By the Time We Got to Woodstock
We’ve seen the famous images countless times: the mud, the nudity, the traffic jams, the flower power in full display — and of course the biggest rock and roll performers of a generation. Still, it’s hard to imagine that it was 40 years ago this month that the Woodstock Festival (formally the Woodstock Music and Art Fair) roared onto Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, transforming not only that Sullivan County town but the entire tenor of the country. So let’s go for a fun journey down Memory Lane — and, along the way, take a look at how the charming town of Woodstock laid the roots for this once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza. It’s all cool, man
Photograph by James Shelley, from his book My Woodstock 1969
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Woodstock. For 40 years that name has been synonymous with one of the biggest events of the 20th century. You know, Upstate New York’s little three-day rock and roll festival in 1969 that seemingly changed the world, spawned references in dozens of songs and movies, and made headlines in every corner of the globe. Yes, that one. Of course, there is another Woodstock, and those of us who call the Hudson Valley home (or just love to visit) know all about the charms of this funky Ulster County village, with its long history as an artists’ refuge.
Amazingly, many people still believe that Woodstock (the concert) actually took place in Woodstock (the village). Not so. The concert happened in tiny Bethel, 43 miles away.
Spread the word: Woodstock was full of concerts and other arts events throughout the 1960s
Photographs courtesy of Julia Blelock
So how did this famous extravaganza end up being called the Woodstock Festival? It seems that the village inspired the concert. In fact, many 20th-century events in this arts-loving town laid the framework for what would become the Woodstock Festival. At least according to Weston Blelock, a Woodstock native who recently published Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, a book based on a panel discussion that he helped organize last year. According to Blelock, Woodstock has been home to all types of arts and artists over the years: first there was the Byrdcliffe Arts & Crafts colony (which started in 1902), followed by a burgeoning painting scene in the 1920s, the ongoing Maverick summer music festivals, Bob Dylan’s arrival in the town in the early ’60s, and ultimately the “Sound Outs” of 1967 and 1968.
The Sound Outs were a series of impromptu concerts held on a farm between Saugerties and Woodstock. The first one, on Labor Day weekend 1967, included performers Richie Havens, Tim Hardin, Junior Wells, Billy Batson, and Major Wiley. “I can’t remember who told me about them,” says Blelock, who was a teenager at the time. “But when you are at a certain age you just absorb these things. Then people like [radio personality] Bob Fass started to bring in bigger acts. There were a lot of people who didn’t appear in the paper, but would just spontaneously come; it was very casual. A lot of the bands didn’t even get paid, they weren’t concerned about money. But people kept coming — they came under the fence, over the fence, any way they could get in.”
Michael Lang, one of the legendary promoters of the Woodstock Festival, moved to the village from Coconut Grove, Florida in 1968 for the music scene. “The Sounds Outs were kind of the spark for the Woodstock Festival in that it got me thinking about doing the concerts here. [They] had a great feel and it was in the country, and it provided all the guidelines that I needed. I was sort of thinking of a broader event but with the same kind of emotional impact.”
Originally, the festival was going to be held in the Town of Wallkill (Orange County) — but ended up as three days of rock and roll in Bethel
Brochure, flier, and tickets courtesy of Patricia Zelkovsky Salamone
But back to the name thing. Lang wanted to produce a major concert, but couldn’t find the space in Woodstock. “The Woodstock festival was called Woodstock for several reasons. One: we intended to be here. And two: the name sort of embodied a lot of the feelings and imagery that we wanted to conjure in promoting this festival. From its conception it was conceived to be here for a reason, and that reason was what the town was about and what I hoped the festival would bring to its attendees and what they could expect when they got here. So it was never going to be anything but Woodstock.”
So what happened to Woodstock — the place — after the famous festival? Bill West, a ’60s town official and a speaker at the panel discussion, said: “There were cute little boutiques and stores in the late ’60s. And after the Woodstock Festival I think we saw a fair number of head shops, hippies sleeping on the Village Green and on people’s lawns. It became somewhat of a problem for a few years. Luckily it changed dramatically.” Blelock laments the end of the local music scene. “When I was growing up, there were a lot of famous people and musicians in town, but nobody chased after them, they were left alone and given their space. That changed after the festival, everything became very commercial and lots of people came to town and everybody was trying to arrange an encounter with Dylan. I had friends from Bard and when they had nothing on their schedule, they had a few hits of weed and would head over to Woodstock to see if they could find him. Finally, he got tired of it and left town (in the mid-’70s). The golden age was over.”
Still, Blelock believes that Woodstock retains much of its 1960s magic. “The town has a wonderful spiritual quality,” says Blelock. “It supports people being individuals. As long as the visitors coming here espouse the Woodstock state of mind, then I’m all for it.”
♦ Click on any image in the gallery below for James Shelley’s photo collection of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Got memories of your own? We dig it. Write ’em in the comments box below, or submit photos to firstname.lastname@example.org (with caption and credit info) to add to our gallery here