

Woodstock followed soon after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and anti-war New York senator Robert F. Kennedy, and the Vietnam War continued to rage — but organizer Michael Lang didn't want the festival to be overtly political.

"Politics would not be part of the onstage proceedings," Lang wrote. "It was the place where art and commerce could coexist, where opposing ideas could coexist, where our humanity would come first and our differences would just add color. Elements of the festival were deeply grounded in the underground movement, but the focus would remain peace and music."

The Grateful Dead's Bob Weir agreed. "When I heard Pete Townshend had kicked Abbie Hoffman off the stage, I was delighted, because I have always thought that rock and radical politics are a bad mix. I've always felt that the politicians should leave us the hell alone," he said in Rolling Stone.

"Basically, it was just a music celebration, a music event. There were those who tried to see a deeper meaning and draw conclusions, but I don't think anyone went to Woodstock to make a statement. They went to party and hear good music. Or maybe I just slept through all the political significance."

 

Food for Love got torched

These days, large festivals have food service down to a fine science, and vendors know exactly how to set up shop in remote locales, but in outdoor fests were a relatively new phenomenon and large food vendors said that Woodstock was too daunting a task. Festival organizers eventually hired a three men with little food experience who called themselves Food for Love. Unfortunately, lines were long, and as supplies dwindled, Food for Love jacked up their prices — so much that hot dogs reportedly jumped from $.25 to $1 apiece — and, frustrated by the long waits and the high prices, people burned down two of the concession stands.

The next morning, Wavy Gravy attempted to calm the situation. "There's a guy up there — some hamburger guy — that had his stand burned down last night," he said. "But he's still got a little stuff left, and for you people that still believe capitalism isn't that weird, you might help him out and buy a couple hamburgers."

There's a guy up there — some hamburger guy — that had his stand burned down last night. But he's still got a little stuff left, and for you people that still believe capitalism isn't that weird, you might help him out and buy a couple hamburgers.- Wavy Gravy, whose group the Hog Farm Collective helped to feed people at Woodstock

But others stepped in to feed the crowd

Locals heard about the food shortages and famously stepped in with thousands of food donations that were airlifted to the site, including thousands of sandwiches, fruit, canned items and water. 

According to the Smithsonian, Wavy Gravy's group, the Hog Farm Collective, also stepped in to help, serving brown rice, vegetables, and granola. 

"What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000! Now it's going to be good food and we're going to get it to you," he said. "We're all feeding each other."

The farm owner also chipped in

Max Yasgur also chipped in to help, providing concertgoers with milk, cheese and butter, sometimes at cost but often for free. A relative also arrived with a car filled with loaves of bread to go with the cheese and butter.

After hearing that some residents were selling water to young people at the festival, Yasgur was furious and put a huge sign on his barn that read "Free Water." 

"How can anyone ask for money for water?" he asked.

 

There weren't nearly enough toilets

Because organizers had no idea that nearly half a million people would show up, they didn't have nearly enough toilets. In fact, there were only 600 — roughly one for every 700 people. According to Consumer Reports, a full house at New York's Yankee Stadium is roughly 52,000, and they have 843 toilets, or one for every 62 fans.
 
"Every time people would get up and clap, half a million people were moving in closer," one attendee remembered. "So it kept on getting tighter and tighter and tighter. Then it got to the point where we couldn't go to the bathroom or anything, so people used to pass each other [up over the crowd]. You'd be passed over hundreds of people until there was a little bit of leeway somewhere where they had space and then you'd go to the bathroom. Some people just started [urinating] right on the spot. We all did."

Farmer Max Yasgur got a huge introduction

At one point, emcee Chip Monck introduced farmer Max Yasgur to the crowd, which won the meek farmer a huge round of applause. "I'm a farmer," he said. "I don't know how to speak to 20 people at one time let alone a crowd like this. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place ... but I think you people have proven something to the world — that a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music!" Reportedly a pro-war, law-and-order Republican, Yasgur became teary. "And I God bless you for it!"

