These Musicians Said “No” to Woodstock

Was their chance at rock immortality was squandered?

Photo by James Shelley. Bethel Woods Collection, 2010.81.17, gift of James Shelley.

From the Beatles to Joni Mitchell, these are the artists who—for whatever reason—were absent from the Woodstock Music Festival.

The Woodstock Music Festival of 1969 is regarded as one of the foremost musical events in the history of humankind—and it took place right here in the Hudson Valley. We even have a museum dedicated to the memory of that fateful four-day extravaganza in Bethel, allowing music fans of all ages to relive the wonderment of Woodstock. There’s enough lore for music historians to write textbook-sized opuses on the festival and its performers (and they have), so naturally, we seldom consider those big names who were not in attendance. Here are seven artists who notably said “no” to Woodstock:

The Beatles

Why didn’t they play? By the summer of ’69, tensions were at an all-time high for the Fab Four. As it would happen, August 20, 1969—two days after Woodstock came to a close—was the last day the group recorded as a foursome. Appropriately, the final track they assembled as a group was “The End” for Abbey Road.


There are a handful of rumors regarding their absence from Woodstock. One suggests that the Nixon administration prevented Lennon from entering the United States as a response to his anti-war rhetoric. Another story goes that Lennon would only perform if the festival organizers also offered stage time to Yoko. Regardless, Ringo later reflected that the group regretted not attending the festival.

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What might they have performed? At the time of the festival, the group was wrapping up Abbey Road, so their performance could have included songs like “Here Comes the Sun” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” plus whichever deep cuts they felt like throwing in.

Bob Dylan

Why didn’t he play? There is speculation as to the precise reason why Dylan shirked his shot at a set; some say it was because his son fell ill, others purport that he had become frustrated by unwanted visitors at his private residence in Woodstock, which was proximal to the site where the festival was originally supposed to take place (hence, the name). Later that same month, Dylan performed at the Isle of Wight music festival in England.


What might he have performed? With Dylan, who knows? The reluctant prophet had a heterogeneous discography to draw from, having released Nashville Skyline that spring.

The Doors

Why didn’t they play? In short, they just didn’t think it was going to be that cool. CBS News reported that keyboardist Ray Manzarek said the band thought Woodstock “would be a second class repeat of Monterey Pop Festival.” Another theory suggests that Jim Morrison was weary of performing outdoors for fear of an assassination attempt.


What might they have performed? The group had released The Soft Parade the month prior to Woodstock, which includes hits like “Touch Me.” They may have also performed fan-favorites from previous releases like “Light My Fire” and “Hello, I Love You.”

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The Jeff Beck Group

Why didn’t they play? The group was slated to perform, but when Beck (falsely) caught wind that his wife was having an affair with the gardener, he flew home to the United Kingdom and missed their Woodstock set.

 

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What might they have played? Fresh off the release of Beck-Ola, the group would have likely performed selections from that album. Additionally, they were known to cover blues standards by Willie Dixon and hits from Beck’s previous group, The Yardbirds.

Joni Mitchell

Why didn’t she play? While her song, “Woodstock,” characterized the 1969 music festival as a mystical culmination of a cultural movement, Joni Mitchell was not in attendance as her manager, David Geffen, was worried that she could miss her scheduled appearance on The Dick Cavett Show that following Monday. “I stayed home in New York and I watched it on television all day,” she said before a live performance of the tune in 1970. Ironically, during her appearance on the talk show, she was joined by two musicians who had performed at Woodstock: David Crosby and Steven Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

 

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What might she have performed? Three months prior to the music festival, Mitchell released Clouds, which features staples of her songbook like “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides, Now.”

Led Zeppelin

Why didn’t they play? The band’s manager, Peter Grant, turned the festival down, believing that Led Zeppelin’s import would be lost among so many other big names. Instead, they headlined at Asbury Park Convention Hall in New Jersey.

 

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What might they have played? It’s likely their setlist would have looked similar to the one they performed at Asbury Park Convention Hall, which included “Black Mountain Slide,” “How Many More Times,” and “Communication Breakdown” from their inaugural self-titled album.

The Rolling Stones

Why didn’t they play? The Rolling Stones failed to appear at Woodstock due to a prior commitment on the part of their front man. Mick Jagger was off in Australia filming Ned Kelly, a bushranger film that was released the following year. What’s more, only a few days prior to the Woodstock festival, guitarist Keith Richards’ girlfriend, Anita Pallenburg, gave birth to their son. It just wasn’t in the cards for the Stones.


What might they have performed? The Woodstock festival was sandwiched between two of the Stones’ most prodigious projects, Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. The group would have likely played tracks like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “No Expectations,” and “Street Fighting Man.”

Related: Meet the Couple From the Iconic Woodstock Album Cover

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