Legend of Woodstock Festival lives on today

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Kay Forrest – The Corsair
“People were walking, like, to Mecca,” Iris Shapiro recollects of her long tramp to Woodstock—the music festival of ’69, not Snoopy’s yellow companion.

Depending on one’s point of view, the name “Woodstock” conjures up several different images: an open stage, Jimi Hendrix, intoxicated hippies, free love, the idea of “getting back to nature.”  But all those things aside, one thing is certain: Woodstock was an iconic concert, larger than any before it.

Over the years, rumors have described Woodstock as being one big, violent, drug-infested orgy, but many of the original attendants hold fast to their opinion of Woodstock being a peaceful gathering and one of the most memorable of their lives.

Shapiro, who now owns a pottery shop near Philadelphia, was 19 years old and working at a bombshell casing factory with her friends on Long Island, N.Y., when they attended Woodstock.

She remembers being on lunch break when her friend and co-worker told her about the upcoming event.  They knew it was something not to be missed and promptly sent away for tickets.

Ken Bielen, author of “The Words and Music of Neil Young” and current director of grants management at Indiana Wesleyan University, was 19 and living in New Jersey when he and his friends purchased tickets.

“We had purchased tickets before the festival….I believe it was $18 for the three days. Oddly enough, I never saw the tickets after that.  I think the guy that drove the car gave them to this gal that he was trying to impress at the time,” Beilen said, laughing.  “Too bad, that would’ve been a nice souvenir to have.”

Held in the small, upstate town of Bethel, N.Y., from Aug. 15-17, 1969, Woodstock was originally planned as a moderately sized outdoor concert featuring some of the most prominent musicians and bands of the time: Janis Joplin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young being just a few.

The four friends behind the project (Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman and Artie Kornfeld) originally expected no more than 50,000 people to attend the event held on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm.

But Woodstock (named for the New York town Bob Dylan resided in) quickly and accidentally became a three-day concert of epic proportions, amassing an audience of approximately 700,000 people.

The unexpected influx of a crowd that size into a small town like Bethel caused traffic jams of up to 20 miles long. The jams prevented Woodstock goers from driving all the way up to the concert site on the hillside.  So, people began parking their cars on the side of the road and walking the rest of the way.

Shapiro explains her group’s decision to follow suit: “Nobody really parked.  When we were driving up there, miles before we got to Woodstock, we were on a one-lane road and it was stopped; nobody was moving.  And we sat there and sat there and sat there. And we started noticing people were pulling their cars onto the shoulder and locking them and just starting to walk.”

Bielen and his friends also encountered the traffic.  “It was probably a 2.5 hour drive on a regular day.  And, we had probably driven seven, eight hours or so before we finally were able to pull over to the side of the road,” he remembers.

Most Bethel residents were none too pleased about having 700,000 “radical” hippies tramping through their streets.  Many of the town’s people posted signs that read “Boycott Max’s [Yasgur’s] hippy festival!”

Some friendlier folk decided to make a little money instead.  Shapiro recalls that residents began selling water from their faucets for 25 cents a glass to thirsty people walking towards Woodstock.

Bielen and his friends arrived at the festival on Thursday, a day before it was slated to begin.  When they got to the hillside where everyone was setting up camp, they saw chain-link fences being built around the site.

Shapiro saw the destruction of one of these fences upon her arrival.

“We came to this place where there were 6-foot-high chain-link fences.  I got there just at the time that there were enough people trying to climb the fences that the whole fence fell down.  So, I felt ripped off because I had my ticket and all these people were getting in [for free],” she said, laughing.

Concert goers laid out blankets and set up tents over the entire hillside and field; at the foot of the hill stood the small stage.

Shapiro can still envision seeing the stage for the first time: “I remember getting to the point—and it was a long walk to get to the point—where the stage area was. There was a lot of camping area where people had pitched tents and so forth.  And when we got to the top of a hill, looking down, it was such a long distance. And all you could see was wall-to-wall-to-wall-to-wall people. And at the very bottom, very tiny, was the stage.”

Getting near that stage posed a problem, as the hillside was already covered with tents, blankets and a waiting crowd.  Shapiro and her friends found it virtually impossible to even move.

“You couldn’t get past anyone; everyone was already sitting on the ground, on their blankets. There were people dancing.  We sat next to some Hare Krishna guys who were actually sharing their oranges and dancing with feathers.  We just plopped ourselves wherever we could,” she explained.

Once evening drew near, a major problem presented itself: lack of food.  Though food stalls were present, no one had prepared to feed a crowd of that size.  Food ran out very quickly.

Though Bielen and his friends were experienced campers and came prepared with plenty of food, Shapiro’s group was not so lucky and had expected to purchase food at the concert.  She fondly remembers “the Hare Krishna guys” for sharing their oranges with them.

