It began as a humorous story about a traffic jam.
Actually it began as no story at all. The important news that day was out on the front page of The Roanoke Times, as it should be. There was a war in Vietnam. The rioting in Northern Ireland appeared to be over. Piedmont Airlines was grounded because the pilots were on strike after the company had unilaterally cut the size of the crew from three pilots to two. Negotiators from Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem announced agreement on a draft of a charter for the consolidated government they hoped would be created in a referendum in that November.
All that, and more, was on the front page of The Roanoke Times on Aug. 15, 1969.
Elsewhere in the paper that day were stories about the Apollo 11 astronauts returning home to Houston after parades and celebrations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. President Richard Nixon spoke in favor of student loans. A story about a passenger jet from Boston to Miami being hijacked to Cuba merited only a few paragraphs on page 8; those sorts of diversions had become routine. Nowhere in the paper that day was any mention about the event we remember most a half-century later.
The next day, the front page looked much the same. A sniper killed a British soldier in Northern Ireland. Hurricane Camille was barreling toward the Gulf Coast. A federal judge ruled in favor of the striking pilots, for now. There was still a war in Vietnam. But back on page 14 there was a humorously-written story headlined: “Eager rock music faithful create monster traffic jam.”
The dateline was Bethel, New York — which is accurate but not the nomenclature we remember today. “Long-haired, blue-jeaned, bell-bottomed, 200,000 music fans streamed into this village in the Catskill Mountains Friday for a three-day rite of youth. Lugging their camping equipment, they poured into town in caravans of cars and buses, all heading for the alfalfa field where the musicians would be.”
Oh, isn’t that cute! The hippies are having a big party.
The next day, though, it wasn’t so funny anymore. The news from upstate New York now elbowed its way onto the front page — the main story, no less. “Medical Aid Rushed To Town Crammed With Music Fans.”
What followed was a litany of drugs and disaster. One fan had already died, accidentally run over while sleeping in a ditch. Doctors and nurses were being flown in from New York City. People were falling ill from “bad acid.” The Associated Press quoted an unnamed security guard: “This isn’t a music festival — it’s a drug convention.”
All that was true, of course, but, a half-century later, that’s not what we remember most. What we remember now is that Woodstock was a cultural touchstone for an era — a grand gathering for many of the top acts of the day. Ever since then, any big event with a lot of big names has invariably been called “The Woodstock Of . . .” The hippie generation became “the Woodstock generation.” Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz named the previously unnamed bird in his strip Woodstock.
The concert we remember as Woodstock wasn’t even in Woodstock. The name Woodstock got attached because a lot of famous musicians — such as Bob Dylan and The Band — hung out in that town. But the festival was originally planned for Wallkill, New York. When that location didn’t work out, it wound up in Bethel, New York, on pasture land owned by the biggest dairy farmer in the county.
Irony: Perhaps the most famous event of the hippie counter-culture took place on land owned by a Republican. Max Yasgur may have just wanted to make money — $75,000 in rent seemed like a darned good deal. He wound up being vilified by his neighbors and deified by rock fans. At least three songs have mentioned him, including Joni Mitchell’s iconic “Woodstock” with the line “I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm / I’m going to camp out on the land / I’m going to get my soul free.” When Yasgur passed away in 1973, Rolling Stone devoted an obituary to him — a rare honor for someone who wasn’t a musician.
The original projections called for 40,000 fans. The festival wound up with more than 400,000 and was such a mess that New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller wanted to call out the National Guard. He was talked out of that. Otherwise, we might remember Woodstock today more like Kent State, just on a larger scale. Instead, we remember Jimi Hendrix lighting into a psychedelic version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that is still played today.
That’s the gauzy version of history. John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival remembers a different version. When his band went on at 3:30 a.m., “we were ready to rock out and we waited and waited and finally it was our turn ... there were a half million people asleep. These people were out. It was sort of like a painting of a Dante scene, just bodies from hell, all intertwined and asleep, covered with mud.” Sometimes we remember what we want to remember.
The initial press coverage of Woodstock was decidedly negative — emphasizing the drugs, the nudity, the logistical problems. To some, these were all a surprise. They weren’t to others. Ian Anderson of the band Jethro Tull remembers his manager excitedly relaying an invitation to play at the festival. Anderson asked: “Will there be lots of naked ladies? And will there be taking drugs and drinking lots of beer, and fooling around in the mud?” The manager gleefully assured him that all those things would likely happen with wild abandon. “Right,” Anderson replied. “I don’t want to go.” He didn’t care much for hippies and didn’t regret the decision. Other bands that turned down an invitation did. Tommy James of Tommy James and the Shondells remembers his secretary telling him “Yeah, listen, there’s this pig farmer in upstate New York that wants you to play in his field. That’s how it was put to me. So we passed, and we realized what we’d missed a couple of days later.”
Woodstock wasn’t the first big musical festival, but still the most famous — the spiritual forerunner of Bonaroo, Burning Man and Coachella today. Our biggest festival – FloydFest — is like Woodstock in this way: That festival isn’t held in the community it’s named after, either. It’s in Patrick County, and counts Virginia’s state tourism agency as an official partner. What was counterculture is now simply culture — and sometimes history. Two years ago, the National Register of Historic Places added 19 new sites. One of them was Yasgur’s farm.