Woodstock Festival 1969 – The story of how it nearly never happened

In August 1969, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair took place on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in the town of Bethel,  (outside of White Lake, New York). Over half a million people came to that 600-acre farm to hear 32 acts (leading and emerging performers of the time) play over the course of four days (August 15-18). Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, the Who, Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were among the line-up. Today Woodstock is widely regarded as one of the greatest happenings of the twentieth century if not all time; perhaps even, one of the most pivotal moments ever in music history.

The Promoters
The promoters of the festival were four young men: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld, and Mike Lang. The oldest of the four was only 27 years old at the time of the Woodstock Festival. Roberts, an heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, and his friend Rosenman were looking for a way to use Roberts’ money to invest in an idea that would make them even more money. After placing an ad in The New York Times that stated: “Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions,” they met Kornfeld and Lang.

The Plan for the Woodstock Festival

Their original plan was to build a recording studio and a retreat for rock musicians up in Woodstock, New York (where Bob Dylan and other musicians already lived). The idea morphed into creating a two-day rock concert for 50,000 people with the hope that the concert would raise enough money to pay for the studio.

The four young men then got to work on organising a large music festival. They found a location for the event up in an industrial park in nearby Wallkill, New York. They printed tickets ($8 for one day, $13 for two days, and $18 for three days), which could be purchased in select stores or via mail order. The men also worked on organising food, signing musicians, and hiring security.

Things Go Very Wrong

The first of many things to go wrong with the Woodstock Festival was the location. No matter how the young men and their lawyers spun it, the citizens of Wallkill did not want a bunch of drugged-out hippies descending on their town. After much wrangling, the town of Wallkill passed a law on July 2, 1969 that effectively banned the concert from their vicinity.

Everyone involved with the Woodstock Festival panicked. Stores refused to sell any more tickets and the negotiations with the musicians got shaky. Only a month-and-a half before the Woodstock Festival was to begin, a new location had to be found. Luckily, in mid-July, before too many people began demanding refunds for their pre-purchased tickets, Max Yasgur offered up his 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York to be the location for the Woodstock Festival.

As lucky as they were to have found a new location, the last minute change of venue seriously set back the Festival timeline. New contracts to rent the dairy farm and surrounding areas had to be drawn up and permits to allow the Woodstock Festival in the town had to be acquired. Construction of the stage, a performers’ pavilion, parking lots, concession stands, and a children’s playground all got a late start and barely got finished in time for the event. Some things, like ticket booths and gates, did not get finished in time.

As the date got closer, more problems sprung up. It soon appeared that their 50,000 people estimate was way too low and the new estimate jumped to upwards of 200,000 people. The young men then tried to bring in more toilets, more water, and more food. However, the food concessionaires kept threatening to cancel at the last minute (the organisers had accidentally hired people who had no experience in concessions) so they had to worry about whether or not they could airlift in rice as a backup food supply. Another problem emerged as there was a last minute ban on off-duty police officers from working at the Woodstock Festival as security guards.

By Wednesday, August 13, some 60,000 people had already arrived and set up camp near the main stage area.  These early arrivals had walked right through the huge gaps in the fence where the gates had not yet been placed. Since there was no way to get the 60,000 people to leave the area in order to pay for tickets and there was no time to erect the numerous gates to prevent even more people from just walking in, the organisers were forced to make the event a free concert.

This declaration of a free concert had two dire effects. The first of which was that the organisers were going to lose massive amounts of money by putting on this event. The second effect was that as news spread that it was now a free concert, an estimated one million people headed to Bethel, New York. Police had to turn away thousands of cars. It is estimated that about 500,000 people actually made it to the Woodstock Festival.

No one had planned for half a million people. The highways in the area literally became parking lots as people abandoned their cars in the middle of the street and just walked the final distance to the Woodstock Festival. Traffic was so bad that the organisers had to hire helicopters to shuttle the performers from their hotels to the stage.

The Music Starts

Despite all the organisers’ troubles, the Woodstock Festival got started nearly on time. On Friday evening, August 15, Richie Havens got up on stage and officially started the Festival. Sweetwater, Joan Baez, and other folk artists also played Friday night.

The music started up again shortly after noon on Saturday with Quill and continued non-stop until Sunday morning around 9am. The day of psychedelic bands continued with such musicians as Santana, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, and The Who, to name just a few.

It was obvious to everyone that on Sunday, the Woodstock Festival was winding down. Most of the crowd left throughout the day, leaving about 150,000 people on Sunday night. By the time Jimi Hendrix, the last musician to play at Woodstock, finished his set early on Monday morning, the crowd was down to only 25,000.