Bielen says this sense of sharing and caring was common throughout the festival: “People were always really helpful.  I remember Saturday afternoon when it was really hot and sunny….I was getting sunburned and some gal next to me gave me a shirt to cover my head and help protect myself from the sun.”

Despite the blazing Saturday sun, Friday’s and Sunday’s evenings were drenched with rain.  Since Shapiro was there more for the fun than for the music, the rain was enough to ruin her spirits for the night.

“We thought it [the rain] would stop, but it didn’t.  It continued to get worse and worse. They stopped the performing, and everyone was kind of lying there in their sleeping bags on the ground, but then everyone started to slide down! It was so muddy,” she recalls.

For her, the rain proved not only a wet blanket, but life threatening as well: “I had heard by this time that we were making a big splash [on the news].  So I wanted to make sure that [my parents] knew I was okay. So I went to the pay phone to call them, and I got this enormous [electrical] shock because I was standing in a puddle.”

Unfortunately, though they awoke to a sunny Saturday morning, Shapiro’s friends were fed up with the wet conditions and the lack of food and water.  The girl who had driven them all there made the decision to leave.

“We weren’t the only ones; it was the Mecca in reverse. There was an enormous amount of traffic leaving in the morning,” Shapiro remembers.

However, most people, like Bielen and his friends, were there as dedicated music fans and wouldn’t let a little rain dampen their spirits.

Bielen was excited to see certain performances, and even brought along a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder that still helps him remember what order bands performed in.

He can still list his favorite performances: “We saw all of Saturday, which ended late with Jefferson Airplane at about 7 or 8:00 [the next] morning.  The music started at around noon or 1:00.  The last three acts were Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, and Jefferson Airplane, which was just amazing.”

Sunday brought bad news, however. One of Bielen’s friends became sick and they all had to leave.  This meant he didn’t get to see one of the musicians he’d looked forward to the most: Jimi Hendrix, who was the very last performance on Monday morning.

“I never got to see him [Hendrix] before he died; he died about a year later.…I did get to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young five years later.  It wasn’t the same, because Woodstock was only the second time they had played together,” he explained.  “Sometimes I regret not staying there and just taking the bus.”

Though Woodstock was innocent enough for most people like Bielen and Shapiro, some crime was reported over the course of the three-day concert. However, not one crime was classified as violent.

Some nudity was reported, but most instances occurred by the lake behind the stage where young people decided to seek refuge from the heat.  Police reports also reveal two unfortunate deaths, both accidental.

The first was that of a 17-year-old boy who was accidentally and tragically run over by a Jeep in the darkness.  He was asleep in his sleeping bag, and unseen by the Jeep’s driver.

The other death was reported as a heroin overdose.  Though Bielen and Shapiro agree that drugs were used at the concert, they combat the rumor of drug-use and violence being rampant.

“There’s what I call the ‘myths of Woodstock,’ where everybody hears about the nudity and they hear about the drug use. Where we were, there was no nudity…. There were some people who were smoking marijuana, but it’s not like there was rampant drug use,” Bielen says.  “It was 1969….It was more when things were still emerging.”

Shapiro also remembers that drugs were not very widespread until a few years after Woodstock took place.

“I was right on the cusp of the whole drug revolution. When I was in high school, drugs were something you’d see in a movie in science class….But a couple of years later, everything went completely different with all the flower power people,” she recalls.

Shapiro never felt endangered in any way at Woodstock: “Honestly, nothing happened to me there. It was very safe for me.”

Years later, the memory and legend of Woodstock still live on.

A plethora of books and websites have been dedicated to its memory, along with the production of several documentaries.

In fact, on Aug.14, just in time for the 40th anniversary, Focus Films will release “Taking Woodstock,” a film directed by Ang Lee.

In addition to documentaries, festivals have been held on Woodstock’s 10th, 20th, 25th, and 30th anniversaries.  But these have become widely infamous as failed attempts at re-capturing the essence of the original Woodstock.

“With anything that suddenly becomes something unplanned like that, you always want to be able to repeat [it], because it was such a neat, cool thing to have happened. But once it’s planned to be like the other one, it’s no longer spontaneous. You’re never going to really have that first time again,” Shapiro says.

She also thinks a change in culture and people’s attitude is to blame: “You gotta get the right people….I don’t care what you do; you can’t have the same thing, because where young people are now is different from where they were [at that time].”

No matter one’s view or memories of Woodstock, Bielen thinks the three-day event said a lot about his generation:

“It showed that a bunch of young people could hang together for three days and not all hurt each other, but care for each other….It showed that people were growing up, coming of age. It showed that they could live together if they had to, peacefully.”

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