How Woodstock Happened

Woodstock 1969 was a music and art festival, billed as An Aquarian Exposition, held at Max Yasgur’s 600 acre dairy farm in the rural town of Bethel, New York from August 15 to August 18, 1969. Bethel, in Sullivan County, is 43 miles (69 km) southwest of the village of Woodstock, New York, in adjoining Ulster County.

The festival exemplified the counterculture of the late 1960s – early 1970s and the “hippie era”. Thirty-two of the best-known musicians of the day appeared during the sometimes rainy weekend in front of nearly half a million concertgoers.

Although attempts have been made over the years to emulate the festival, the original event has proven to be unique and legendary. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest moments in popular music history and was listed on Rolling Stone’s 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.
The event was captured in a successful 1970 documentary movie, Woodstock; an accompanying soundtrack album; and Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock”, which commemorated the event and became a major hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Where The Idea of Woodstock Came From

Woodstock was initiated through the efforts of Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld. It was Roberts and Rosenman who had the finances.

“Young man with unlimited capital looking for legitimate investing opportunities and business propositions.”
Add placed in The Wall Street Journal by Joel Rosenman and John Roberts

Lang and Kornfeld noticed the ad, and the four men got together originally to discuss a retreat-like recording studio in Woodstock, but the idea evolved into an outdoor music and arts festival.

There were differences in approach among the four: Roberts was disciplined, and knew what was needed in order for the venture to succeed, while the laid-back Lang saw Woodstock as a new, relaxed way of bringing business people together. There were further doubts over the venture, as Roberts wondered whether to consolidate his losses and pull the plug, or to continue pumping his own finances into the project. His decision to continue with the project resulted in one of the most successful events in music history.

Woodstock was designed as a profit-making venture, aptly titled “Woodstock Ventures”. It famously became a “free concert” only after it became obvious that the event was drawing hundreds of thousands more people than the organizers had prepared for. Around 186,000 tickets were sold beforehand and organizers anticipated approximately 200,000 festival-goers would turn up. The fence was purposely cut in order to create a totally free event, prompting many more to show up.

Tickets for the event cost US$18 in advance (approximately US$75 today adjusted for inflation) and $24 at the gate for all three days. Ticket sales were limited to record stores in the greater New York City area, or by mail via a Post Office Box at the Radio City Station Post Office located in Midtown Manhattan.

Woodstock Ventures made Warner Brothers an offer to make a movie about Woodstock. All Artie Kornfeld required was $100,000, on the basis that “it could have either sold millions or, if there were riots, be one of the best documentaries ever made,” according to Kornfeld.

The influx of attendees to the rural concert site in Bethel created a massive traffic jam and closed the New York State Thruway. The facilities were not equipped to provide sanitation or first aid for the number of people attending; hundreds of thousands found themselves in a struggle against bad weather, food shortages, and poor sanitation.

The festival was held during a time of military conflict abroad and racial discord at home, and participants quickly became aware that the event had taken on a meaning beyond its original intent. The site of Woodstock became, for four days, a countercultural mini-nation. Minds were “open”, drugs were used, and “love” was “free”. Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman crystallized this view of the event in his book, Woodstock Nation, written shortly afterward.

Although the festival was remarkably peaceful given the number of people and the conditions involved, there were two recorded fatalities: one from what was believed to be a heroin overdose and another caused by an occupied sleeping bag accidentally being run over by a tractor in a nearby hayfield. There also were two births recorded at the event (one in a car caught in traffic and another in a helicopter) and four miscarriages. Oral testimony in the film supports the overdose and run-over deaths and at least one birth, along with many colossal logistical headaches.

Yet, in tune with the idealistic hopes of the 1960s, Woodstock satisfied most attendees. Especially memorable were the sense of social harmony, the quality of music, and the overwhelming mass of people, many sporting bohemian dress, behavior, and attitudes.

