The festival's legacy is as influential and messy as ever. Ahead of its golden anniversary, performers and attendees reflect on the three-day weekend that altered the face of American culture.

By Christian Holub
July 30, 2019 at 09:15 AM EDT
Elliott Landy/Redferns

In a town 106 miles north of New York City, a series of rolling hills marks the site of the most famous festival in American history. Held 50 years ago this August, An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music, better known as Woodstock, was variously seen as the culmination of the 1960s and a watershed moment for rock & roll.

“There’s a lot of mythology around Woodstock,” says Barak Goodman, director of the new PBS film Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (which premieres Aug. 6). “Half a million people went, but 10 times that number think they went.”

That mythology is preserved and clarified at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a nonprofit center situated on the historic location, a few dozen miles from the town of Woodstock, NY. A large plaque adorned with artist names and the festival’s iconic symbol of a dove sitting on a guitar marks the physical spot of the actual performances (some people on-site jokingly refer to the plaque as the “Tomb of the Unknown Hippie”).

There was originally a plan to highlight Woodstock’s golden anniversary with a repeat performance. In January, Michael Lang, one of the primary organizers of the first festival, unveiled Woodstock 50, an event that would unite iconic musicians from the first incarnation (John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Santana, and more) with some of today’s biggest pop acts (including Jay-Z and Janelle Monáe). It was supposed to take place Aug. 16-18, but alas, things didn’t work out. 

Representatives for Lang did not respond for comment, but legal filings explain some of what went wrong. Citing concerns about whether a Woodstock-worthy event could be produced “while also ensuring the health and safety of the artists, partners, and attendees,” festival financiers Dentsu Aegis announced they were canceling the event. Lang denied that this was the end though, and sought a restraining order against Dentsu, Dentsu Aegis, and Amplifi Live, claiming that they’d improperly taken roughly $18 million from festival accounts. A New York judge did not agree. In the subsequent months, Watkins Glen International—a racetrack located 155 miles west of Bethel—announced it would no longer host the event. Subsequent attempts to secure a new location followed (first in Vernon, NY, and later at Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion) but on July 26, Woodstock 50 officially released all its booked artists from their contracts.

Anyone who followed the saga of 2017’s Fyre Festival surely understands the myriad ways an event like this can go south. But one of the defining features of the original Woodstock was that it was constantly on the brink of disaster. Fogerty, whose Creedence Clearwater Revival was the very first act booked for the ’69 fest, recalls the chaos that greeted fans trying to make their way to Bethel.

“I had come from the West Coast,” Fogerty tells EW. “I think we ended up landing in Albany and were driven from there. But then our tour manager, Bruce Young, called. He said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but everybody has left their automobile on the freeway; it’s a jam. So if you’re going to get there, you have to walk in.’ ” By the time the band arrived, Fogerty was worried about the number of people on site. “I really had a sense of foreboding . Nothing bad happened — but I was sure aware that it could have.”

Henry Diltz/Corbis via Getty Images

The great miracle of the original Woodstock was how many potential setbacks were avoided through innovative thinking. While a festival like Altamont was plagued by violence, Lang & Co. hired members of a hippie commune called the Hog Farm to handle “security,” which involved guiding attendees through bad trips (“Beware the brown acid!”) and setting up a free kitchen (which was resupplied by helpful donations from local townspeople). That magic has been hard to replicate at more recent Woodstock outings. The grounds of the ’94 edition were so bad, the fest was nicknamed “Mudstock,” and Woodstock ’99 devolved into a riot, thanks to the sweltering heat, scant water supplies, and an aggressive crowd (multiple sexual assaults were reported). The 2019 incarnation, meanwhile, appears too mired in mishaps to materialize at all. 

Despite the potential lack of a large-scale event, Woodstock’s anniversary will still be commemorated in upstate New York. The Bethel Woods Center is hosting multiple celebrations in August, with performances from Ringo Starr, Santana, and Fogerty — whose original set with CCR in 1969 still brings back memories. 

“There’s a lot of revisionist history between what actually happened and what I remember happening. But I remember Creedence, I remember Sly & the Family Stone,” recalls Jocko Marcellino of Sha Na Na, who played prior to Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock and performed an anniversary show at Bethel Woods in June.

Still, separating Woodstock fact from fiction is harder than it sounds.

“People tend to say, ‘Oh, there was tie-dye all over the place,’ ” says Charlie Maloney, 68, a ’69 attendee who now volunteers as a docent at the center. “You look through all these pictures, you will only find two people in tie-dye: John Sebastian and Joe Cocker. Among people in the audience, there’s more stripes than anything else. You always hear people were starving. No one starved. We may have been hungry at times, but the town provided sandwiches.”

One thing there’s no confusion over is Woodstock’s antiwar sentiment. Although festivals have come to dominate the American music scene in the decades since, few put as much emphasis on “peace” as on “music.” Perhaps it’s because today’s crowds aren’t staring down the barrel of a military draft the way Woodstock attendees were during the Vietnam era.

Jason Laure/Woodfin Camp/Woodfin Camp/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Much of the cultural perception of Woodstock was shaped by the eponymous 1970 documentary directed by Michael Wadleigh (and co-edited by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, among others). The film contains several iconic moments, including singer Country Joe McDonald launching into his rousing antiwar chant, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” (the chorus: “One, two, three, what are we fighting for?”). But the singer’s experience was quite different in real life.

“When you’re playing in open air, the sound goes up, so you can’t really hear people singing or clapping,” the singer, now 77, tells EW. “When I saw the footage, I could actually see that they were really responding. I don’t think I really knew that. That’s why in the middle of the song, I yell at them to sing louder, because from the stage I really couldn’t hear.”

The song also came prefaced with an F-word chant at a time when such profanities were not nearly as commonplace in public as they are today.

“It made me infamous and famous at the same time,” says McDonald. “My most famous song really couldn’t get airplay. It got me banned from municipal auditoriums for a long time after. So I paid a price. But I’m proud to say that I’ve carried with me the reality of the Vietnam War. I’m the elephant in the room.” 

Though there is no particular political bent to this year’s anniversary celebrations, the memory of Woodstock — where for three days, hundreds of thousands of young people lived together harmoniously and joyously in their own makeshift city — serves as an example of what is possible. 

“Group action can actually accomplish things and change the trajectory of history if enough people buy in,” Goodman says. “We can do something collectively by banding together, by adopting communal values, and deciding we want to change things. I think that’s really the lesson and legacy of Woodstock.”

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