On the weekend of Woodstock Festival – August 15 1969 – nearly half a million Americans descended on the dairy farm of Max Yasgur, in Bethel, New York. The three-day “Aquarian Exposition” was the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
On Monday, August 18, they all tramped home having sat in thrall to Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Santana, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Sly and the Family Stone and more. It was the decade’s ultimate counterculture love-in.
Some events, like Hendrix’s bastardisation of The Star Spangled Banner or The Who uncorking See Me, Feel Me just as the sun rose on the third morning, are firmly etched in rock lore. But how much do you really know about Woodstock ’69? Here’s all you need and more...
1. Woodstock was sponsored by four men – John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang – and ultimately cost more than $2.4 million. The oldest of the four was 26.
2. Heir to a drugstore and toothpaste manufacturing fortune, John Roberts paid for the event via a multimillion-dollar trust fund and a lieutenant’s commission in the army. He had only ever seen one rock concert: The Beach Boys.
3. Woodstock was originally intended as a profit-making venture. It only became a free festival when it became apparent the gig was attracting hundreds of thousands more people than the organisers had readied themselves for. The final straw was when the fence was torn down by desperate swarms of ticketless fans.
4. Woodstock concert tickets went on sale at $6 a day (and were due to sell for $8 on the gate), while three-day advance tickets were priced at $18. The price at the gate was set at $24.
5. The festival took six months’ preparation. An estimated $50,000 was reportedly paid to rent around 600 acres of Max Yasgur’s farm.
6. In 1969, Yasgur revealed to Life Magazine the details of a “deal” he’d made with promoter Lang. “If anything went wrong, I was going to give him a crew cut. If everything was OK, I was going to let my hair grow long. I guess he won the bet, but I’m so bald I’ll never be able to pay it off.”
7. Yasgur (who had only three fingers on his right hand) had studied real estate law at NYU before moving back to the family farm in the 40s. At the time of Woodstock, he was the biggest milk producer in Sullivan County.
8. Though the famous Woodstock logo – designed by artist Arnold Skolnick – featured a dove perched on the neck of a blue and green cartoon guitar, it was originally a catbird sitting atop a flute. Skolnick was a major jazz head.
9. A Woodstock “warm-up” festival took place on August 7 on the main stage as it was still being constructed. Boston rockers Quill, who also played the real festival, opened the show.
10. The Woodstock sound system was engineered by Bill Hanley, a sonic innovator and proud recipient of a prestigious Parnelli Award. Hanley built special speaker columns on the hills and set up 16 loudspeaker arrays in a square platform going up to the hill on 70ft towers. “We set it all up for 150,000 to 200,000 people,” he recalled. “Of course, 500,000 showed up.”
11. Top equipment manufacturers Altec designed up to 15 marine ply cabinets, weighing in at around half a ton each, at 6ft tall, 4ft deep and a yard wide. Each woofer held four 15” loudspeakers. The tweeters were made up of four 2-Cell and two 10-Cell Altec Horns. Years later, this set-up system became known as “The Woodstock Bins”.
12. To help cope with the unprecedented numbers, 346 off-duty New York City policemen were drafted in at $50 per day each, along with 100 local sheriffs, several hundred State Troopers and deputies from 12 counties.
13. There was an average wait of two hours to make a phone call. On the first day alone,
over half a million long-distance calls were made.
14. The traffic jam on the main road leading into the site was 17 miles long. The Washington Post reported the hippy trail as “the most patient traffic jam” the Catskills had ever seen. Initial attendance figures were estimated at 60,000, but more than 400,000 people actually attended the festival, while a further 250,000 never made it to the site.
15. Given the volume of traffic, it took an insane eight hours for commuters to drive the 98 miles from New York City to Bethel. After leaving their cars due to the conditions, festival-goers walked an average of 15 miles each to reach the site.
16. A mammoth total of 1,300lbs of food was brought into the site by helicopter. Over 500,000 hamburgers and hot dogs were chomped on the first day of the festival, at a cost of one dollar each.
17. Ever ready for an emergency, The Women’s Group of the Jewish Community Centre of Monticello prepared 30,000 sandwiches for festival punters. They were handed out by the Sisters of the Convent of St. Thomas.
18. As a guide to the cost of living in 1969, a loaf of bread cost 20 cents, a gallon of petrol was 30 cents and a new car approximately $2,000. The average income for a single American was $6,500, with a new house priced at $40,000.
19. The minimum hourly wage paid to workers preparing the festival site was a measly $1.60. Santana’s hourly fee, on the other hand (based on their 45-minute set), was $2,000.
20. The going rate for acid and mescaline was $4. It’s estimated that more than 400 festival-goers partook of the notorious “brown acid” (legendary radio DJ Wavy Gravy took to the stage to warn of bad trips off it). A total of 33 people were arrested on charges of various drug offences.
21. One teenager was suspected of having the largest supply of LSD at Woodstock. But the acid he was selling was responsible for many an unpleasant trip. The Washington Post observed that “the drug was said to be available at below-market prices... and that the LSD was actually strychnine or rat poison.”
22. Abbie Hoffman managed to persuade Woodstock producers to donate $10,000 to his Yippies (the Youth International Party) to fund various community projects. He’d apparently threatened to disrupt the festival if they’d refused.
23. At exactly 5:07pm on Friday August 15, Richie Havens opened the festival with Minstrel From Gault. His song Freedom was improvised on the spot. Called back for so many encores that he simply ran out of songs, Havens picked up his guitar and started singing, taking lyrics from the old spiritual staple Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.