The Line Up By Day – In Order of Performance:

Friday, August 15

  • Richie Havens
  • Sweetwater
  • Bert Sommer
  • Tim Hardin
  • Ravi Shankar
  • Melanie Safka
  • Arlo Guthrie
  • Joan Baez

Saturday, August 16

  • Quill
  • Country Joe McDonald
  • John Sebastian
  • Keef Hartley Band
  • Santana
  • The Incredible String Band
  • Canned Heat
  • Mountain
  • Grateful Dead
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band
  • Sly & the Family Stone
  • The Who
  • Jefferson Airplane

Sunday, August 17 to Monday, August 18

  • Joe Cocker
  • Country Joe and the Fish
  • Ten Years After
  • The Band
  • Johnny Winter
  • Blood, Sweat & Tears
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
  • Paul Butterfield Blues Band
  • Sha-Na-Na
  • Jimi Hendrix

Despite the 30-minute lines for water and at least hour-long wait to use a toilet, the Woodstock Festival was a huge success. There were a lot of drugs, a lot of sex, 3 babies were born, and one or two people died; and then there was the rain and the mud, an awful lot of rain and mud!

After the Woodstock Festival

The organisers of Woodstock were dazed at the end of the Festival. They didn’t have time to focus on the fact that they had created the most popular music event in history, for they first had to deal with their incredible debt (over $1 million) and the 70 lawsuits that had been filed against them. To their great relief, the film of the Woodstock Festival turned into a hit movie and the profits from the movie covered a large chunk of the debt from the Festival. By the time everything was paid off, they were still $100,000 in debt.

Four days of music… half a million people… mud, rain, and the rest became history.

11Original Woodstock ticket

The times they are a changing – The Local Cardiff Music Scene

In January 1964 American singer- songwriter Bob Dylan, released a song entitled ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Columbia Records). For the many great bands who have graced the Cardiff music scene over the years, this song is quite poignant. For every musician who has at some point taken to the stage will have an absolute plethora of stories to tell about the many popular rock venues that once landmarked our great capital city. While each story may be different, those same musicians will have all noticed the many changes that have been brought about within the local music scene over the decades.

The late ’70s and early ’80s was arguably Cardiff’s hey-day, the music scene was vibrant, dynamic and enjoyable. Supporters of live music were treated to a healthy mix of styles that were available throughout the city, with a predominance of pop, rock, reggae and old time rhythm and blues belting out in many of Cardiff’s tiny bars and late night clubs. In those days, people would make a conscious effort to attend venues known for supporting live music. Often, the bands themselves would have no guarantee of payment for their performances, relying either on the door money, or a few coins being thrown into “the bucket”, or maybe a few pints put behind the bar for their reward!

Some of the more popular venues frequented during this time included The Poet’s Corner (‘PC’s’), The Dowlais, The Casablanca, The Point, The Lion’s Den, Sam’s Bar, The Full Moon Club, Bogies, The Pub on the Mud, The Big Windsor, The Royal Oak, The Square Club, The Bristol Hotel, Revolution (before it became Smileys), Monty’s, and Gassy Jacks (God Bless Alun Jones) to name but a few!

Despite the abundance of playing talent, the major recording labels, at that time were reluctant to sign anyone based on this side of the severn bridge. It certainly wasn’t a time to utilise your Welshness as a marketing tool; the concept of “Cool Cymru” was still some way off…

This lack of recognition only encouraged bands like Roosevelt to continue to write and play original material and other stuff they wanted to do without chasing trends; and despite the apparent lack of wider exposure, many talented musicians and top quality bands started to emerge on the scene.

For many people, the ultimate classic rock experience, featured a trip up the “helter skelter” stairway to the Moon Club, behind the outdoor Cardiff Market, now the site of plush restaurants and swanky cocktail bars. No matter what you ordered in the Moon Club, everyone seemed to end up with bottles of (Newcastle) Brown Ale! Tiger Bay were the regular house band – a brilliantly loud, sweaty three-piece, often joined on stage for a few songs by the legendary Burke Shelley of Budgie fame. Other bands who could guarantee you a good night out included the wonderful ‘Ned’ Edwards and his Red Hot Pokers, Sassafrass, Snatch it Back and Red Beans and Rice. Madassa, fronted currently and originally by the dynamic Dave Bowen and later by the vocally gifted Laverne Brown, have also been around since those days, blasting out their own brand of blues and soul.

For those who can remember that far back, other popular pub rock bands of the day (and worthy of mention) included Kicking the Image, Su Yu, the Raging Pygmies, Fire Down Below, Thieves, Vaseline Tigers, The Kenny Driscoll Band, Moira and the Mice, Zipper, Southpaw, the fabulous Superclarkes, All the Notes, Railroad Bill, ACAB, Sting Like a Bee, One Plus One and the Watermelons.

Sadly, only a handful of those great bands have survived and are still playing on the local scene today, and most, if not all of those once great, toilet leaking, beer swilled, dingy venues has either been completely demolished or converted into multi-story car parks & fashionable restaurants of some description; all in the good name of progress.

So in 1964 Bob Dylan was right – the times have indeed changed and as the future unfolds, they will continue to change as far as the Cardiff music scene is concerned. The next generation of talent is now emerging and with the opening of a number of small ‘unplugged’ venues and open mic nights around the city, these players are being given opportunities to showcase their talents on the local scene.  Who knows what it will all look like in another twenty years’ time…in order to survive, I suppose, (in the words of the great Bob Dylan); we’d all ‘better start swimming or we’ll sink like a stone, for the times are a changing’…..