Photo by Ralph Ackerman/Getty Images
The most iconic music festival ever was meant to be “A weekend in the country” for about 100,000 lucky festival goers. But when the venue was moved at the last second, no one could’ve imagined that half a million people would show up to rock during the concert of the ages. The feelings of love and peace felt in that special weekend in 1969 were difficult for them to describe, but photos of the event allow us to experience just a little bit of that magical time and place in history.
Kicking it off
The festivities began on August 15th with a performance by Richie Havens followed by Sweetwater at 6:15 p.m. (Sweetwater got stuck in traffic on the way). Perhaps it was the words of spiritual master Sri Swami Satchidananda (who spoke right after Sweetwater) that instilled the spirit that prevailed over the course of the next three days.
“Sound energy, sound power, is much, much greater than any other power in this world. And, one thing I would very much wish you all to remember is that with sound, we can make — and at the same time, break… And with all my heart, I wish a great, great success in this music festival to pave the way for many more festivals in many other parts of this country.”
Love in the air
Jefferson Airplane was scheduled to be the headliner for Saturday, August 16th, but didn’t end up playing until Sunday morning. Sometime before 8 a.m., weary crowds raised their heads as Jefferson Airplane sang them awake. All of a sudden, the couple below stood up and shared a kiss and a smile before she rested her head on her lover’s shoulder.
This photo became an iconic image of Woodstock embodying the love that seemed to permeate through the air. Bobbi Kelly and her then-boyfriend Nick Ercoline shared this moment and many more, as some years later they married and had two kids together.
These fish-eye photos are rare at Woodstock, and these folks have cleverly placed the camera on the ground and captured an image of themselves inside their tepee. They deserve those smiles they’re wearing, as they may have gotten into the concert, but there were many musicians who wanted to come and couldn’t make it.
Bob Dylan stayed back with his son, who was hospitalized over the weekend, while John Lennon was stuck in Canada because he couldn’t get a visa in time (there’s some evidence the Nixon administration had a hand in this because of Lennon’s anti-war message). The Jeff Beck group was also scheduled to perform, but split up the night before the festival.
Girls just wanna have fun
Woodstock was such a surprise that many performers and celebrities have kicked themselves over the years for not attending (Jim Morrison, we’re pointing at the heavens toward you!). That wasn’t the case for German model Veruschka von Lehndorff, who can be seen dancing her socks off in this photo.
Standing at 6’3” she would’ve been an easy one to find, and especially easy because she already had a series of cover photos with Vogue magazine, and even a cover with Life magazine in 1967. In true bohemian fashion, when she left the industry, she cited a disagreement with the new editor-in-chief at Vogue saying, “She wanted me to be bourgeois and I didn’t want to be that.”
Woodstock was a music festival for the ages, featuring legendary bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Who, and legendary artists such as Santana and Jimi Hendrix. With really only one stage, and an estimated 500,000 people in attendance, there was a literal sea of people rocking out to the music.
The magic of music festivals are sometimes feverish, traveling through the air and infecting everyone with the same sort of energy. Joni Mitchell, who Rolling Stone called “one of the best songwriters ever” said, “Woodstock was a spark of beauty where half-a-million kids saw that they were part of a greater organism.”
Any true festival goer knows that the party only stops when the music ceases to play. These happy festival goers ignored the hint that the concert was over after the music stopped, and are rocking at the free stage. This photo was probably taken very late at night, as the bands played into the wee hours of the morning, and festival goers were then able to play on their on own stage.
Joan Baez (who was pregnant at the time) was the last performance on day one and she didn’t start until 1 a.m. The next night, Creedence was the main act, but they didn’t get started until well after midnight. They blamed the Grateful Dead, who played far out into the night and cut into Creedence’s time.
Two hours of silence
Catching any sleep at Woodstock was a difficult task, and those who were unlucky enough to not have shelter had to make do. The music was so constant at Woodstock that between noon on Saturday, and noon on Monday (a 48-hour period) there were only two hours of silence (if we can even call it that, as there’s plenty of evidence to suggest drum circles filled the gap).