24. Only three female artists played solo at Woodstock: Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and Melanie. Joni Mitchell was slated to appear, but was convinced by her manager that it was a better career move to appear on Monday’s The Dick Cavett Show, rather than “sit around in a field with 500 people”. She has since admitted it was one of the biggest regrets of her life.
25. The Grateful Dead’s set was beleaguered by technical problems, including a “faulty electrical ground”. Both Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir experienced shocks every time they touched their guitars. The Dead called Woodstock their worst ever performance and they were left out of Michael Wadleigh’s subsequent movie.
27. The Who, Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead all refused to play on the Saturday night until they were paid in advance by cash. A local bank manager, Charlie Prince, put up the money at the last minute.
28. Of the top earners, Jefferson Airplane were paid $12,000, Creedence Clearwater Revival $11,500, The Who $11,200 and the Grateful Dead $7,500.
29. Ex-Lovin’ Spoonful man John Sebastian wasn’t scheduled to appear. In the midst of a serious acid trip, he was commandeered by emcee Chip Monck when various other acts where running late. Sebastian was “too whacked to say no”.
30. Unrecognised by Woodstock officials, Melanie wasn’t even issued a performer’s pass. Before she was allowed on stage, she had to show a driving licence and sing Beautiful People as proof of identity.
31. With her husband imprisoned for resisting an army draft, Joan Baez sang the redneck-baiting Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man with Jeffrey Shurtleff, who “dedicated” it to then Governor of California and keen draft advocate Ronald Reagan.
32. Eighteen doctors and 36 nurses treated a total of 5,162 festival patients, according to a Health Department report released in October 1969. The report listed 797 documented cases of drug abuse.
33. Although there were two reported births at Woodstock, neither of them were recorded in the festival medical tent. However, Health Department officials were told of eight miscarriages.
34. Three deaths occurred at the festival: two from drug overdoses while the other, 17-year-old Raymond Mizak, died in his sleeping bag when he was run over by a tractor. The driver was never identified and never charged. A Sullivan County grand jury later declared there wasn’t enough evidence to indict anyone.
35. Of the other two deaths, one was an 18-year- old Marine on leave. He’d served in Vietnam, emerging from the war unscathed.
36. Final act Jimi Hendrix was scheduled to begin at midnight on the Sunday, but didn’t take the stage until 9am on Monday, August 18. His monumental two-hour set was delivered to a dwindling audience of between 30,000–80,000. Halfway through Red House, Hendrix’s high E-string broke, so he finished the song with just five strings.
37. Hendrix, whose contract stipulated that no act could follow him, was the highest earner at Woodstock, receiving $32,000. Woodstock Ventures spent a total of $180,000 on artist fees.
38. Promoter Michael Lang once admitted that his original idea was to have country cowboy Roy Rogers close Woodstock with signature hit Happy Trails.
39. Several acts were unable to honour their invites to play Woodstock. In a stroke of particularly bad timing, The Jeff Beck Group had broken up just weeks beforehand. Meanwhile, Iron Butterfly were stranded at the airport. They might still have made it had their fuming manager not demanded helicopters and special transport arrangements to the site. The band were promptly wired back via Western Union and told to “get lost”.
40. The Beatles turned down the invite after John Lennon said he couldn’t get them all together. He did offer to play with his Plastic Ono Band, but the promoters turned him down. Other declined invitations came back from Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Dylan, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull and The Byrds.
41. Perhaps the most regretted declined invite came from the unfortunate Tommy James & The Shondells. Misinformed about the size and scope of Woodstock, they turned it down immediately. “We could have just kicked ourselves,” rued James later. “We were in Hawaii and my secretary called and said, ‘Yeah, listen, there’s this pig farmer in upstate New York that wants you to play in his field.’ That’s how it was put to me. So we passed, and we realised what we’d missed a couple of days later.”
42. Four months after Woodstock, Max Yasgur was sued by his neighbours for property damage supposedly caused by festival-goers. The damage to his own property was far worse though, and a year later he was awarded a $50,000 settlement.
43. Less than two years after the festival, Yasgur sold the farm. In 1973, he died of a heart attack, aged 53. Rolling Stone accorded him a full-page obituary, one of the few non-musicians to receive such a tribute.
44. Michael Wadleigh’s acclaimed documentary, Woodstock, was released in 1970, edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and one Martin Scorsese. The film won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The US Library of Congress has since deemed the film “culturally significant”.
45. The 27-year-old Wadleigh was a Columbia University dropout who had given up neurology to become a filmmaker. At Woodstock, he shot 315,000ft of film.
46. Wadleigh went on to release Janis in 1974, a rock doc on Janis Joplin with performance footage of Big Brother And The Holding Company, Kosmic Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogie Band.
47. In early 1970, an investigation by the State Attorney General’s office ended with Woodstock Ventures being forced to make refunds on 12,000- 18,000 tickets. The tickets were sold to people unable to attend the festival because the roads were closed.
48. A total of 80 lawsuits were filed after the concert. In one instance, the filmmakers and distributors were sued by the man interviewed while cleaning the Port-O-San portable latrines. The grounds for his complaint? Mental anguish, embarrassment, public ridicule and invasion of privacy.
49. During Neil Young’s 1979 US tour, loudspeaker announcements from the original Woodstock festival were broadcast in between the songs, including the one about “brown acid”. This bizarre scenario is captured on Young’s Rust Never Sleeps concert film.
50. In 1996, US billionaire Alan Gerry (once listed by Forbes among the 300 richest Americans) reportedly forked out $1m for the 73.5-acre natural amphitheatre section of the Woodstock site.