TBT: Looking Back on Woodstock

Photo: esquire.com/Getty Images

Photo: esquire.com/Getty Images

Exactly 50 years ago today, the most famous music festival in history began on a farm in Bethel, New York.  It was scheduled to be a three-day event (August 15-17), but because of rain it was pushed into a fourth day and wrapped up on August 18th.  In celebrating its 50th anniversary, I wanted to take a look back to see what made this music festival so memorable.

The town of Woodstock, New York had served as a home and retreat to musical artists such as Bob Dylan for some time, so it was already on the musical map.  It was then that four promoters (Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman, John Roberts, and Michael Lang) had the idea to make some money from the “hip” town.  Rosenman and Roberts started Woodstock Ventures, Inc. and were in the process of building a musical studio in Manhattan, New York City, and wanted to host a music festival to help fund it.  The other two promoters already had made a name for themselves with Kornfeld being the Vice President of Capital Records and Lang having already organized a successful music festival in Miami, Florida just a year earlier.

Early on, Creedence Clearwater Revival agreed to play in the Woodstock music festival and became the catalyst for other big-name bands to follow suit.  They had the credibility that gave confidence to other bands that Woodstock Festival would be worth their time.  Everything seemed to be coming together nicely for the promoters, but like with most things, issues arose.  The main one being the location to hold the event.  The nearby town of Wallkill, New York was supposed to host the festival, but backed out close to the last minute.  Scrambling to find a venue before losing out on the Woodstock festival, the promoters were relieved when local 49-year old dairy farmer Max Yasgur offered to rent part of his farmland in Bethel, New York.  They jumped at the opportunity, paid Yasgur what he wanted, and proceeded to plan their event that was now only a month away.

Setting up the festival was no small task, however, and was made even tougher when people began showing up to camp out days before it was scheduled to begin.  Originally, they had planned for about 50,000 people to show up over the course of the festival, but found themselves with 50,000 already there two days before it even started.  People kept flowing through the gates in masses and by the time the festival began on August 15th, over 400,000 people were there anxiously awaiting a weekend full of music.  Without sufficient security, what was supposed to be a paid admission festival had basically turned into a free event with so many people coming in.  By the time it was all said and done, nearly half a million people had showed up to Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York.

Richie Havens opened up the festival at 5:00 p.m. Friday, August 15th.  He played eight songs, including his famous “Freedom” to close out his set.  Eight performing sets followed him on the first day, including Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez.  By the time Baez had finished playing, the downpours of rain that impacted the weekend had begun.


Day One (Friday Evening to Saturday Morning)

5:00 p.m: Richie Havens

6:15 p.m: Sweetwater

7:15 p.m: Bert Sommer

9:00 p.m: Tim Hardin

10:00 p.m: Ravi Shankar

11:00 p.m: Melanie

11:55 p.m: Arlo Guthrie

1:00 a.m: Joan Baez


Day Two (Saturday Afternoon to Sunday Morning)

12:15 p.m: Quill

1:00 p.m: Country Joe McDonald

2:00 p.m: Santana

3:30 p.m: John B. Sebastian

4:45 p.m: The Keef Hartley Band

6:00 p.m: Incredible String Band

7:30 p.m: Canned Heat

9:00 p.m: Mountain

10:30 p.m: Grateful Dead

12:30: a.m: Creedence Clearwater Revival

2:00 a.m: Janis Joplin

3:30 a.m: Sly & The Family Stone

5:00 a.m: The Who

8:00 a.m: Jefferson Airplane


Day Three (Sunday Afternoon to Monday Morning)

2:00 p.m: Joe Cocker with The Grease Band

6:30 p.m: Country Joe & The Fish

8:15 p.m: Ten Years After

10:00 p.m: The Band

12:00 a.m: Johnny Winter

1:30 a.m: Blood Sweat and Tears

3:00 a.m: Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young

6:00 a.m: Paul Butterfield Blues Band

7:30 a.m: Sha Na Na

9:00 a.m: Jimi Hendrix and The Gypsy Sun & Rainbows Band


Day two was a big day for the Woodstock Festival with a star-studded lineup that included Santana, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, The Who, and Jefferson Airplane.  14 total bands played that day, which lasted all the way until 9:45 the next morning when the popular Jefferson Airplane concluded their set.  It didn’t take too long before the music would kick back up for day three though, with Joe Cocker and The Grease Band firing it up just four hours later.  Battling rain all weekend, performances were pushed back and by the time Jimi Hendrix came onstage, it was around 9:00 Monday morning, August 18th.  By that time the crowd of nearly half a million had dwindled down to only about 25,000, with most people already headed home.

Once Jimi Hendrix and his band had wrapped up their set, the famous Woodstock Festival was officially over.  The thousands of people still left began their trek home with special memories that would last a lifetime.  Three full days of listening to music with hundreds of thousands of people surrounding them in the muddy fields in Bethel, New York would become the best three days of many of their lifetimes.

Woodstock occurred during a very controversial time in American history with the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement taking up the front pages of newspapers, and much of the country, especially the youth, had direct opinions on it all.  For many young people, this festival was a way to escape and enjoy good music for three days while exemplifying the “peace and love” idea they so heavily voiced.  The lack of violence with that many people in the same area was truly an incredible thing, and one that many chalk up to the large number of psychedelic drugs and marijuana used throughout the festival.  Whether it was the drugs, their set of beliefs, or both, it was and still is considered the most impactful and memorable music festival of all time. 

Max Yasgur, the dairy farmer whose land was used, was very impressed and satisfied with how the festival went.  When he addressed the remaining audience on Monday, he said, “You’ve proven something to the world, that half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and God bless you for it!”  I think his quote pretty much sums it all up.


Musicians Who Declined to Perform at Woodstock

Led Zeppelin

Bob Dylan

The Doors

Simon and Garfunkel

The Rolling Stones

The Byrds

John Lennon

Roy Rogers

The Moody Blues

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