The only real gap in the festival was sometime between 3 a.m. to noon on Saturday morning. Indeed, no rest for the wicked, or the happy souls recharging their batteries before the next great ride. With all that good music in one place, they kind of owed it to themselves to make it happen.
Woodstock festival goers didn’t know who Santana was prior to them taking the stage on the second day, but they would remember his performance for the rest of their lives. Emerging out of San Francisco, Santana only released their first album (aptly titled Santana) earlier that month.
But festival-goers vibed with Santana as they were the sole Latin flavor added to the Rock n’ roll smorgasbord. They came on mid-afternoon on Saturday and played eight songs with extreme energy that is said to have captured the mood at Woodstock perfectly.
Woodstock was advertised as “a weekend in the country” and wasn’t even called Woodstock at the beginning. At first it was “An Aquarian Exposition, Three Days of Peace and Music,” until the namesake of the group that promoted the concert became the name etched into the history books. In fact, Woodstock wasn’t even in Woodstock.
It was held in Bethel, which is almost 50 miles away, and the traffic around the festival was absolutely atrocious, causing delays even to the musicians who performed. Many took to the streets, abandoning their cars or getting off their buses early, but that did nothing to relieve the mechanical mess on the roads.
Tim Hardin performed a couple acts after Sri Swami Satchidananda on day one of the festival, and it looks as though he’s scratching down some last minute notes, or hopefully writing some new lyrics. It’s likely the former, as Hardin suffered from stage fright and was had some problems with addiction.
Even so, Hardin played his “If I were a Carpenter” solo and apparently brought down the house. Hardin’s life started declining in 1969, but for Woodstock, he showed up and played one of his best live performances. He sure looks inspired, as the spirit of the festival may have given him the fuel he needed to give his best.
Notice how no one seems to have their own personal space in these photos? Woodstock was absolutely packed, and typically when that many people are put together, something bad happens. But Woodstock was special for many reasons, and one of those reasons is that despite the conditions, not one incident of violence occurred.
Through the sea of people, the photographer has found a woman crafting near the free stage. She embodies the fashion of the era with her headband, and matching leather vest and armband. Her natural beauty shows through, as you’d be hard pressed to find a woman wearing make up at Woodstock.
Janis “Pearl” Joplin told her band that this was “just another gig,” but when she spotted the crowds, she apparently became giddy with nerves and stayed until the very end. In full tie-dye regale she rocked Woodstock festival goers on Saturday night, and then stayed to party for the rest of the event.
Joplin had already left Big Brother & the Holding Company the previous year, so she played at Woodstock as a solo act. She arrived by helicopter so traffic didn’t hold her up, but she still ended up playing late Saturday night, eventually ending her set at 2 a.m. on Sunday.
Jefferson Airplane may have performed first thing Sunday morning, but they were choppered in much earlier in the festival. The band and its entourage were a tight knit group, and embodied the communal feel and free love that Woodstock boasted. While they waited their turn to perform, they did as musicians do during a festival; listen to music!
Pictured here is much of the group laying it down for the Woodstock crowd. When Slick was asked what she remembered about Woodstock, she recalled the helicopter ride, and the fact that until they performed, Jefferson Airplane hung out among the crowd all day long smoking cigarettes and drinking wine.
This photo captures the uninhibited ecstasy felt by the massive crowds at Woodstock. Smiling faces and raised fists of triumph accompany clapping hands and of course, peace signs. Woodstock was the culmination of counterculture that picked up in the middle 1960s, and was best summed up by the words of writer Hunter S. Thompson:
“And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…”
When thinking of Woodstock it doesn’t exactly conjure images of a family friendly environment. But like most festivals, the music could also be enjoyed on the fringe away from the energetic, gyrating masses. Besides, there can be no measure as to how much the kids benefited in future social circles by starting off stories with, “This one time at Woodstock…”
This particular photo is of Ken Babbs, who was a former Marine, and member of the Merry Pranksters. The Pranksters were founded by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author, Ken Kesey, but he had been long gone from the group by the time Woodstock arrived.
