Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Woodstock turns 50 at Bethel Woods

Site of original 1969 festival celebrates golden anniversary

“By the time we got to Woodstock, we were a half a million strong, and everywhere was a song and celebration” – “Woodstock,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.


Despite what you may have seen in the headlines this summer, Woodstock’s 50th anniversary celebration was not cancelled. It went on as planned last week, for several days, on the anniversary of the milestone event. Several acts that were on the historic musical bill in August of 1969 – Santana, John Fogerty, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Edgar Winter and Arlo Guthrie – also performed in August of 2019, as did Ringo Starr, the former Beatle who has made “Peace and Love” his personal motto. And it happened in Bethel, New York, at essentially the exact same site where Woodstock took place 50 years ago.

The four-day celebration, which happened at the Bethel Woods Center for The Arts, was planned long ago and most of the acts that performed were announced earlier this year. And it all went off without a hitch, which is why every time I saw a headline this summer saying that “Woodstock 50” was postponed, or had been moved, or was cancelled, I had to laugh.

For those that may be confused, here’s what happened: Michael Lang, one of the producers of the original Woodstock event in 1969 – and who had also produced Woodstock  ‘94 and Woodstock ‘99 – had hoped to do another large scale event for the 50th anniversary. And though he apparently has a nice relationship with the Bethel Woods Center for The Arts and has made appearances there in the past, he felt the original location, even with its gorgeous amphitheater, had become too developed and was now too small to host Woodstock 50. And so he made plans elsewhere. And those plans fell through. And thus all of the “Woodstock is canceled” headlines.

Thankfully, none of it had anything to do with what was happening in Bethel. And it was a fabulous anniversary weekend.

Woodstock - Bethel, New York, 1969 
The Bethel Woods Center for The Arts is one of the finest amphitheaters in the United States. On its historic grounds you will also find a wonderful Woodstock museum and the actual Yasgur’s Farm field where the original Woodstock event took place in 1969. A large “peace” symbol is cut into the grass of its slopping fields, which are nestled amid the rolling Catskills. An historical marker is also in place. It is the place where Woodstock actually happened, and thus where else would you rather be on its 50th anniversary?

Apparently, for about 60,000 people over the course of four days, that place was Bethel Woods. And I was one of them. I took a drive up on Friday and, in my own way, I tried to celebrate all-things Woodstock. Though the original event took place when I was only two years old, I’ve always felt a connection to it. At the time that I arrived on this Earth, America was changing, the war in Vietnam was raging, and thus, in some ways, I am a product of those times. In the photographs from my third birthday party, the balloons are decorated with “peace” symbols, and I grew up listening to most of the bands on the Woodstock bill, especially The Who. And though I’d been to a few shows in Bethel before, I was feeling a strong pull to go back for the 50th, and so off I went …

Historical marker at the original site of Woodstock 

The night prior, on the night they were showing the original Woodstock film at Bethel Woods, I was watching it at home. In one segment, Lang was talking about how when the promoters, after being displaced from two prior possible locations, were looking for a site to hold the event, they found themselves driving all throughout the hills and along backroads of the Catskills, looking for the right place. And when they came across Yasgur’s Farm, they knew they’d found it. When I drove there on Friday, my GPS, for some reason, took me on a different route from the way I’d gone there before, and I found myself on lots of little backroads, riding throughout the hills of the Catskills. And I loved it. I imagined those guys travelling those same roads 50 years earlier, and all of the young people jammed up in traffic trying to find this remote place without the use of anything like GPS. I imaged all of the hitchhikers and Volkswagen vans, and in an effort to try to harness some of that energy, I rolled down my windows, turned off the air conditioner in the car and breathed in the spirit of ‘69.  It was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

Though I’d been there before, I also visited the Woodstock monument, and for the 50th anniversary, you were permitted to walk around on the historic field of the concert. I strolled over to where the original stage was located, and of course I thought of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Crosby, Stills & Nash and all of the others. At sundown, I caught a glimpse of a beautiful golden sunset over the Catskills. It was perfect.