“Wait a minure. You’re-You’re now at 100,000 people. That’s a lot of people. I will really have to think whether or not I really want to be involved in something that large.”
Max Yasgur on who’s farm the festival was held

After the concert Max Yasgur, who owned the site of the event, saw it as a victory of peace and love. He spoke of how nearly half a million people filled with possibilities of disaster, riot, looting, and catastrophe spent the three days with music and peace on their minds. He states that “if we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future…”

Logistics

Selection of the venue

The concert was originally scheduled to take place in the 300-acre Mills Industrial Park in northeast Middletown, Orange County, New York in Wallkill, Orange County, New York which Woodstock Ventures had leased for $100,000 in the Spring of 1969. Town officials were assured that no more than 50,000 would attend. Town residents immediately opposed the project. In early July the Town Board passed a law requiring a permit for any gathering over 5,000 people. On July 15, 1969 the Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals officially banned the concert on the basis that the planned portable toilets would not meet town code.

Following the ban, Elliot Tiber, who owned the 80-room El Monaco Motel on White Lake in Bethel, New York offered to host the event on his 15 acres. He already had a permit for a White Lake Music and Arts Festival from the Town of Bethel, which was to be a chamber music concert. When it was clear the site was too small, Tiber introduced the promoters to dairy farmer, Max Yasgur, initially on the premise that Yasgur’s land would rent for $50 for a festival attracting 5,000. A movie about Elliot Tiber and his Woodstock involvement called Taking Woodstock, will be released in August of 2009. Here’s the trailer for that movie.

On July 20, 1969, Yasgur, meeting with the organizers at a White Lake restaurant, agreed to rent 600 acres for $75,000. News of the event was leaked to local radio station WVOS (AM) even before Yasgur and the organizers left the restaurant, reportedly by restaurant employees.

The organizers paid another $25,000 to nearby residents to rent their land.

Yasgur’s land formed a natural bowl sloping down to Filippini Pond on the land’s north side. The stage would be set at the bottom of the hill with Filippini Pond forming a backdrop. The pond would become a popular skinny dipping destination.

The event organizers would stay at Tiber’s El Monaco Motel along with Canned Heat and Arlo Guthrie. Tiber was further rewarded for saving the event by being awarded the sole concession for ticket buyers.

The organizers once again told Bethel authorities they expected no more than 50,000 people.

Despite resident opposition and signs proclaiming, “Buy No Milk. Stop Max’s Hippy Music Festival,” Bethel Town Attorney Frederick W. V. Schadt and building inspector Donald Clark approved the permits, but the Bethel Town Board refused to issue them formally. Clark was ordered to post Stop Work orders, but the promoters tore them down.

Fearing chaos as thousands began descending on the community, Bethel did not enforce its codes. Eventually, people were discouraged from setting off to the festival on radio stations as far away as WNEW-FM in Manhattan and the traffic jams were described on television news programs. To add to the problems and difficulty in dealing with the large crowds, recent rains had caused muddy roads and fields.

Sound

Sound for the concert was engineered by Bill Hanley, whose innovations in the sound industry have earned him the prestigious Parnelli Award. If you were a musician in that era you can imagine the challenges that the situation warranted.

“It worked very well,” he says of the event. “I built special speaker columns on the hills and had 16 loudspeaker arrays in a square platform going up to the hill on 70-foot towers. We set it up for 150,000 to 200,000 people. Of course, 500,000 showed up.” ALTEC designed 4 – 15 marine ply cabinets that weighed in at half a ton a piece, stood 6 feet (1.8 m) straight up, almost 4 feet (1.2 m) deep, and 3 feet (0.91 m) wide. Each of these woofers carried four 15-inch (380 mm) JBL LANSING D140 loudspeakers. The tweeters consisted of 4×2-Cell & 2×10-Cell Altec Horns. Behind the stage were three transformers providing 2,000 amperes of current to power the amplification setup. For many years this system was collectively referred to as the Woodstock Bins.