Yes, this is a real photograph, and yes, it happened at Woodstock. Ken Babbs and his baby were gathered at the free stage, which is where this puppet show took place. Performers were allowed to display whatever they wanted, as the jester and the reptile certainly prove that.
Kids were prevalent at Woodstock, and amazingly, two babies were actually born during the festival. One was born in a car outside the venue that was stuck in a traffic jam (no surprise there), while another was born in a nearby hospital after the mother was helicoptered out. We bet they bring that up a lot.
Sharing is caring
This photo is more reminiscent of the communal living that was popular in the 1960s and 1970s than a music festival. But just like everything else at Woodstock, there were extreme shortages of food. In the spirit of sharing, festival goers banded together with what they had and set up stands amid the masses to feed their hungry bellies.
The food at this stand was free, just like so many other things at Woodstock. Medical supplies, food, and water had to be acquired and given out to prevent any massive unrest. Besides, try dancing for three days without any food or water (we are being sarcastic; do not actually try that).
As evidenced by the photo below, security wasn’t exactly tight at Woodstock. The massive amount of people must’ve presented problems for those who weren’t anywhere close to the front of the stage. These guys are climbing some scaffolding left over from stage set up to obtain a better view of the performance.
Despite the fact that no violent acts were recorded at Woodstock, there were still two deaths. One person died from having a little bit too much fun, while another unfortunate soul got run over by a tractor while wrapped in a sleeping bag in a neighboring field. An unfortunate ending to a fun day.
No ticket, no problem
Tens of thousands of people showed up for Woodstock even before the concert began. The promoters knew they had a problem at that point because they sold out of tickets when they reached the 100,000 mark. It cost $2.5 million to put the festival on, and it managed to make only $1.5 million.
When they realized how many people were coming (and the fact that they couldn’t stop them) the promoters announced that the concert was free for everyone. It’s estimated that over 300,000 people got into the concert free, which may be one of the reasons why the festival is so eternal; those procrastinating ticket buyers finally found a festival for themselves.
Peace and food
Hot days produce naked babies, and a lack of food at a festival will create a frenzy. Fortunately, this mother has made her way to one of the makeshift food tents and grabbed herself some grub, something she looks very happy about.
While the spirit of the festival was very much anti-war, the US army flew in choppers with food to feed hungry festival goers. When the Jewish Community Center in Bethel learned there were food shortages they bought 200 loaves of bread, 40 pounds of cold cuts, and two gallons of pickles. To distribute them, the Jewish Center employed the service of nuns.
If you were in peril at Woodstock, then you would find relief when confronted by a lady in a lavender shirt. Tents made up makeshift hospitals that treated a whole number of ailments, many of which were the result of drug use.
The nurses weren’t alone, as there were a number of doctors who were flown in. When army choppers starting swooping in, they brought more than food. People began getting a little agitated, so they were reassured with, “They are with us man, they are not against us. Forty-five doctors or more are here without pay because they dig what this is into.”
Some casual reading
This couple is taking a brief break from the festival to check out the daily news. Depending on the paper they had, they could be reading an article titled, “Traffic Uptight at Hippiefest,” or “Hippies Mired in Sea of Mud.” As it turned out, negative reporting such as this was the intention of various New York editors, and by the end of the concert they started changing their tune.
One writer at the New York Times admitted later that he was pressured by his editors to write negative articles about the concert. What really changed events is when parents of concertgoers called media outlets to tell them their reporting was misleading, as their kids were having the time of their lives.
This young woman emerged from her teepee (perhaps that’s why she’s grinning) and looks like she’s having a great time. The flying pig emblem on her waist was a defining symbol of the antiwar movement, as “Pigasus” as he was called was a nominee for the presidency in 1968.
