Locals were against the idea of a music festival in their backyard, attended by hippies no less, but “The Angel of Woodstock” believed too strongly in the young people of America.
Exactly 50 years ago today, all roads to Max Yasgur’s upstate New York dairy farm were at a complete standstill. Traffic stretched out 20 miles and, by midnight, police started turning cars away. Meanwhile, carloads of music artists had to be airlifted from their cars and buses so they could play their scheduled sets. Such was the start of what would become the first, biggest, and most beloved music festival in history: Woodstock.
Finding a property to hold the festival proved to be complicated for Michael Lang and the rest of the organizers. Some landowners were distrustful of the financial security of the venture, others were threatened by neighbors who believed an event of this magnitude would disturb the peace of the community. A call by the El Monaco Motel owner and President of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, Elliot Tiber, was the solution. His motel became the base of operations and provided accommodations for the performers, while a nearby dairy farm owned by a conservative, no-nonsense man, Max Yasgur, would be the festival’s home.
Many locals were against the idea of a music festival in their backyard (attended by hippies no less) but Yasgur, later nicknamed “The Angel of Woodstock,” believed in the young people of America. He believed it was their turn to try and make the country a better place. He was quoted saying:
“Look, the reason you don’t want them here is because you don’t like what they look like. And I don’t particularly like what they look like either. But that’s not the point. They may be protesting the war, but thousands of American soldiers have died so they can do exactly what they’re doing. That’s what the essence of the country is all about.”
With a location finally secured, the preparations for the festival were underway. Billed as a three-day event, the festival was to start Friday, August 15th, 1969, with 32 musicians slated to perform, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Blood Sweat and Tears, and The Who. Jimi Hendrix, scheduled to close out the festivities on Sunday evening, didn’t go on until 8:30am Monday morning due to a torrential downpour the night before. By the time he took the stage, only a fraction of the concertgoers remained. Despite that, his performance was a fitting climax to the festival, and among the most memorable songs on his set list was his albeit psychedelic rendition of the US national anthem.
Musicians were not the only performers taking to the stage that weekend. Because traffic waylaid many of the bands scheduled to play, the Guru Sri Swami, who was in the audience, was invited to speak to the crowd. The late 60s saw a growing interest among young people in Hindu-related religions and philosophical movements, as well as yoga-inspired meditation. The Guru spoke about peace, love and the power of music to change the world:
“Through that sacred art of music, let us find peace that will pervade all over the globe.“
He concluded with an audience-wide chant of the mantra “Hari Omi” (erase all suffering). Delays between musical acts continued throughout the weekend, so Tom Law – a Yogi Bhajan Kundalini Yoga student and hog farmer — offered to lead the massive crowd through yoga and meditation between sets, keeping them calm and entertained.
Originally expected to attract 20,000 people per day, Woodstock was attended by almost half a million people, many of whom arrived while construction was still underway. Without fences or ticket booths yet in place, the throng soon took over the grounds, forcing the organizers to declare it a free festival to avoid any destruction. Despite the organizational hiccups, delays, and heavy rains that plagued the entire weekend, it is remembered as a peaceful celebration of music and love.
Today, what was once Max Yasgur’s land is visited by people of all generations. The Museum of Bethel Woods is now home to artifacts, film and interactive displays of the three-day music festival and its legacy to the world.
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