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Back to the Garden: Remembering Woodstock

Hundreds of rock music fans jam highway leading from Bethel, New York, Aug. 16, 1969 as they try to leave the Woodstock Music and Art Festival. (AP Photo)

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Fifty years ago, throngs of music lovers descended upon the small town of Bethel in New York’s Catskill Mountains for the Woodstock music festival. An estimated 500,000 people drove, hitchhiked and walked to get to there. It was billed as a three-day festival, but spilled into a fourth day, stretching from August 15 to 18, 1969.

A dairy farmer named Max Yasgur agreed to host the event on his land after the town of Wallkill, New York backed out of holding the festival. Unlike most music festivals today, with tight security and ticket scanners, the idea of accepting tickets for Woodstock was swiftly abandoned as the crowd grew ever larger (the traffic jam was monumental). So the festival was essentially free for anyone who just showed up.

That year, the country was well into the Vietnam War. With a lot of young people fed up with the political climate, Woodstock served as a respite. It was billed as "Three Days of Peace & Music," the slogan used to promote the festival.

Music was the central part of Woodstock and the lineup featured top artists of the day, like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and many more. Despite that stellar lineup, rain, mud, and a lack of food plagued the festival, but that didn’t discourage concertgoers. Instead, Woodstock created a lifetime of memories.

The legacy of the festival means something different to everyone. In this FUV News special, Back to the Garden: Remembering Woodstock, we spoke to some of the people who were there 50 years ago. They reflect on some of the most iconic performances in music history, and share some of the most memorable experiences of their lives.

Glenn Weiser

Glenn Weiser was 17 years old when he went to Woodstock. He went with a group of friends from his hometown of Glen Rock, New Jersey, and arrived at the festival site on  Thursday night.

For Glenn, the highlights of the festival not only included the lineup, but also revolved around the spirit and camaraderie of Woodstock: “The feeling of brotherhood was very pronounced...People were very open and accepting of each other.”
 
He stayed the whole weekend since he didn’t have a job and was between his junior and senior year of high school. To him, Jimi Hendrix was the peak of the weekend, in addition to the friendly encounters and feelings of acceptance that he had with “fellow longhairs,” which he describes as something he misses the most about the 60s.

The legacy of Woodstock is that it showed “what kind of world we could have if people dedicated themselves to living in peace with each other.” Glenn hopes that Woodstock can act as “an example for future generations” on how to live together.

Minda Frank

At 18 years old, Minda Frank and her best friend Jean hitch-hiked their way up to Woodstock from Brooklyn. Back then, hitchhiking was “more acceptable,” and she was excited to go with Jean. Together, they were “just two crazy girls looking for excitement and adventure.” They didn’t buy tickets or bring any gear -- they just hoped for the best. When they got there, Minda remembers thinking, “This is it?” It was just “a field that didn’t look like much- no fences, no admission gates, just people milling around.”

She describes Woodstock as “a weekend of wandering around, listening to great music and talking to very, very, very nice people.” During the festival, Minda got separated from Jean and started to panic. But when Santana came on, she says that feeling changed, as if everything was coming together.

She eventually found Jean, and they got to listen to performances from the Jefferson Airplane and John Sebastian. What kept her going the entire weekend was the attitude of the crowd because everyone has a good attitude; there was “no hate; only good feelings.”
 

George Klitch

In 1969, George Klitch was 19 years old and working a summer job when a friend told him about Woodstock. After the friend told him the lineup, George was excited, and they got tickets. 
 
They decorated a Volkswagen camper that was filled with necessities to keep them prepared for the weekend. George attributes this to his friend being an eagle scout. Driving up Hurd Road was like “a pilgrimage.” Once they got to the festival site, he had never seen so many people before in his life.
 
One story that sticks out summarizes the attitude of the kids at Woodstock. A kid had stolen a state trooper’s hat, but a group of people got the hat, cleaned it, and gave it back to the trooper with an apology. According to him, that’s because “no one wanted to mess up.” 
 
George felt that Woodstock was “a real bonding experience,” and explains that the point of the festival was that “we came for the music but left as a nation.” He just wanted to get away for the weekend for a positive experience celebrating freedom and good rock music.

Kate Walter

At 20 years old, Kate Walter traveled to Woodstock from the Jersey Shore with a group of friends in a caravan of two cars. She heard about it from her boyfriend at the time who was a music writer in New Jersey. They arrived late Thursday night, but got stuck in the infamous traffic. They ended up ditching the car, packing up the belongings and walking to the festival site. 
 
Unlike most people who attended Woodstock, Kate and her friends did not go hungry thanks to the cooler of food that a friend’s mom had packed for them. While the breaks between sets felt long, she says that the thing that sticks out the most in her mind- more than any performance- was seeing people who looked “freaky” and “who were different,” just like her. 
 
