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The Oral History Of Woodstock On WAMC

The opening ceremony of Woodstock in August 1969.
Mark Goff, public domain
The opening ceremony of Woodstock in August 1969.

A lot of words have been written and spoken this year about the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival, which — despite the odds — got started Aug. 15, 1969. Over the years, many participants and organizers of the “Aquarian exposition” that brought hundreds of thousands of fans to upstate New York have shared their memories of the experience here on WAMC. 

This is an oral history of Woodstock, featuring:

Wavy Gravy, Graham Nash, Melanie, Michael Lang, Stephen Stills, Robbie Robertson, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Leslie West, and Pete Townshend.

Interviews were conducted by Alan Chartock, Joe Donahue, Sarah LaDuke, and Ian Pickus. WAMC News Intern Jackie Orchard helped with production.

Wavy Gravy

The stories get richer and riper and the community is very heartwarming.

Graham Nash

That feels like it was yesterday to me. I mean, I know it was a long, long time ago. I know it was 45 years ago but it's still incredibly fresh in my mind.


I mean, something as beautiful and real as that can never really go out of style.

Stephen Stills

You see something and it's struck you in such a way, that they're finally trying to still our voices. But you can't make it still.

Robbie Robertson

Well, we had been living in New York City and discovered it was very difficult for us to find a place that we could create, that we could write, that we could work on music without bothering somebody or somebody bothering us. And our manager, Albert Grossman, had a house up in Woodstock. And he had convinced Bob Dylan to get a house up there. And then he was talking to us about coming up there. He said you can get a place. Nobody's gonna bother you, you can do whatever you need to do creatively, this is going to be terrific. And when we got up there, and we found this ugly pink house in West Saugerties, so it's not at Woodstock. It was like, it was like heaven to us. Look at this place, we can make music, we can create. And it was such a gift.

Michael Lang

That idea, I think, was born out of a series of concerts that took place on a farm, just outside of town in Woodstock. They were very low key kind of out in the country. The stage I think was maybe a foot off the ground or something like that. And they’d draw, you know, between 200 and 500 people. It was not a big deal but local talent in Woodstock in those days was people like Van Morrison and the Blues Magoos and Richie Havens and so the shows were amazing. And it just, you know, occurred to me that that was the perfect way to see music was out in the country, under the stars and in nature.

Robbie Robertson

It was uncomplicated, living in Woodstock. So, you know, people would get up and they would do their, you know, some chores and maybe, you know, go to a couple of stores in town and pick up some things that we needed and then we would all gather at Big Pink, which was, it turned out to be like a clubhouse. So we would go and someone would say, oh, man, grab a football while you're there. And get some exercise and just the little things in life, brought such joy, and gave us such time to really concentrate on as much new discovery as possible. Because the music that we made there, it didn't resemble anything we did as The Hawks.

Michael Lang

I mean, we started out in Woodstock and we even went to Saugerties and then traveled further afield, and we ended up in Walkill, which was a big compromise for me because it was not the ideal place and it didn't look like the ideal place or feel like the ideal place. So we set about to transform it. And when we first arrived, my partners had a meeting with the town board and explained that we were doing this kind of jazz-folk thing, a few people strumming around the fields, and pretty soon after we got there, and they started to see all these long haired people come up to work. They got the idea that this maybe was not an accurate depiction. So things changed kind of rapidly. But we were there for, I think, close to three months building and preparing. A guy named Elliott Tiber called my office and spoke to my assistant and said that he had a site and a permit, and we would be welcome. So those were like magical words for us and we all hopped in a car and zoomed up there to White Lake to the El Monaco motel, which was a derelict kind of Catskill mountain motel. A pool that looked like the Blue Lagoon, and that motel kind of reminded you of the Bates Inn, but there he was, and walk us into the swamp. And so here it is, and we were pretty upset. But we were there and riding up there, we've been passing all these beautiful fields. And so I asked if we could take a look around if he had somebody who could show us around and he did and took a ride and came off over our eyes and there it was. It was the perfect place. And then we found Max, who was the perfect guy and we were very open with him from the beginning because we knew that he'd probably be going through similar stuff in this shorter period of time. We made a deal. We shook hands. The next day we signed a contract and I never saw him look back.

