I have been thinking a great deal about music since the Savannah VOICE Festival’s seventh season is underway (www.savannahvoicefestival.org). This great non-profit organization has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years, with over 30 events this year, featuring something for everyone: opera, Broadway and pop concerts, and one of my personal favorites next week: ‘Old Time Rock and Roll: Music of the 70’s. This, in turn, lead me to thinking about another important date on the musical calendar – the 50thanniversary of Woodstock.
On August 15, 1969 – exactly 50 years ago today – the Woodstock Music Festival opened in White Lake, a hamlet in upstate New York in the small town of Bethel. As I was a three-year-old British child in London, I was of course blissfully unaware of this great happening, but today it is seen as the peak of America’s 1960s youth counterculture.
How did it all start? In 1967, Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, two friends in their 20’s wondering what to do with their lives, ran an ad in the New York Times. “Young men with unlimited capital” read the ad, adding that they were looking for “legitimate and interesting….business proposals.” Thousands of people responded with thousands of ideas. In the end, they decided to host a large outdoor music festival in the town of Woodstock, which in turn would raise money to build a recording studio and rock-and-roll music retreat there.
To everyone’s surprise, including their own, these two managed to book an amazing line of artists. How amazing? Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, Canned Heat, The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Jimi Hendrix, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young…. plus, another twenty headline acts!
Then disaster almost struck when the town of Woodstock denied permission to hold the event. Scrambling to save the festival, a dairy farmer named Max Yasgur stepped in and rented part of his 600-acre farm to the promoters in the nearby town of Bethel.
Then a different type of disaster struck in an unusual form – absolute, unmitigated, unbridled success! In perhaps the most successful strapline in event marketing history, “Three Days of Peace, Love and Music” resonated at a deep level with an entire generation, who were tired of riots, protests, and the Vietnam War. Initial estimates of 25,000 people increased to 50,000, and then 100,000. The day the gates opened, more than 400,000 were clamouring to get in. According to www.history.com, an estimated one million people descended on the area that weekend.
Roads were completely jammed for dozens of miles in every direction. Businesses and small towns in Upstate New York felt under siege with thousands of hippies trying to pass through. The musical acts had to be helicoptered in. The crowds were massive and uncontrollable, so for safety the gates and fences had to come down and admission became free. There wasn’t enough water, food, toilets, electricity, security or emergency medical care. However, there was an abundance of peace, love, music, drugs, alcohol, and history being made.
The Woodstock Festival itself left Rosenman and Roberts almost bankrupt as costs spiralled, their vendors cheated them, and gate proceeds disappeared. However, the film and recording rights sold to Warner Brothers saved the day for the promoters when the hit documentary film was released the next year. Rosenman and Roberts wrote a great book about their experience titled (what else?) “Young Men with Unlimited Capital”. You can also learn more at www.woodstockstory.com
Fittingly, I say goodbye this week with a quote from American rock musician and founder of the band Jefferson Airplane, Paul Kantner. “If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”.
God bless America!
– ENDS –