What Was Woodstock?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

What began as a proposed fundraiser for a recording studio ended up being a cultural touchstone for an entire generation. In 1969, four men, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang, met in a New York high-rise to discuss plans for an arts and music festival to be held in a rural section of upstate New York called Woodstock. Many well-known musicians, such as Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison and others were already living in the Woodstock area, creating a Bohemian atmosphere perfectly suited for a large scale counterculture event.

Rock musicians attended Woodstock.
Rock musicians attended Woodstock.

The four men formed a business partnership, Woodstock Ventures, with Roberts and Rosenman handling the financial aspects, leaving Kornfeld and Lang to arrange for artists and musicians. The original budget for the three-day Woodstock festival was 500,000 dollars (USD), with an estimated attendance of 100,000 paying customers. This would be the first of many miscalculations where Woodstock was concerned. The second problem arose when word of the proposed festival reached the ears of the Woodstock city council.

Woodstock is associated with hippie culture.
Woodstock is associated with hippie culture.

The town of Woodstock was generally supportive of the artists who sought refuge there, but the idea of thousands of people descending on their town was simply not appealing. There simply were no suitable venues to hold the event in Woodstock, and the town's infrastructure would not support the flood of visitors. The Woodstock promoters found an industrial park 70 miles away from Woodstock that would have provided essential utilities and easy access to a main highway, but Lang and Kornfeld felt the site was too sterile and corporate for a true counterculture event.

Finally, a local farmer named Max Yasgur agreed to lease several hundred acres of land to the Woodstock promoters, but at a significantly higher rate than originally suggested. Yasgur had learned of the difficulties the promoters faced in the town of Woodstock, so he knew his land rights were extremely valuable. Yasgur's farm was located near the town of Bethel, 70 miles away from Woodstock.

As a potential music venue, Yasgur's clover field did offer some acoustical advantages. The land was vaguely bowl-shaped, with a lake nearby. At last, the Woodstock promoters had a place to hold their festival, which was billed as 'Three Days of Peace and Music' or 'An Aquarian Exposition'.

Although several thousand tickets were presold, only a handful of ticket booths arrived in time for the festival itself. The ensuing crush of would-be ticket buyers soon overwhelmed the staff. Many people began to jump over the security fences, which prompted the promoters to abandon the idea of ticket sales entirely in order to avoid a riot. Woodstock would become a financial bloodbath for the promoters, but a totally free event for over 500,000 visitors. Food, sanitation and medical supplies would be in desperately short supply, but the spirit of community generated by the music would be remembered for years after the event.

The talent roster for Woodstock read like a Who's Who of late 1960s pop, folk and rock musicians. Groups like The Who, Jefferson Airplane and The Band played sets along with relative unknowns such as Sweetwater and Melanie. Folksinger Richie Havens delivered a three hour program while concert promoters frantically waited for other acts to arrive.

The first day was dedicated to folk singers, with the one notable exception of Sly and the Family Stone. Subsequent performances, which would run from dusk to dawn, included retro-rockers ShaNaNa and a very nervous fledgling trio called Crosby, Stills and Nash. Guitar legend Jimi Hendrix was the final performer, infamously playing his interpretation of the Star Spangled Banner as the sun rose over the exhausted crowd.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


I don't know if the original Woodstock could ever be duplicated. I've been to some of those modern music festivals with dozens of acts, like Bonnaroo and Coachella, and it feels a little too corporate at times. The music itself was almost always good, but the crowd didn't seem to have that spirit of togetherness I always associate with Woodstock. They showed up to hear certain bands, and then they'd go off in their own little packs.

I think the later Woodstock concerts failed because the organizers were trying too hard to recreate the original. They weren't natural or organic. I think one of those concerts was held on hot concrete at an abandoned airfield or something. People don't have the same relationship with musicians like they did back in the 60s, either. There was a chance a fan could actually run into Roger Daltrey or Grace Slick somewhere, but now you couldn't get within 200 yards of most rock stars.


I'm really struck by how different Woodstock in 1969 was from the "Woodstock" in 1994, or from any musical festivals held today. They are so sterile now. Expensive tickets, bag checks, long lists of contraband items--everything possible is done to keep the environment bland and uniform.


Ah, the memories . . . I didn't attend the Woodstock event, but, every radio and TV station and newspaper carried everything that happened. Through the pictures in newspapers and the great descriptions, it was as if we were there. The radio played songs of all the great Woodstock music artists.

The unfortunate part was the lack of sanitation, food, medical supplies and the effects of drug use by some.

Woodstock is still remembered and talked about by many.

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