Woodstock. For 40 years that name has been synonymous with one of the biggest events of the 20th century. You know, Upstate New York’s little three-day rock and roll festival in 1969 that seemingly changed the world, spawned references in dozens of songs and movies, and made headlines in every corner of the globe. Yes, that one. Of course, there is another Woodstock, and those of us who call the Hudson Valley home (or just love to visit) know all about the charms of this funky Ulster County village, with its long history as an artists’ refuge.
Amazingly, many people still believe that Woodstock (the concert) actually took place in Woodstock (the village). Not so. The concert happened in tiny Bethel, 43 miles away.
Spread the word: Woodstock was full of concerts and other arts events throughout the 1960s
Photographs courtesy of Julia Blelock
So how did this famous extravaganza end up being called the Woodstock Festival? It seems that the village inspired the concert. In fact, many 20th-century events in this arts-loving town laid the framework for what would become the Woodstock Festival. At least according to Weston Blelock, a Woodstock native who recently published Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, a book based on a panel discussion that he helped organize last year. According to Blelock, Woodstock has been home to all types of arts and artists over the years: first there was the Byrdcliffe Arts & Crafts colony (which started in 1902), followed by a burgeoning painting scene in the 1920s, the ongoing Maverick summer music festivals, Bob Dylan’s arrival in the town in the early ’60s, and ultimately the “Sound Outs” of 1967 and 1968.
The Sound Outs were a series of impromptu concerts held on a farm between Saugerties and Woodstock. The first one, on Labor Day weekend 1967, included performers Richie Havens, Tim Hardin, Junior Wells, Billy Batson, and Major Wiley. “I can’t remember who told me about them,” says Blelock, who was a teenager at the time. “But when you are at a certain age you just absorb these things. Then people like [radio personality] Bob Fass started to bring in bigger acts. There were a lot of people who didn’t appear in the paper, but would just spontaneously come; it was very casual. A lot of the bands didn’t even get paid, they weren’t concerned about money. But people kept coming — they came under the fence, over the fence, any way they could get in.”
Michael Lang, one of the legendary promoters of the Woodstock Festival, moved to the village from Coconut Grove, Florida in 1968 for the music scene. “The Sounds Outs were kind of the spark for the Woodstock Festival in that it got me thinking about doing the concerts here. [They] had a great feel and it was in the country, and it provided all the guidelines that I needed. I was sort of thinking of a broader event but with the same kind of emotional impact.”
Originally, the festival was going to be held in the Town of Wallkill (Orange County) — but ended up as three days of rock and roll in Bethel
Brochure, flier, and tickets courtesy of Patricia Zelkovsky Salamone
But back to the name thing. Lang wanted to produce a major concert, but couldn’t find the space in Woodstock. “The Woodstock festival was called Woodstock for several reasons. One: we intended to be here. And two: the name sort of embodied a lot of the feelings and imagery that we wanted to conjure in promoting this festival. From its conception it was conceived to be here for a reason, and that reason was what the town was about and what I hoped the festival would bring to its attendees and what they could expect when they got here. So it was never going to be anything but Woodstock.”
So what happened to Woodstock — the place — after the famous festival? Bill West, a ’60s town official and a speaker at the panel discussion, said: “There were cute little boutiques and stores in the late ’60s. And after the Woodstock Festival I think we saw a fair number of head shops, hippies sleeping on the Village Green and on people’s lawns. It became somewhat of a problem for a few years. Luckily it changed dramatically.” Blelock laments the end of the local music scene. “When I was growing up, there were a lot of famous people and musicians in town, but nobody chased after them, they were left alone and given their space. That changed after the festival, everything became very commercial and lots of people came to town and everybody was trying to arrange an encounter with Dylan. I had friends from Bard and when they had nothing on their schedule, they had a few hits of weed and would head over to Woodstock to see if they could find him. Finally, he got tired of it and left town (in the mid-’70s). The golden age was over.”
Still, Blelock believes that Woodstock retains much of its 1960s magic. “The town has a wonderful spiritual quality,” says Blelock. “It supports people being individuals. As long as the visitors coming here espouse the Woodstock state of mind, then I’m all for it.”
“The Friday afternoon news reported that the roads to Bethel were congested,” says Shelley. “So our trip began late Friday night to avoid traffic and get there for Saturday’s show”
James Michael Shelley was “a pretty straight guy, not a hippie by any means” in the summer of 1969. Still, the New Jersey teen, about to begin his sophomore year at Notre Dame, wanted to attend Woodstock because he was “really into the musicians I heard were coming. That’s what attracted me.”
