The History of the Woodstock Festival - Part 3

The History of the Woodstock Festival - Part 3
Authored By John Nicholson

The Woodstock festival was due to start on the Friday, but by Thursday of that week, traffic was in gridlock. On the quiet, Lang et al had begun to expect 200,000 to attend because they knew that big fests in 69 were pulling those kinda numbers.

Besides, all roads were jammed from midweek onwards, so that was a good indication that a lot of people were heading towards to the festival. But even so, spirits where high. On the Thursday it was already dawning on those stuck in traffic on the New York thru'way that this was clearly A Very Big Thing and they were all part of it.

As the sun rose on Friday morning, it looked like every freak from the right coast was heading to this gig. On top of that, left coaster folk were arriving in huge numbers too. Those early ads placed months ago had worked. People felt important. There was a sense that history was happening. OK, so everything was broken, but hey, when you're forging a revolution, not everything is going to run smoothly.

Nothing was moving on Friday. People slung their cars on the side of the road and walked. But soon there wasn't even any roadside space. So people just left their cars where they where - right in the middle of the road. For miles around Bethel and White Lake, it had become one big glorified car park.

According to NYC state cops, over a million people were now on the roads around Woodstock. 40 per cent of those never even made it within a sniff of the festival's rarefied air. The sky was full of choppers - army, airforce, media. Everyone knew by Friday afternoon that this was Le Grande Kahuna. And y'know, what a brilliant thing to be involved in.

Back on site, hours before the show was to start, Micheal Lang had declared it was a free festival. There was no choice. Fences around the site had all been taken down and the sheer overwhelming amount of people made collecting tickets or money impossible. This was bigger than everyone. It was out of control...or was it...maybe the Woodstock generation could hold it together and make it happen, despite some being higher than God.

But there's one thing no amount of money can do anything about and thank the lord for that. The Weather. Yeah. Rainstorms throughout the Catskills were forecast across the whole weekend. Could the gig go ahead? You bet. Wires, cables and stage were all given added protection from the rain and buried deep. Did anyone care about the prospect of rain? No. A bit of weather would only make the scene, it wouldn't be a bad thing at all. No-one seemed aware that a lot of water and electricity can be a very bad thing indeed. This was the beautiful naivety of Woodstock.

With so many people now on the site, it was time to play music. They couldn't be kept waiting forever but a lot of the rock band's equipment was stuck in the gridlock traffic along with a lot of musicians. The lucky ones were choppered in. But it made for chaos backstage. 400,000 people sat and waited for the gig to start but there were no bands ready. Since acoustic guitars could be set up easily, Michael Lang began prowling around, looking for solo musicians to open the show. He spied Ritchie Havens who had been set to be fifth on the bill. They were already two and a half hours behind. Haven's didn't want to do it, he suggested Tim Hardin do it but Hardin had split. Havens was an experienced performer and had played many festival stages but this was bigger, much bigger than any of them.

"You gotta do it, man", said Lang. So what did he do? He put his head down, picked up his guitar and started strumming in an almost shamanic manner, wandering out to the stage as he did so, to receive a huge welcome. Havens nailed it with a powerful performance, especially with the song featured in the movie 'Freedom' a sonmg he made up on the spot. It seemed to be part of the zeitgeist.

Out on the site, as Haven beat his guitar into submission, more people kept on coming. There was a 45 minute queue for water, an hour for the toilets. Medical supplies were running low already. And still more kids arrived. Everything was groovy - for now, but for how long? From the get-go, everyone involved in putting the festival on knew they were in trouble. There simply wasn't enough of anything, there was thunder in the distance and it was surely only a matter of time before the whole thing descended into anarchy. Michael Lang, still wearing his stoner's grin, looked out across the infinite expanse of humanity and must surely have wondered, what hell have I done?

Lang had flown in the Hog Farm commune from New Mexico, a week before the start, to help with security, food distribution and importantly, dealing with people on bad trips. He chartered a 727 at the cost of $17,000 to do it. The Hog Farm's vibe was this - help those who need help and promote love, peace and harmony with nature. What's not to like about that? Their leader was a toothless dude called Hugh Romney, a beat poet, and ex-Merry Prankster who was also a great organiser and a purveyor of the finest of good vibes. As he arrived a reporter asked him how he was going to handle security.
'Do you feel secure?' said Hugh.
'It seems to be working.'
And that was their gig. Not so much police officers and peace officers.

Acoustic Friday continued. A chopper brought Arlo Guthrie in, a huge stoned grin on his face, he told the crowd that the New York thruway had been closed. Freaks were shutting the state down, man. The joy of Arlo is irresistible. Tim Hardin was found and played a set, as did Melanie and Bert Sommer, Edinburgh's the Incredible String Band, Sweetwater and Ravi Shankar. On top of that was Joan Baez dedicating Joe Hill to her recently jailed husband and wailing at maximum glass-breaking pitch. God love her, she made some piercing noise.

Throughout the Friday performances, rain came and went. Lightening hung around all day and night without actually striking locally. The mud got churned and churned. By the time light was cast upon the new day, the whole place looked like a biblical scene, only there was a distinct lack of loaves and fishes and while there was plenty of water, none of it was turning into wine. The whole walking on water thing wasn't working out too well, either.

Trench foot looked more likely than a miracle. News bulletins were already calling it a disaster area and you could see why. From the outside it looked like some sort of muddy hell hole, but on the inside it was different. On the inside it felt like you were a kind of hero forging a new culture. Every time a new chopper flew overhead to capture aerial shots of the crowds of people, it only confirmed everyone's sense of history being made.

Like a Vietnam war movie, helicopters swooped, bringing in medical supplies and taking out people who needed medical attention. The rhythm of the blades a counterpoint to the music on the stage.

But one thing was clear. They were quickly running out of food and clean water. What could be done? This is where the straight world decided that rather than be mean-spirited about it and wag their fingers judgementally at everyone, instead, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Yeah! Rock on, straight folk!

A group of women from local community clubs donated thousands of sandwiches to the Hog Farm (no-one was gluten intolerant back then and only women were allowed to make sandwiches, by law) The Hog Farm handed them out to grateful freaks. Concession stands also gave away what food they had left. Local merchants didn't exploit the situation at all. Some gave supplies away, others donated it for whatever cash people had. No you can't pay with a debit card. This is 1969 and our lives have yet to be despoiled by electronic money.

From the very beginning Woodstock was a colossal mess. It was falling apart from the start. Yeah, but it was all still kinda beautiful.

What few knew was that the rain was making the site ever more dangerous and things were abvout to get very serious and very scary. 

Part 4 will be published on Wednesday 

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