You know, we started booking fairly early, soon after the deal was made. And I would say, by sometime in April, we were we were substantially funded. And when we started to see this, you know, these crowds come in by Wednesday. And then by Thursday, there were 80,000 kids in the field. We knew that this was going to grow a lot bigger than we had planned. We prepared for 200,000, that was the number we secretly picked in the beginning. And that's what we built for. And it just kept growing and growing and growing. But I think we had set parameters, you know, and sort of intentions early enough so that when we were building and when we were preparing and the way we promoted it to where we talked about it. What happened, what the experience was when you arrived, sort of set a tone for the thing and, and I think that's really what made it work so well was that it was we really prepared for that kind of thing to be able to happen: for people to be able to really feel comfortable, feel safe, be able to do it to sort of come together as community.

Wavy Gravy

You could almost see it as a giant ball of love and the band would toss it out to the audience and they would bounce it around a little bit and they would throw it back at the band and the band would be energized with it.

Richie Havens

Well, I was terrified because God knows there were a lot of people waiting for a lot more people to come on airplanes or however they were going to get there, leaving me running around on the fairgrounds, as you call it, we all call the that afterwards. It was the fact that I was I kind of put on the spot for that song. It didn't exist in those Woodstock days. They just didn't exist. I had already gone back on the stage six times. This was the phenomenon for them. They’d go, hey Richie, four more songs, please? OK, thanks for letting me do it. And I was really nervous. It was most nervous time. It wasn't forceful or anything like that. It was the fact that there wasn't anybody else coming to play. So, we get down to the last time I walked out on stage, which was when I got off the stage and I went, he asked me for the seventh time. Richie, one more time! You know, the planes are off the ground and they're coming. You know, so I said, OK. I went walking back to the stool that I was sitting on, and I was on my way there, thinking what other song can I sing? In two and a half hours I had already sung more than I thought I had.

And then had added two more and I so I was still trying to figure out, I went back to the stage still playing the end of the previous song. I thought I was winding it down and walking back to that stage and sat down the stool and just sort of waited a long time. If you if you listen to the record, it's the longest intro of any song that I had. And it was because I was trying to find out. I didn't know what I was going to sing when I sat down with the seven times and then finally I said I don't know what I would call it. What the end of the last song was making me think? OK, freedom, freedom. And the guy gives me the signal and I start “Freedom, freedom.”

And something's had to come out of my mouth. Something had to come out of my mouth. And all of a sudden “sometimes I feel like a motherless child” popped through. I hadn’t sung that song in 14 years.

I learned that song as a folk, spiritual, very young back in when I learned it. I thought I have to learn how after I sung it and added it in, freedom. It became something to the audience that I felt and they became witnesses of this song. I felt it had a spiritual connection with everybody at the same time. I think that we opened down one channel that that led to every, every place I've been, so it to me it's my favorite happy song. My happy, fulfilling song. Everything happy. The sun’s gonna come. Don’t worry about it. It’s gonna come for us.

Michael Lang

We put the Hog Farm in early to help set up campgrounds in kids who had never been to the country, let alone camp in the country, and by the thousands, and it helped, sort of figuring out how to do this. And so they would greet people coming in, help them set up the campsite, and then get those people to help the next group come in. And it started to generate this, this sense of this big community, this big family that we were creating, and that that really worked beautifully.

Arlo Guthrie

There was a time in the 60s, that when we refer to it now, it's sex, drugs, rock and roll, we talk about the clothes, we talk about the music, what guitar was he playing and stuff like that. But there was one other unique feature of the 60s. And that is that people were trying to help each other out in ways that they hadn't before. We started a lot of free clinics, for example, there were places you could go if you're on the street, stuff like that, that we were interested in doing. And so here's this moment of Woodstock, starts like a normal festival, a few promoters trying to make a whole lot of money getting together the biggest rock and roll festival ever in the history of the world. And at some point, they realized it’s a catastrophe. And I remember Michael Lang coming over to me and saying, Arlo, we're opening up the gates, we're going to make it free for the, you know, safety of everybody. And we may not be able to pay you.