So, he and his pal Tony hit the road on Friday night to avoid the traffic, but eventually became embroiled in gridlock anyway. “As soon as we got off Route 17 and on to 17B, it was just crawling along. But we had no idea how far away we were from the concert. We pulled off, looked around and asked a few people what was going on. It seemed that there were as many people walking away, as walking to the concert. People were saying it was canceled, but I had spent my $18 on tickets and I wasn’t going to waste that.” Early Saturday morning, the duo decided to join the mass migration by foot. “We didn’t have much to carry — sleeping bags, binoculars, a borrowed camera — so we just left the car there. Gradually fields of tents, campfires, walking musicians, DayGlo painted buses and vans, and flags appeared. By the time we got there, I was looking for a fence or an entrance, but there was nothing there. But suddenly, we saw the stage. That was Saturday at noon. Within the next few hours they announced that it was going to be a free concert.”
And what about those crowds? “People kept tramping up and down the field, usually avoiding walking on the sitters, but I hollered at two guys who stepped on my sleeping friend,” says Shelley
Shelley and Tony staked out a spot a couple of hundred yards from the stage, and barely moved except to try to use the porta john or find food. “The concessions were all out, but someone gave us a few oranges,” he says. Shelley recalls the performances by Sly and the Family Stone and the Who as the musical highlights. But it wasn’t until Sunday morning that Shelley realized, “Wow, this has been going on for 16 hours — that’s a lot of music. The vision I’ll take to the grave will be of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’ accompanying the sunrise. We had pulled the all-time musical all-nighter.” (Shelley admits there were a few short naps in there — “You did fall asleep, just from exhaustion,” he says.)
It was also on Sunday morning that Shelley first started to glean the enormity of the concert. “Of course there were no such things as cell phones or the Internet telling you from the outside what was being said. But when they started telling us on Sunday morning that the New York Times was putting this on its front page — it was like, wow, this was a much bigger deal than anyone thought it was. You became aware that our generation did have this thing in common, everything that people had been talking about had actually happened. It really had a strong sense of us — with a capital U.”
The rain began Sunday afternoon during Joe Cocker’s performance and “soaked everything — although we tried to stay dry under a sleeping bag,” says Shelley. The pair soon departed and hitchhiked back to their car. “A car would stop, we’d climb on the roof, lay down and hold on,” he recalls.
Now, every time Shelley drives up to his Pennsylvania summer house, about 20 minutes from Bethel, “I can see the exact spot where, 40 years ago, we left the car and walked. It’s kind of cool. Woodstock, it was a really great experience for me.”
Director Ang Lee, with actors Demetri Martin (center) and Paul Dano (right) on the set of Taking Woodstock, a Focus Features release
Photograph by Ken Regan
Whether you were actually there, or just wished you were, Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee’s new film Taking Woodstock takes you behind the scenes of the world’s most famous concert. Based on the book of the same name, Taking Woodstock tells the true story of Elliot Tiber, who inadvertently helped save the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. After having the use permits pulled for the original location, organizer Michael Lang was invited by Tiber to his family’s struggling motel in Bethel, right next door to Yasgur’s Farm… the rest is history. Starring Liev Schrieber, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Emile Hirsche, Demetri Martin, and Eugene Levy, the film was shot mostly in Columbia County’s New Lebanon last year. On August 8, the Woodstock Film Festival proudly presents a special screening of the flick, which debuted at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, at the Tinker Street Cinema in Woodstock. Lee, screenwriter/producer James Schamus, and Michael Lang (a Woodstock resident) will be in attendance. The movie’s national release date is August 14. For more information, visit www.takingwoodstockthemovie.com.
If no concert since the iconic fest in ’69 has been able to satisfy your soul, don’t despair. On August 15, in honor of Woodstock’s 40th anniversary, two Hudson Valley venues serve up a healthy dose of epic rock. Join Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dave Mason, iconic blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and former Fear Itself frontwoman Ellen McIlwaine at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock for the Roots of Woodstock Live Concert. Hosted by Woodstock Arts, the fund-raiser benefits Zero-Carbon Woodstock, a community carbon-neutrality initiative. For up-to-date lineup and ticket information, visit www.rootsofwoodstock.com.
Over at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, legends like Jefferson Starship, the Levon Helm Band, and Mountain will congregate for the Heroes of Woodstock show, also on August 15. In the spirit of the original concert’s peace-and-love message, all ticket holders will receive a free soundboard download of the show (to tide you over until the 50th anniversary). Visit www.bethelwoodscenter.org for tickets.
This book, edited by Weston Blelock and Julia Blelock (and published by Woodstock Arts), sprang out of an August 2008 panel discussion about the impact of the Woodstock Festival. The meeting was held at the Colony Café and featured panelists Michael Lang, promoter of the 1969 festival; Jean Young, coauthor with Lang of Woodstock Festival Remembered; Bill West, a town official in the ’60s; Jeremy Wilber, a local bartender in the ’60s; and musician Paul McMahon.