50 Years Later: Looking Back on Woodstock
There are a lot of reasons for this. This past weekend, of course, marked the 50-year anniversary of Woodstock. And it also would’ve been commemorated by Woodstock 50 — which, at one point, had confirmed as headliners The Killers, Imagine Dragons, Halsey, Miley Cyrus, Robert Plant, The Raconteurs, Cage the Elephant and Janelle Monáe. The lineup also included several musical acts that had performed at the original 1969 festival, such as Dead & Company (which features three living members of the Grateful Dead), John Fogerty, Santana, David Crosby, Melanie, John Sebastian, Hot Tuna, Canned Heat and Country Joe McDonald.
I’ve been doing this for long enough that I remember writing about the 40-year anniversary of Woodstock. A planned 50-year anniversary concert slowly fell apart. Originally scheduled to be held at Watkins Glen International Racetrack in Watkins Glen, N.Y. — 154 miles from the original site, on Max Yasgur’s farm, in Bethel, N.Y. (That’s right. Woodstock didn’t happen in Woodstock. After area villages Saugerties — located about 40 miles from Yasgur's farm — and Wallkill declined to provide a venue for the festival, Yasgur leased one of his farm's fields for a fee that festival sponsors said was $10,000.)
On the day the festival started — August 15, 1969 — as many as 650,000 stormed the gates at Yasgur’s farm, and, thanks to the weather and poor planning, the event rapidly devolved into three days of naked, poorly-lit muddiness. There were two recorded fatalities: one from insulin usage and another caused in an accident when a tractor ran over an attendee sleeping in a nearby hayfield. There were also two births recorded at the event (one in a car that was caught in traffic and another in a hospital after an airlift by helicopter) and four miscarriages.
And speaking of helicopters — after the roads in and around Bethel were clogged with festival-goers, helicopters were the only way of getting in and out of the venue. In the fall of 2008, I interviewed Richie Havens, the first artist to take the stage at Woodstock. The gates had already been stormed. It was still daylight when Richie took the stage.
Havens was scheduled to be the fourth artist on the bill at Woodstock. However, when it came time to get the musicians from the hotel to the venue (where approximately 520,000 fans were already waiting), the roads were completely blocked by parked cars.
“I was anxious to be over where it was happening,” he told me. “Nothing was happening at the hotel. They were running around, trying to figure out how to get all the bands there. A farmer down the road came and offered them his helicopter, which was a glass bubble helicopter — almost not enough room to carry [an artist and the instruments]. Since I had the least instruments, that’s why they came to me first.
“When they offered the role of going on first, it was a very tenuous line there. Anything could happen! We didn’t know what kind of eruption was gonna take place when the music hit the stage.”
It took some coaxing, but eventually the promoter lured Richie onstage.
“So I went out and I sang my 40-minute set, and walked off stage. And they said ‘Richie, could you sing four more?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure. Why not?’”
Seven encores later, Richie had sung every song he knew, and he was asked to get back up there and buy a little more time. For his last encore, he improvised “Freedom” — a riff on the old Negro spiritual “Motherless Child” — which would become one of his signature songs and a highlight of the Woodstock film.
It’s sort of a shame that Woodstock 50 fell apart; but sometimes it’s best to let the past live in the past.
— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 08/22/19