 

Monck warned people about bad drugs

In films about Woodstock, you can also see Monck making announcements about the weather, about safety — during a storm he implores people to get down from the towers they climbed because of the electrical danger — and about bad drugs. "The brown acid that is circulating around us isn't too good. It is suggested that you stay away from that. Of course it's your own trip. So be my guest, but please be advised that there is a warning on that one, OK?" 

Joe Cocker wasn't that sweaty

If you look at the footage from Joe Cocker's performance, he looks like he's drenched in sweat; but really, he had just had a huge quantity of water dumped on him. During the heavy rains, the canvas roof over the stage filled with water and threatened a collapse, so the stage techs decided to cut a hole to release the water.

Fans sit on top of a painted bus at the Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, N.Y., on Aug. 16, 1969. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"Which is in fact a very good way of getting rid water on the roof, except for the fact that Joe Cocker was directly underneath in the middle of a set. Therefore he looked like everybody else — [like] a drowned rat," remembered Monck. "It wasn't sweat. It wasn't perspiration. It was just f--king water."

Sha Na Na played before Jimi Hendrix

After an unforgettable and exhausting weekend, it must have felt incredibly odd to wake up to Sha Na Na, the tongue-in-cheek '50s-styled doo-wop group, singing hits like Duke of Earl and At the Hop — but they did, and they did it at around 7:30 a.m. Monday, right before Jimi Hendrix took the stage.

At the time, they didn't have a record deal, but their appearance at the festival — and in the Woodstock documentary that followed — cemented their career, and even sparked a '50s resurgence that led to Grease, American Graffiti and Happy Days, as well as Sha Na Na's self-titled TV show.

 

Most of the crowd missed Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix was the last to perform at the festival, and by the time he got onstage, it was 8:30 Monday morning and the crowd had dwindled from 400,000 to just 30,000. He performed his iconic and politically fuelled version of The Star-Spangled Banner roughly 90 minutes into his two-hour set.
 
There were at least two deaths
Despite the lack of organization, food, and medical supports, only two people died at the festival — one reportedly from a drug overdose, and one from a tractor driver accidentally running over an attendee who was sleeping in a nearby field. There were no reports of violence.

If a half million young people at the Aquarian Festival could turn such adverse conditions — filled with the possibility of disaster, riot, looting and catastrophe — into three days of music and peace, then perhaps there is hope that if we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of American today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future.- Max Yasgur, farmer who hosted Woodstock on his land

Farmer Max Yasgur considered it a resounding success

Dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who owned the land where the festival happened, considered the festival a resounding success, and a victory for peace and human kindness.

"If a half million young people at the Aquarian Festival could turn such adverse conditions — filled with the possibility of disaster, riot, looting and catastrophe — into three days of music and peace," he said in an interview, "then perhaps there is hope that if we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of American today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future."

 

Many have tried, but failed, to recapture the magic of Woodstock

It seems that at every major anniversary, brave concert promoters aim to recapture the magic — but ultimately, all of the attempted Woodstock revivals have failed, some of them spectacularly. This year, Woodstock 50 was supposed to feature huge names including Jay Z, the Killers, John Fogerty, Miley Cyrus, Robert Plant, Janelle Monáe, the Raconteurs and others  — and was being led in part by original Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang — but fell apart in grand fashion after a series of organizational failures.

"They postponed announcing the tickets, and I remember reading a while ago that they didn't have some of the permits," John Fogerty said in an interview with Rolling Stone. "That just blew my mind. You'd think it would be the first thing you'd do and not the last thing. You got the sense there was some shakiness to this whole thing," said Fogerty.

"But the first Woodstock happened more by people wishing for it to happen than any effort of great organization."

For more on the festival, listen to q Friday for an interview with Andy Zax, producer of Rhino Records' new 38-CD, 432-track complete Woodstock box set, Woodstock - Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive. Also watch Woodstock: Three Days That Changed a Generation on The Passionate Eye Saturday and Sunday.

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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