August 21, 2019

Being There: Woodstock at 50, A Place and A Song

By Stuart Mitchner

By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration.
— Joni  Mitchell, from “Woodstock”

Joni Mitchell never actually got to Woodstock, but she found her way there in the stardust of her song. According to Mike Greenblatt’s 50th Anniversary Woodstock: Back to Yasgur’s Farm (Krause 2019), she missed the festival because of a scheduled appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. After watching televised news reports from the scene and listening to various musicians talk about it on the radio, she began writing the words and music that became the festival’s anthem. Of all the versions of “Woodstock” on record, the one that best expresses her yearning to be there is by Mathews Southern Comfort featuring steel-guitarist Gordon Huntley. Along with the plaintive singing of Ian Mathews, it’s Huntley’s playing that comes closest to conveying the blissfully unreal reality of longing to be somewhere without actually being there.

“We’re all still at Woodstock,” said Richie Havens, who opened the musical festivities on Friday, August 15, 1969. He was still there when he spoke those words 15 years later in 1984, and although he died on April 22, 2013, he’s still there now, so are we, and so are the couples whose lives together began there. A piece by Paul Kennedy in Greenblatt’s book relates how Kathy and Butch Dukes keep getting asked, “How can you be so liberal?” In the “amused voice” of a woman accustomed to that question, Kathy says, “I tell them, ‘Come on, we met at Woodstock.’”

Kathy was 21 and Butch was 19 when they found themselves “center stage and up the hill, right in the middle of the biggest concert in history.” Introduced by a mutual friend who soon left, they stayed where they were, “surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people, talking, listening to music, and, like all couples on a first date, getting to know each other. ‘We didn’t budge,’ Kathy says. ‘Once you sat down, there wasn’t anywhere to go.’”

“This is America”

Adjacent to then-and-now pictures of Kathy and Butch in Back to Yasgur’s Farm is a photocopy of the handwritten message they received from Max Yasgur in response to a thank-you note. One of most moving moments in director Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock comes when the dairy farmer stands on the big stage, mike in hand, telling the multitudes gathered on his land that they’ve “proven something to the world … that half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music.” The book also includes Yasgur’s speech at a zoning ordinance meeting in Bethel convened to close down the festival before it began. Says Yasgur, a lifelong Republican, “I hear you don’t like the look of the kids who are working at the site. I hear you don’t like their lifestyle. I hear you don’t like that they are against the war and that they say so very loudly.” After admitting that he shares similar feelings, he speaks of “the Americans in uniform who gave their lives in war after war just so those kids would have the freedom to do exactly what they are doing. That’s what this country is all about and I am not going to let you throw them out of our town just because you don’t like their dress or their hair or the way they live or what they believe. This is America and they are going to have their festival.” 

After Woodstock, the locals, including Max Yasgur’s own neighbors, “shunned him” and the general store “refused to accept his goods.” He hung on for two years before selling the farm and moving to Florida, where he died of a heart attack in 1973. He was only 53. A Woodstock hero, he will always be there.

Joe Cocker and his Friends

Bob Dylan and the Beatles were also present without being there. As a famous former resident of Woodstock, N.Y., Dylan put the town on the counterculture map, lending it the mystique that made it a natural choice for organizers looking to placename the event. Then there was the added festival-to-festival connection forged by Dylan’s role in rock’s historic insurgent electrification of the Newport Folk Festival four years earlier.

As for the Beatles, Woodstock was preceded by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the anxiously awaited album that transformed the spring of 1967 into one of the first great counterculture seasons, when strangers all over the country were asking one another “Have you heard it yet?” No need to identify the “it,” everyone knew what that meant, whether it was the wide-eyed guy at the gas station hanging on your ear about “that explosion” at the end or the waitress telling you  “She’s Leaving Home” was all about her.

On Sunday afternoon Joe Cocker, the one-time  plumber and apprentice gas-fitter, made everyone at Woodstock believe that Sgt. Pepper’s opening number, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” was about them, about community, about passion, about love, about the human spirit. If you’ve seen the film lately, you know that “singing” is too small a word for what Cocker does with that Lennon-McCartney song. Besides being the greatest ever Beatles cover, it’s a call and response seance bringing Ray Charles and the Rayettes and “What’d I Say” into the we’re-all-at-Woodstock present. Writing about the 40th anniversary of the festival ten years ago, I wore myself out trying to describe what happened before the rains came, as if called down by Cocker’s out-of-body performance. He prefaced the song by telling the massive crowd that had been paying little attention to him and his band during their set, “This title just about puts it all into focus.”As I wrote then, “If there were any Mansonian demons haunting the scene, he took them on, using them, absorbing and exorcising them even as they nipped at his heels and jerked him and his invisible guitar about.”

Riding It Out

Next to Joe Cocker channeling the world of energy in the crowd and Joan Baez at two in the morning on the first night serenading the drowsy masses, gloriously, with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” what may be the most memorable sequence in the film comes with the sudden storm that turns the stage into a ship at sea, with the sun-shading sheets of canvas flapping and wildly blowing like sails while the amplified voice of the embattled captain, production coordinator John Morris, tells people to get off and stay clear of the light towers. Morris manages to be at once commanding and  companionable, speaking to the crowd as if half a million were half a dozen, “Wrap yourself up, gang. Looks like we’ve got to ride this out!” The storm is the turning point where instead of spiraling into a disaster stoked by paranoid alarmists claiming the clouds had been seeded by “fascist pigs” in helicopters, Woodstock becomes spectacular fun, a free-spirited romp instead of a riot, Yasgur’s “kids” sliding in the world of mud his “green and pleasant land” has turned into.

My mind keeps coming back to that sunny moment on the other side of the storm when the man who may have given his life as well as his land stood on the same stage telling everyone, “I’m a farmer. I don’t know how to speak to 20 people at one time, let alone a crowd like this.” After once again stressing the idea that “half a million kids have proven something to the world,” he adds, “I call you kids because I have children older than you.” The respect he shows in going out of his way to make sure they understand that he isn’t merely patronizing them is a song in itself. As the title of Greenblatt’s big colorful book and Joni Mitchell’s music  make clear, Yasgur’s name will always be synonymous with Woodstock. He gave the event a place, Joni Mitchell gave it a song.