Pot, Skinny-Dipping, and Freedom Rock: Woodstock and the Year of the Outdoor Music Festival (Part 1)

Rob Kirkpatrick

Today and Wednesday, PopMatters is presenting a chapter on Woodstock from Kirkpatrick's recent book 1969: The Year Everything Changed. Part one covers the run-up to the festival as well as those early sets by the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin.

Excerpted from 1969: The Year Everything Changed (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009), which is available now as part of the Barnes and Noble “Woodstock 40th Anniversary” promotion.

Part One

On June 20–22, 1969, the summer festival season kicked off with the Newport Pop Festival at San Fernando Valley State on Devonshire Downs in Northridge, California. A crowd of 150,000, the largest recorded gathering for an outdoor music festival to that date, witnessed a show featuring such acts as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Byrds, The Rascals, the Chamber Bros., Three Dog Night, and Booker T. & the MGs. After what was described as a subpar performance on Friday night, Hendrix returned on Sunday afternoon and jammed with an all-star band that included Eric Burdon and Buddy Miles. A week later, he headlined the bill of the Denver Pop Festival at Mile High Stadium, which also included Johnny Winter, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Poco, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, Iron Butterfly, Three Dog Night, Tim Buckley, and Big Mama Thornton.

Both three-day festivals were marred by riots as police battled thousands of gate-crashers, and the attendees went a little wild themselves. At Newport Pop, fans dangled from the front of the stage as they tried to climb up during Hendrix’s Sunday jam. At Denver Pop, police fired tear gas at the crowd during the Experience’s set. The trio was rushed offstage and into an equipment truck. Fans climbed onto the truck and almost caused the roof to cave in while the band was trapped inside. It would be the last gig played by the Experience. Disillusioned by the whole scene and by the new directions that Hendrix wanted to take, bassist Noel Redding left the group immediately afterward and returned to London.

In the first weekend of July, a record 85,000 people attended the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, an event that was perhaps even more controversial than the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when Bob Dylan had famously “plugged in” for his electric-rock performance, shocking purists. At the Newport Jazz ’69, avant-garde jazz acts such as Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Miles Davis shared the bill with jazz-pop group Blood, Sweat & Tears and the funk-rock group Sly and the Family Stone, along with straight-out rock acts such as Jethro Tull, Johnny Winter, and Led Zeppelin.

The heavy guitar rock of these acts attracted a younger audience than the Festival had been used to. Unable to afford the price of a hotel room in the city of Newport, many kids attempted to sleep on the beach but came up against a city ordinance preventing public vagrancy. Unruliness and gate-crashing shocked the more “cultured” fans who had come to see Buddy Rich or Bill Evans. George Wein, founder of the festival, called it “four of the worst days of my life.”

At the beginning of August, the Atlantic City Race Track was host to a three-day festival, with artists including Johnny Winter, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, the Mothers of Invention, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Chicago, Little Richard, Dr. John, Tim Buckley, The Moody Blues, The Doors, The Buddy Miles Express, and Hugh Masekela. The Atlantic City festival attracted a total of 110,000 music fans, and the facilities quickly proved inadequate. Organizers were forced to bring in water trucks that became makeshift outdoor showers. Those who were desperate enough or simply didn’t care put up with the lack of privacy and stood in line for the chance to take showers as others looked on.

And all this was merely prelude to the three-day happening that occurred in upstate New York later that month.

* * *

The rural town of Woodstock, New York, had become the home of a number of leading musicians. Located in the Catskill Mountains, Woodstock had flourished as an artists’ colony in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and members of both the Hudson River School of painters and the Arts and Crafts Movement had taken up residence there. In the 1960s, leading members of the rock and folk movements flocked to the town, drawn by its rural environment, artistic history, and counterculture vibe. Such musicians as Ed Sanders of The Fugs, Paul Butterfield, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and The Band counted themselves among the residents of Woodstock. Van Morrison moved to Woodstock in February 1969, and Hendrix moved not far away, to Shokan, New York, where he planned to establish a musical commune based on his new vision of a jam band utopia, which he began to call Gypsy Sun and the Rainbows.

A twenty-three-year-old former Miami head shop owner turned band manager named Michael Lang and a twenty-six-year-old Capitol Records executive named Artie Kornfeld hatched plans to build a recording studio in this artistic community. They soon joined forces with venture capitalists Joel Rosenman, a Princeton- and Yale-educated lawyer, and John Roberts, a Wall Street investor, who had placed an ad in the New York Times dubbing themselves, “Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting and legitimate business enterprises.” As a way of raising funds for the planned studio, the group came up with the idea of holding a music festival in Woodstock.

Lang himself had produced the Miami Pop Festival in January 1968, which had drawn 80,000 people. Roberts suggested the festival be stretched over the course of two or three consecutive days, and thus was born Woodstock Ventures, Incorporated.

They zeroed in on a possible site in Woodstock owned by a man named Alexander Tapooz. But with visions of the 50,000 concertgoers who were projected to attend, and with the images of recent rock music festivals fresh in their minds, Woodstock residents protested and forced Woodstock Ventures to look for an alternate site.

They arranged to lease Howard Mills’s 300-acre industrial park in the Town of Wallkill, in Orange County, New York. Lawyers for Woodstock Ventures made the case that the cleverly titled “Music and Arts Fair” would focus on arts and crafts, accompanied by some music, primarily folk and jazz. The Wallkill Zoning Board received initial approval, and plans moved forward—until a memo against smoking marijuana that was circulating among the construction crew became public and touched off the fears of local residents; the Music and Arts Fair was, in fact, a hippie rock festival.

Next Page
PM Picks
Pop Ten

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.