So you have to decide whether you're playing or not. I said, of course I'm playing. I'm here, you know, and so, of course, I agreed, all the stuff that we talked about, from what stuck stems from this decision by people who were in a position to make a lot of money to forego the money for the health and safety and welfare of all these young people. It would be like today, an insurance company decides for the health and welfare of our clients, we're not going to make a profit for a year. It would be that historic. That's why we remember what stuck everything we talked about, it flows from this decision by these guys to forego the money. And of course they all made it back and of course, I made what I was supposed to be and I made more from the royalties of the records and the movies and all that other stuff, but that's how historic it was. It was the last great let's just make it free moment of the 60s. It moved me so much. It changed my life to see that happen.

Michael Lang

This crowd just kept growing and growing and growing through the entire week. So it wasn't like there was one moment when everybody arrived. It was just, you know, it was just a continuation of this massive rush of humanity. Just this this energy wave that we were carried on and you say you can't get yourself into it but you kind of do, you kind of get into that mode of like, this is your life now, you know you're in it because it's around the clock and it's 24/7 and you're there for almost four days with these people. You've got to get to know them. I mean, I remember the faces in that crowd. And you somehow you know, your reality, you adapt to that reality and that becomes how you're living.

Graham Nash

It was three days of music constantly. It didn't just shut down at midnight.

Leslie West

I think that might have been our fourth show. We had the same agent as Jimi Hendrix. So he used Jimi’s clout to get us on that show. But it was disappointing. We weren't in the movie, but they found our film finally. They had lost it and The Brothers just released the 40th anniversary box set. It's really beautiful with our footage in it and Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer had remixed the sound and glare that is out now. We had to get to that show. So we flew back to New York City and we rent on our own helicopter to get their cars. Thruway was closed. Highways were closed. People were walking on all over the place and when we flew over the site and I looked down and saw a 400 and some odd thousand people. I was like shocked. I remember there was a lot of people smoking weed. The state troopers were really great. They didn't mind. I mean, what could they do? Those weren't that many of them around and it became a free festival. But since then, I mean, I guess a lot of people thought, Oh, this is going to change the world. I think what it did was it opened up music more, you know, there was more festivals going on, and people really, really, really got into music. I think we define periods in our life by what music we were listening to at the time, it seemed like it went by so fast and loose, so nervous, you know, it's like, play in front of that many people. And we got to go on a really nice time. Friday night. It was rainy and muddy. And then Saturday, it was beautiful and sunny, and we got to go on right before it started to get dark. And it was exciting. That’s all I can tell you. That part I do remember.


It was a completely magical event for me, but it was first like in the 80s, it would be covered with a cynicism like, Oh, yeah, yeah, so Woodstock like a bunch of burned out hippies. Sex, drugs and rock and roll and the character from “Taxi.” You know, it was kind of made fun of and discounted as anything that existed that would be changing the face of human existence. Of course when it was happening, that's exactly what it felt like it felt like, a new Renaissance on Earth. It felt like you know, the world is going to change now and all this insanity and in humanity is going to go away.

Graham Nash

Eventually I will see “Woodstock.” Eventually. I mean, I have seen our participation and I've seen obviously Joe Cocker, I've seen Sebastian, I’ve seen Richie Havens, but I've never sat down and experienced the entire movie for what it was.

Pete Townshend

I had my young wife with me without with our firstborn child. She was only about six months old. I'd tried to get out of playing it Woodstock because I had Emma, who had just been born, but I was bullied into doing Woodstock and of course, probably a good thing.

Wavy Gravy

I'm looking forward to doing Woodstock at 50. I imagined we'll all be in rocking chairs and I’ll make the announcement: “If you have taken the brown antacid, watch out.”

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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