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

(page 2 of 4)

James Shelley photo“The Friday afternoon news reported that the roads to Bethel were congested,” says Shelley. “So our trip began late Friday night to avoid traffic and get there for Saturday’s show”

James Michael Shelley was “a pretty straight guy, not a hippie by any means” in the summer of 1969. Still, the New Jersey teen, about to begin his sophomore year at Notre Dame, wanted to attend Woodstock because he was “really into the musicians I heard were coming. That’s what attracted me.”

So, he and his pal Tony hit the road on Friday night to avoid the traffic, but eventually became embroiled in gridlock anyway. “As soon as we got off Route 17 and on to 17B, it was just crawling along. But we had no idea how far away we were from the concert. We pulled off, looked around and asked a few people what was going on. It seemed that there were as many people walking away, as walking to the concert. People were saying it was canceled, but I had spent my $18 on tickets and I wasn’t going to waste that.” Early Saturday morning, the duo decided to join the mass migration by foot. “We didn’t have much to carry — sleeping bags, binoculars, a borrowed camera — so we just left the car there. Gradually fields of tents, campfires, walking musicians, DayGlo painted buses and vans, and flags appeared. By the time we got there, I was looking for a fence or an entrance, but there was nothing there. But suddenly, we saw the stage. That was Saturday at noon. Within the next few hours they announced that it was going to be a free concert.”

James Shelley Woodstock photoAnd what about those crowds? “People kept tramping up and down the field, usually avoiding walking on the sitters, but I hollered at two guys who stepped on my sleeping friend,” says Shelley

Shelley and Tony staked out a spot a couple of hundred yards from the stage, and barely moved except to try to use the porta john or find food. “The concessions were all out, but someone gave us a few oranges,” he says. Shelley recalls the performances by Sly and the Family Stone and the Who as the musical highlights. But it wasn’t until Sunday morning that Shelley realized, “Wow, this has been going on for 16 hours — that’s a lot of music. The vision I’ll take to the grave will be of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’ accompanying the sunrise. We had pulled the all-time musical all-nighter.” (Shelley admits there were a few short naps in there — “You did fall asleep, just from exhaustion,” he says.)

It was also on Sunday morning that Shelley first started to glean the enormity of the concert. “Of course there were no such things as cell phones or the Internet telling you from the outside what was being said. But when they started telling us on Sunday morning that the New York Times was putting this on its front page — it was like, wow, this was a much bigger deal than anyone thought it was. You became aware that our generation did have this thing in common, everything that people had been talking about had actually happened. It really had a strong sense of us — with a capital U.”

The rain began Sunday afternoon during Joe Cocker’s performance and “soaked everything — although we tried to stay dry under a sleeping bag,” says Shelley. The pair soon departed and hitchhiked back to their car. “A car would stop, we’d climb on the roof, lay down and hold on,” he recalls.

Now, every time Shelley drives up to his Pennsylvania summer house, about 20 minutes from Bethel, “I can see the exact spot where, 40 years ago, we left the car and walked. It’s kind of cool. Woodstock, it was a really great experience for me.”

♦ 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 (with caption and credit info) to add to our gallery here


Edit Module