They Made Woodstock Happen

The festival's organizers

Heat, rain and mud did little to dampen the spirits of those who spent an August weekend at Woodstock in 1969. Photo by Derek Redmond & Paul Campbell, GNU Free Documentation License

During one long, hot, rainy weekend in August of 1969, what happened on a dairy farm in upstate New York changed the course of rock music, and stamped an indelible image on American culture. But it didn’t start out that way.

John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang. A military man, a lounge band guitarist, a record label executive, a rock band manager. The business venture of these unlikely partners became part of the fabric of American history primarily because it was such a huge failure.

Who Was Who

Roberts, in addition to being a commissioned Army officer was heir to a multi-million dollar trust fund. Rosenman, the musician, had a law degree but no specific plans for how to spend the rest of his life. Kornfeld was a successful songwriter and record producer.

Lang and Kornfeld became pals at their first meeting, in which Lang was looking for a record deal for a band he managed. The two began brainstorming plans for a recording studio in the pastoral setting of upstate New York in a little town called Woodstock. To introduce it, they envisioned a small festival that would include a rock concert and an art fair.

Roberts and Rosenman, meanwhile, were brainstorming ideas for a TV sitcom they hoped to produce. In search of money to fund their Woodstock venture, Lang and Kornfeld were introduced by their lawyer to Roberts and Rosenman.

Why Woodstock?

Artists and craftspeople had long considered the quiet, peaceful surroundings of Woodstock to be the ideal place to live and work. By 1969, it was also attracting a growing number of musicians who liked the “back to the earth” life there, but had to travel a long way to the nearest recording studio. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and The Band were among those who were calling Woodstock home.

Thus it was that the proposed recording studio was the centerpiece of the original plan in which a concert and cultural exposition would play only a small role. The more the four men talked, however, the more the plan changed. They emerged from their third meeting with a plan to raise the money to build the studio by staging the largest rock concert ever.

The Way It Was Supposed To Be

The organizers thought they could attract between 50,000 and 100,000 people, which was ambitious by even the most optimistic standards. The Miami Pop Festival in 1968 had been considered a huge success when it attracted a crowd of 40,000.

From the beginning there were problems. There was no place in Woodstock that could accommodate the expected crowds. The organizers secured a site in nearby Walkill, but were denied a permit to stage the concert. Officially, it was because outdoor toilets were illegal there. Unofficially, it was because Walkill residents didn’t want three days of hippies, drugs and loud music in their town.

The organizers were also finding it difficult to attract big name talent, who were skeptical because the group had no track record for pulling off an event of this magnitude. Eventually, they managed to secure 600 acres on a dairy farm near a little town called Bethel, and succeeded in booking major acts by paying them twice what they usually got for a concert appearance. The festival’s original name was retained because it was already being heavily promoted as the Woodstock Music & Art Fair.

What Went Wrong … and Right

The business plan was based on sales of tickets and concessions to 50,000 or so people. When ten times that many people showed up, the meager security contingent couldn’t keep them from climbing fences or simply walking in without paying.

It didn’t take long for food supplies to run out, and for sanitary facilities to become completely overwhelmed. And nobody had counted on rain falling throughout much of the festival, rendering the pasture a muddy mess and delaying or shortening performances.

Largely undaunted, attendees happily shared their food, drugs, booze and sexual partners with those who were without, and frolicked in the mud. The organizers eventually made back the $2.4-million they spent on the festival, but only when they started getting money from record sales and a successful film documenting the event.

The mass media images that most people saw – young men and women, mud-caked, bare-chested, openly smoking dope and dropping acid – defined the make-love-not-war, let-it-all-hang-out counterculture that was at its peak in the late 60s.

Acts who had started being noticed when they played the Monterey Pop Festival in California in 1967 took the final step to superstardom with their performances at Woodstock. Carlos Santana’s rendition of “Soul Sacrifice” is still considered one of the best he has ever done. Jimi Hendrix’s discordant, screeching rendition of “Star Spangled Banner” electrified the crowd, fueling its overwhelming sentiment against the Viet Nam War. The Who achieved legendary status when Pete Townshend smashed his guitar and threw it into the crowd at the conclusion of the band’s performance of the entire rock opera, Tommy

Noteworthy No-Shows

Several acts were booked and scheduled but didn’t show up. Iron Butterfly were stranded at an airport. Joni Mitchell missed it because of a highway closing, but made up for it by writing the song that became one of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's most famous. The Jeff Beck Group would have been there had they not disbanded the week before. The Canadian group, Lighthouse, backed out because they were nervous about the venue and the crowd.

And then there were those who flatly turned down invitations to perform. Led Zeppelin had another gig that paid more. The Byrds had had a bad experience at an outdoor festival in Atlanta. The Doors didn’t go because Jim Morrison didn’t like to play large outdoor venues. Tommy James and the Shondells turned it down because they were told by their staff only that a pig farmer wanted them to play in his field. Nobody really knows why Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa declined the offer. 

Accept No Substitutes

A three day pass to the original Woodstock Festival in 1969 cost $18. In 1999, promoters wanted $150 for a ticket to the 30th anniversary edition. Although the event attracted over 200,000 people and some big name acts to an abandoned Air Force base in upstate New York, it was marred by violence and looting. The only similarity to the original event was the lack of security and sanitary facilities.

Violence also marred Woodstock 1994 – the 25th anniversary event which, like the original, became mired in mud due to heavy rain. 1989’s re-enactment at the site of the original Festival was peaceful, but attracted only 30,000 people with a roster of little known bands.

The original Woodstock was as much a state of mind and a snapshot of history as it was a rock festival. Although it has been attempted, it isn’t likely that the essence of what made Woodstock what it was will ever be recreated.