This month is — incredibly — the 50th anniversary of Woodstock Music & Art Fair’s Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music. The world knows this, of course, as simply Woodstock. This one word is loaded with connotations: It can convey a history-making music festival. It can serve as shorthand for a generation, for an ethos and spirit — or all of these in various combinations.
For residents of the Hudson Valley, there’s a unique, added resonance to this anniversary. Along with the metaphoric meanings, there’s the regional significance unique to this area. In the Hudson Valley, Woodstock is not simply shorthand for the 1960s, but a real town.
The actual festival, of course, was held in the Sullivan County town of Bethel, near the hamlet of White Lake, on the farm of Max Yasgur — and again, these are not merely folkloric touchstones, but familiar places and sites. Woodstock (the festival, not the town) was the brainchild of Michael Lang, real-life denizen of the Hudson Valley and still an active presence here.
The fact that the concert would be held in this region was almost preordained. A Brooklyn boy, Lang and his family had often visited the Hudson Valley and Catskills on vacation, and it was where he went to summer camp. This was very familiar territory, filled with pleasant memories. There was also the imprimatur of bohemianism and culture embedded in the region, which had long been a magnet for the creative and the iconoclastic.
In the 1960s, Lang — like so many others — was drawn to the town of Woodstock, a haven for artists of all stripes. By the ’60s, the “quaint village nestled in the arms of lush green and blue mountains,” as Lang describes it in his book The Road to Woodstock, had become a pivotal locale: home of Bob Dylan, The Band, and assorted other musicians and artists, with a flourishing culture of art, music, and cafés. As the decade grew increasingly turbulent and violent, Woodstock, Lang writes — deliberately echoing Bob Dylan’s lyrics — seemed like a “shelter from the storm.” His intent, in undertaking a music festival on such a massive scale, was to replicate Woodstock’s peaceful, healing vibe. The oddity was that the town of Woodstock lacked the infrastructure to handle such an endeavor. Woodstock, the festival, could not be held in Woodstock, the town.
Lang and company’s road to putting on the Woodstock festival was, to say the least, not very smooth. Most of the country was adamantly hostile to the very concept of a days-long rock festival. In essence, Lang had to operate in the heart of enemy territory. Even if the festival had somehow managed to fit into the groovy town of Woodstock, he would still have faced intense opposition from residents and authority figures who were unmoved by being in proximity to Bob Dylan or Levon Helm.
There was a mountain of logistics to work out, none of them for the faint of heart. In an irony probably not lost on anyone, it was decided at some point to consult an organization with a proven history of setting up functioning mass encampments: the Pentagon. That information, not surprisingly, was not forthcoming.
Ulster County was the first choice. An expansive open field on Route 212 was bandied about as a potential site, as was the village of Krumville. Lang’s team scouted out the Saugerties area. All of these, for one reason or another, were deemed unsuitable. Eventually, the focus gravitated from Ulster County to Orange.
The Woodstock generation was very nearly the Wallkill generation. That Orange County town seemed almost certain to be the site of the music extravaganza. The fact that there is also a Wallkill in Ulster County caused no end of confusion, with the Ulster County hamlet flooded with misdirected queries. (The hamlet of Wallkill, Ulster County, is still confused with the town of Wallkill, Orange County, and receives steady, ongoing queries about its nonexistent role in turning down the concert.) “We started working there [in Orange County],” Lang recalls in a recent interview with Hudson Valley, “and as my crew came up and as my partners actually went and presented to the town…people started to get uptight.”
Lang is understating it: The potential festival caused an uproar in Wallkill and laid bare the generational fissures. The youth of Wallkill, not surprisingly, yearned for what Lang was offering. The town officials, though, were another story. People in authority were not, as a rule, kindly disposed to the burgeoning counterculture and its amped-up music. The New York Times, in its relatively polite coverage of Lang, referenced his “leather Indian clothing” and took pains to helpfully inform its readers that he was a “college dropout.”
Wallkill’s town fathers raised legitimate concerns about a massive influx of concertgoers and the attendant issues of sanitation, parking, food, etc. The rest of the concerns were pure invective, according to Bob Spitz’s Barefoot in Babylon (Penguin Random House), featuring revulsion and panic at the thought of “those hippie-type people” and the expected “large increase in hepatitis, venereal disease, and drug abuse.”
In Lang’s book, The Road to Woodstock, he takes readers behind the scenes; local posters from 1969.
book cover courtesy of Ecco; posters courtesy of the Bethel Woods Collection
In actuality, Lang — leather Indian garb and all — and his associates at Woodstock Ventures were thorough and organized in their detailed presentation to the town board. Yet, as per Spitz, when “Michael Lang rose and walked to the front of the room, the gallery erupted with a barrage of insults and hissing. ‘Isn’t he pretty?’ one man called, cupping his hand around his mouth, and then falling back in hysterics.”
Threats, warning, and censures against the music festival soon became the order of the day. Lang and company got it from all sides. According to The Road to Woodstock, the “Middletown Fire Department had unanimously turned down a proposal to supply personnel to run Nathan’s food concessions. The fire companies’ membership objected” — not unreasonably, to be fair — “to the long hours Nathan’s had required…of their workers and the low wages they offered ($1.75 per hour).”
And so on July 15, with the planned festival date just one month away, Wallkill gave an emphatic thumbs-down to what Lang was proposing. And quite suddenly, there were musicians and thousands and thousands of eager fans with no place to go.
