The historic Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969 occurred at this site in Bethel, New York, on what was then Max Yasgur’s dairy farm. The festival was originally planned to last three days, from August 15 – August 17 of 1969. The festival ended up lasting four days and attracting hundreds of thousands more guests than originally anticipated. Over 400,000 attendees flooded into the small town of Bethel, New York, filling the town such that it caused significant local controversy. The event, however, became the symbol of a generation, yielding such terms as “The Woodstock Generation,” and has been since heavily hailed as a major turning point in United States Music History.
Woodstock Music and Art Fair was the result of the efforts
of John Roberts, Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang, and Joel Rosenman, all of whom
were under the age of 30 at the time. The
final cost of the festival was over $2.4 million, much of which was provided by
John Roberts who was the heir to a massive fortune. Rosenman and Roberts were roommates and
aspirational venture capitalists. Kornfeld
was the tie to the music industry, working as the vice president of Capitol
Records and writing relatively successful music himself. Lang was the only one of the four with
experience producing a festival, having run the Miami Pop Festival in 1968,
which was one of the largest rock shows ever at the time. Lang and Kornfeld met through business; Lang
was trying to get the band he managed, Train, a record deal and managed to get
a meeting with Kornfeld. The two pairs
of ambitious entrepreneurs met one another in 1968 and began the fateful
planning of the festival.
While their individual recollections of the event planning differ
somewhat, there is some consensus between the four that the event went through
various iterations in their minds. There
were two goals in their minds at the beginning of planning: throwing the
festival and finding funding to build a state-of-the-art studio to service the
great number of musicians who were living in the area of Woodstock, NY. While Lang insists that they had always
intended to organize the largest music festival ever (which was even in their
calculations much smaller than the final turnout,) Rosenman and Roberts claim
the original goal was to throw something more akin to a party for music critics
and executives, which then evolved into the idea of a concert whose profits
would be used to build the studio.
Later in the year of 1968, the four friends formed Woodstock
Ventures, Inc., and began the troubled path to finding a site for the
festival. A number of locations fell
through, either due to issues with the aesthetics of the location or the
legality of its use. The first location
they had secured, a large unused industrial park in Wallkill, NY ended up
becoming an issue of PR. Despite getting
approval from the town and beginning advertisements around the country, the
community began to react poorly to the idea of the possible influx of
counterculture youth into their town.
This culminated with personal harassment targeted at the owner of the
industrial park, who was subjected to threats and constant badgering from other
townspeople, and the ultimate banning of the festival from town on account of
new zoning laws pushed through the municipal legislation.
It was then that Woodstock Ventures was introduced to Max
Yasgur, the dairy farmer whose land in Bethel, NY would finally become the site
of the historic festival. Again, many
locals did not approve of the potential flood of people, putting up signs
reading “Buy no Milk. Stop Max’s Hippy Music Festival.” Despite the tension, the plans for the
festival went forward, despite no formal permits being issued to Woodstock
Ventures. The date of the festival was
nearing at this point and Woodstock Ventures was not able to aptly
prepare. As a result, fences at the site
were foregone in order to focus on the construction of the stage.
Thousands of attendees arrived early and crowded the city
streets, causing widespread traffic issues.
The municipal government was paralyzed and did not enforce restrictions
placed on the concert. By Sunday, August
17, 1969 the event had grown so large that Sullivan County, NY declared a state
of emergency and the local Air Force Base was called upon to help airlift the
performers out of the venue. Rock legend
Jimi Hendrix was the last to perform at Woodstock, performing a show which
would go down in music history for a finally dwindling crowd. At its max, the crowd at Woodstock numbered
over 400,000, many of whom had not even paid ticket costs since the festival
had long overrun its original boundaries.
Despite the organizational chaos, out of the hundreds of
thousands at Woodstock Music Festival, there were only two fatalities, and,
in-fact, two births. The attendees
largely reviewed the event positively.
Max Yasgur as well, saw the event as a major cultural success, bringing
people together peacefully. Additionally,
in order to manage the sound for such an immense crowd, a number of new
techniques and sound devices were constructed which were used for large
concerts for many years.
A major documentary film by the name Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh and edited by Thelma
Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, was shot at the event and released a year
later. The film was a major box office
success for the producers of the film, Warner Brothers. Woodstock
would go on to be named as a culturally significant film by the Library of
Congress, and would receive the Academy Award for Documentary Feature. The movie’s financial success allowed
Woodstock Ventures to pay off the large number of lawsuits levied against them
and pay off their considerable debts from the festival.
At the site now there lies a commemorative plaque, which was
established in 1984, and displays the festivals iconic logo. While inhabitants and government of the town
of Bethel were hostile to visitors and commemorators for many years, the town
now happily embraces its history, including erecting signs welcoming visitors
to the site of the event. In 2008, the
Museum at Bethel Woods was opened which now contains a number of exhibits
displaying items, from artifacts to photographs, from the event. In 2016, the location was successfully added
to the National Register of Historic Places.