Today, she still can’t believe how everyone got along, especially given the circumstances of the festival. While it could have been a disaster, Woodstock ended up being “three days of peace and love.”

Marc Flaherty

At 18, Marc Flaherty travelled all the way from Cincinnati, Ohio, to go to Woodstock. He saw an advertisement for the festival, and the lineup caught his eye. He and his friends left Friday after work. Since they were travelling from Ohio, Marc and his friends didn’t get caught in too much traffic. They got as close to the festival as they could in the car and pulled over to sleep. They hiked to the festival in the morning by following the crowd. When they arrived, there were no tickets being sold or fences up. Thinking about it now, he says the idea of having tickets and fences with the amount of people who showed up was “insane.”
 
Marc and his friends were “overwhelmed by the sights and sounds,” so they explored the site. They weren’t prepared for camping, so they slept in their car and travelled back and forth to the festival. The atmosphere was like “everyone was happy” and in a good mood. One memory that sticks out the most to him is that “everyone got along together” and there were “a lot of good people.” 

Joey Reynolds

In his 20s, Joey Reynolds was the number one disk jockey in America at the time of Woodstock. He says at the time, it was “exciting to go where the music was.” He remembers the festival originally being advertised as the Aquarian Festival, then the Bethel Music Festival and eventually Woodstock.

Experiencing a mass of roughly 500,000 felt like an “amazing congregation” to him, and he was impressed by the spontaneity of it all. At the time of Woodstock, Joey describes the country as being “a positive thinking nation built on growing.” He says that “Woodstock was about celebrating things that worked.”

Marc Greenberg

Marc Greenberg was 18 years old and living on Long Island when his friends asked him if he wanted to go to a music festival. He said yes, hopped in the Volkswagen and didn’t even ask where they were going. When they arrived, Marc was on his own because he got separated from his friends after he went back to the car to get his clothes. While he was walking around the site, he felt there was an “incredible awareness of this community” taking place on the site.

While Jimi Hendrix was the best performance he’d ever seen, two interactions within the crowd stick out in his mind the most. The first was seeing and taking part in people picking up garbage off the ground without being told to do so. The second interaction took place during a bout of rain. People quickly grabbed tarps to cover the electrical equipment. What surprised him was that no one was instructed to do this; rather, it was instinctual among the crowd, which he felt “affirmed our connectedness.”

Marc has been working with people experiencing homelessness for 35 years and says he still carries the spirit of Woodstock with him: “Whatever we want to do together, we can do it."

Bob Gruen

Bob Gruen was a 23 year old rock n’ roll photographer living in New York City when he saw an advertisement for Woodstock. Being a fan of The Who, Bob immediately wrote a check for the tickets. While he went up Friday after work, a friend of his went up Tuesday and brought all of their equipment. Before he left, Bob had heard that the traffic was getting bad, but when his friend called and said that “it was the most amazing thing ever,” Bob and more friends went up and sat through the traffic. He was able to find his friend because he had their “freak flag,” a flag that they had designed themselves, flying over the tent next to the free food.
 
Bob was well-prepared foodwise. He had brought up a lot of food that he cooked all weekend. Another highlight of the weekend for him was the performers- especially The Who. He waited in the cold night for them to come on. However, when Sly and the Stone came on before them, he found himself dancing to keep warm. 
 
When talking about the atmosphere, he says that “people wanted to get along with each other and wanted peace and love in the world, and I think that’s what Woodstock was all about.” 

Nancy Elsas 

Nancy Elsas was 22 years old at the time of Woodstock. She and her family were living with her parents at their summer home on Kauneonga Lake in Bethel, New York right down the hill from where Woodstock was held. In fact, for Nancy and her family, Yasgur’s Farm was “where we got our milk.”
 
Nancy, her husband at the time and their 20 month old son on their shoulders headed up the hill on a sunny afternoon to the music festival on Friday, August 15.  They took in performances from Richie Havens and Ravi Shankar.  Leaving the concert they realized just how large the  crowd had become: “All the roads were closed to general traffic and there was a buzz in the air as helicopters flew overhead carrying reporters and performers.”
 
They returned on Saturday (without the baby) experiencing all that was going on around them - the music, the masses, the mud and a general feeling of joy.
 
By Sunday the community was handing out food to the hungry concertgoers. The local sheriff in need of assistance, began to deputize local residents including Nancy’s father. She didn’t return to the festival on Sunday, but early that morning in her home, she could “very clearly hear the sounds of the Jefferson Airplane soaring over the hills.”
 
Nancy’s family still has the house, and the program from the festival is still proudly displayed. She visits the site often (now called Bethel Woods)  and will occasionally encounter a “kindred spirit” admiring the monument on the top of the hill that commemorates Woodstock.

*** Eliot Schiaparelli, Nora Thomas, Valeria Villarroel and Rafique Louison also contributed to this project. Videos by Maddie Bristowe***