Ringo Starr, Bethel Woods, 2019
Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band, which performed on Friday night, were fabulous. Not only did Starr sing his best Beatles and solo songs, but he also played drums throughout most of the show. Any night that you can see a Beatle playing Beatles’ songs is a good might, but I also really enjoyed just watching him drum. At 79, he played with sheer joy. He’s got to be the most youthful man on the planet.

One of the members of Starr’s All-Star band is Gregg Rolie of Santana, who actually performed at Woodstock in 1969. He talked about playing at the big how “right over the hill” 50 years prior and sang songs such as “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways” and “Oye Como Va.” It was incredibly fitting for the vibe, and Starr closed the night with “With A Little Help From My Friends” – which Joe Cocker had covered so beautifully at Woodstock - and then segued into a few verses of John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” Given how much the weight of the Vietnam War had hovered over the original festival, it was most appropriate.

About halfway through Starr’s set, a bright, beautiful moon rose from behind the amphitheater. It too seemed fitting, almost cosmically, on anniversary weekend. And just as the band was playing the final notes of its very last song, a dark cloud briefly moved in front of the moon and hid its light. The spirit of Woodstock had spoken. Day #2 of the celebration was over.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, 1969

At one point, shortly after dusk, I walked from the amphitheater back over to the original concert field and pretty much had it all to myself. I thought of the more than 400,000 people that had gathered there 50 years prior, and how that moment in time has stayed with this country in so many ways for the past five decades. I also realized that a good portion of those young people that we see in those video clips may have since passed on. Woodstock, 50 years later, also reminded us of our mortality, but not in a somber way. It reminded us of how important it is to live life to the fullest and to appreciate the vibrancy of youth.

The Bethel Woods 50th anniversary celebration of Woodstock didn’t try to recreate anything. Traffic was managed perfectly and there was plenty of parking, food and restrooms. Nobody overdosed or slid down the hills in the mud. There were plenty of young people there, but a good portion of them were of the Woodstock generation or, like me, the following generation that also grew up with the music. And at this point in our lives, we prefer a clean restroom and plenty of choices of good food. Bethel Woods has all of that, as well as a great gift shop. Trying to recreate Woodstock would have felt forced, but celebrating it in a very 2019 way did not.

While walking in the concert field, however, I did feel a sense that, like in 1969, we are once again a nation divided. This time, it’s not over a war happening overseas, but rather one happening right here in America. I found myself - at a place synonymous with peace and love - thinking about gun control. And I was pleased to learn that Michael Lang himself showed up in Bethel over the weekend to talk about that issue. I'm glad he hasn't changed.
Woodstock’s 50th anniversary celebration was not canceled. It went on, in Bethel, as planned. And, more than anything, it was fun. And perhaps that was the best way to honor it. I recently watched the new PBS documentary, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation.” At one point during the festival, Max Yasgur, the owner of the farm, can be seen on stage addressing the enormous crowd. He was 49 years old at the time and was viewed as an old-school conservative, or in those days, as one of the “establishment.” Yet it was he who allowed Woodstock to take place on his land. And by all accounts, Max was a pretty cool guy. When the event ran out of food, he sent food from his farm. He said “we’ve got to feed those kids.” When the event ran out of water, he sent water. And though he was surely no hippie, he looked at them all – all 400,000 of them - as a bunch of nice kids having a good time. And he was happy to have them there.

Sunset in Bethel on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock
“I’m a farmer,” he said on stage that day, 50 years ago. “I don’t know how to speak to 20 people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think that you people have proven something to the world. Not only to the town of Bethel and Sullivan County and New York State … you’re proving something to the world. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. We had no idea there would be this size group, and because of that, you’ve had quite a few inconveniences … but the one thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids – and I call you kids because I have children older than you are – a half a million young people can get together, and have three days of fun and music, and have nothing but fun and music. And God bless you for it.”


Three days of peace, love, music and fun. There is still an aura there. You can feel it.

Happy 50th Woodstock. And well done, Bethel Woods.

(Alan K. Stout has covered rock and pop music in Northeastern Pennsylvania since 1992. His weekly radio show, “Music On The Menu,” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on The River. Reach him at musiconthemenu@comcast.net)  

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