According to Lang, on the day they lost the site, they put out an urgent message via radio, alternative media, and word of mouth that they needed a new locale. And they needed it immediately.
With a combination of never-say-die and desperation, attention quickly shifted to Sullivan County, the thoroughly un-groovy home to Catskills resorts and farmland. While surveying the terrain, a festival-friendly vista of expansive farmland — as if in a vision — presented itself to Michael Lang: “There it was. That’s how it came to be.” That vista, located in the town of Bethel near White Lake, was owned by a 49-year-old dairy farmer named Max Yasgur. “Max was willing to rent to us to give us a fair chance to accomplish our dream,” explains Lang in his book.
Sullivan County — as in much of the country — matched Wallkill’s open hostility to the invading hordes of hippies and their weirdo music. It is hard to imagine the open hostility that the Woodstock festival engendered. “We had a champion in Max Yasgur,” Lang recalls. “He really stood up for us and he stood up to the town.”
And the fabled three days of peace and music did, of course, transpire, with this region at the epicenter. In no other part of the country was Woodstock local news; no other part of the country had to face the flood of people and barrage of issues. Local police were instructed to go easy: Obeying the letter of the law and arresting any and all for drug usage was simply an impossibility. Local hospitals were filled to capacity. More than 50 regional doctors were put on stand-by. The Orange County Airport maintained a constant flow of flights, with doctors and nurses shuttling to Yasgur’s farm. Bus terminals were jammed. The Woodstock festival generated a historic traffic jam, never seen before or since. The Monticello Raceway pleaded with its regulars from Pennsylvania to find alternate routes. Even the mayor of New York City, the telegenic John Lindsay, had to cancel a scheduled appearance in Monticello.
“We had a champion in Max Yasgur. He really stood up for us and he stood up to the town.”
The Times Herald-Record in Middletown enjoys the distinction of being the local paper of record during the festivities, often referred to in its pages as the Aquarian Exposition. Its coverage of the ongoing events occupies a unique perch: These were vital, close-to-home issues. A truck “loaded with psychedelic equipment…flipped over and turned” on Route 17B near the Monticello Raceway. There was an inordinate amount of coverage devoted to what these young concertgoers were ingesting, much of it in explicit detail: “Several varieties of LSD have been widely sold — at $5 for a one trip tablet, $9 for two trips…” Grass “was selling for the usual $5 a bag, soaring to $15 by Saturday night…” A headline informed that 85 to 90 percent of the attendees used pot and 50 percent utilized strong chemicals, although one wonders how this was all quantified.
The newspaper took to printing direct, ongoing reports via teletype, as if they were reporting on a war or natural disaster. Occasionally, the general reportage fell flat on its establishment face: There was a brief piece on “England’s ‘The Who’” (The Who in quotes, akin to styling a foreign word) and its lead guitarist, “Peter Thompson.”
On the whole, though — considering the intense local opposition and hostility — the coverage was surprisingly conciliatory. “Private groups in the county, which at one time were verging on washing their hands of the entire endeavor, pitched in to relieve the desperate food and medical situation.” And great pains were taken to point out how nonviolent the hippie hordes turned out to be.
The Woodstock festival altered the region in many different ways. It generated an involuntary, symbiotic relationship between the towns of Woodstock and Bethel, like two siblings who don’t like each other much but are bound together forever. As detailed by journalist Steve Israel for the Times Herald-Record, the enduring paradox was that Woodstock was not the actual host of, well, Woodstock. That distinction went to Bethel.
As the ’60s’ generation aged, the town of Woodstock, for a variety of reasons, began to embrace its legacy and soon began to profit from it. In Bethel, the hostility lingered for a longer period of time. The 1969 festival was seen as a blot, not a golden chapter. “The owners (post-Max Yasgur) of the Bethel site that many still consider hallowed ground,” Israel wrote, “were spreading chicken manure on that fertile soil to keep the pilgrims and plain curious from visiting. One year, tractors and state police cars formed roadblocks.” As the ’60s morphed into historical respectability, and old wounds faded, Bethel too embraced its legacy. The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which opened on the site of the festival in 2006, can be seen as an indication of coming full circle.
Does the town of Wallkill feel any regret in turning down Woodstock? Just the opposite, according to Orange County Historian Johanna Porr Yaun: “There’s certainly no regrets, rather a sense of pride about having ousted Woodstock Ventures from Orange County.”
But as per the original spirit of the Woodstock festival, most hard feelings on the part of Wallkill have mellowed out considerably. Judge Joseph Owen — Walkill’s town attorney in 1969 and one of the voices against the potential festival — and others, says Porr Yaun, “are also happy that Sullivan County was able to capitalize on it and turn it into a source of identity for themselves. Judge Owen and I attended the opening of the 50th anniversary exhibit…and he was impressed with the venue and museum at Bethel Woods.” In actuality, old wounds don’t always die hard.
Perhaps the most fitting conclusion comes from the decidedly mainstream Times Herald-Record, representing a constituency that was not exactly inclined to put flowers in their hair or visit an ashram. “Perhaps the most amazing, but understated, fact of the Aquarian phenomenon,” the newspaper wrote at the conclusion of the festivities, “has been the transformation of a disaster-potent situation into what may be best described as a victory for the human spirit.”