Nominated by the “Yippies,” Pigasus was brought to the 1968 democrat convention, which led to seven people getting arrested when they tried to announce his candidacy. The people and subsequent trial was dubbed the “Chicago Seven.” In testimony by one of the members he claimed an officer told them while they were in jail that, “You guys are all going to jail for the rest of your lives—the pig squealed on you!”
Traffic is somewhat tolerable when at a crawl, and near impossible to bear at a dead stop. These two young men are defying that notion, as not only do they not seem to mind the traffic, but are enjoying their cramped quarters. That’s what you get when you hitchhike home from Woodstock, and they certainly weren’t the only festival-goers that arrived and departed this way.
Only about 50% of cars produced in 1969 had air conditioning, and this car likely does not have it. That August muggy air must’ve been difficult to deal with, especially when you’re stuck in traffic with the concert of the ages going on!
The Grateful Dead had a decidedly underwhelming performance at Woodstock, as they were on stage for about 90 minutes and only played five songs. The rest of the time was filled with extremely long breaks because of all the equipment malfunctions they faced.
Owsley Stanley was their sound tech and had constructed a monstrosity of a sound system. The Dead came on late while he tinkered with it, and then when the stage flooded from rain the band was in constant jeopardy of electric shock. Who knows what that would’ve done for front-man Jerry Garcia, as his wife later claimed that he had undiagnosed Synesthesia, which is the ability to taste music.
Rock it til da wheels fall off
This photo from the front of the stage reveals the The English pop group, The Incredible String Band, and the revolving stage set up for Woodstock. It was meant to minimize wait times between bands by allowing one to set up while the other rocked it, but instead it caused a whole bunch of headaches.
Owsley’s heavy sound system for The Grateful Dead nearly crushed the stage and caused the wheels to come off. And then there was the added problem best described by a crew member when he said, “Grace Slick and Janis Joplin and everybody were standing on it and you can’t just sweep them off with a broom.”
This incredible photo gives us an idea of the absolute ocean of people at the festival, and what it looked like when they all flocked toward the stage (seen at the lower right). When added up as a whole, the festival’s population equated to the third largest city in the state of New York.
Despite the massive success of bringing that many people together it was declared a disaster zone by then Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller. It was his intention to scatter the crowd and put an end to Woodstock, but thankfully, last second negotiations by his staff saw him deploy the National Guard to help Woodstock, not to end it. Feelin’ the love!
This woman, whose name has not been recorded, was one of the most photographed people at Woodstock. Not surprisingly she’s a very attractive woman, but her outfit and lack of undergarments reveal a style that encapsulates the era, and almost looks handmade by her.
While this may appear to be a beautiful woman, every person there was there was beautiful, as “beautiful people” was also a synonym for “hippie.” Melanie Safka, who played early on the first day, performed her song “Beautiful People” twice; once on stage, and once to security guards who wouldn’t let her in on account of her not having a performer’s pass.
“Electrocuted at Woodstock”
It’s said that Ravi Shankar was a spiritual singer, but he wasn’t exactly down with all the young, party people of the festival. Perhaps that is evidenced by the fact that he only played 40 minutes and sang only three songs. This really wasn’t his seen, and exposed the rift between Hare Krishna and hippies.
He’s smiling nonetheless even in the face of rain. The water became a problem and stagehands began warning artists to be careful of electrocution. This prompted Alvin Lee of Ten Years After to say, “Oh come on, if I get electrocuted at Woodstock we’ll sell lots of records.”
This collection of car might’ve been great for the festival goers in that they didn’t have to deal with the mud, but they were absolutely trapped. While it’s estimated that 500,000 people attended Woodstock, it’s also estimated that over 1 million never made it in because of traffic.
Hopefully, any of them who had a job called in sick on Monday, August 18th. While Woodstock is often billed as a three-day festival, it actually ran into a fourth day. But those who were trapped would be happy if they stayed, as the final acts scheduled for Sunday night ended up coming on first thing Monday morning.
This article was originally published on History 101: Vintage photos that capture the magic of Woodstock