My Woodstock

Posted by Mr. Robert Lynch, Aug 14, 2019

Fifty years ago this week I was at Woodstock, among the “half a million strong” that Joni Mitchell sang about. I arrived in a much-mended 1963 Rambler with my girlfriend Karyl. I was 19 and it was the summer of my sophomore year in college. My brother Roger arrived separately with a bunch of his high school friends on the back of a pick-up truck held together with duct tape and band-aids. Neither of us knew the other was there. Our parents, like many other parents, didn’t learn about our trip until later, and they weren’t all that happy about it. The first news reports portrayed a chaotic, dangerous, and lawless image of the three days. The county had declared a state of emergency and reports were that the National Guard was about to be called in at any moment. Eventually, each of us would take life-changing, year-long adventures on the road—my brother on a motorcycle, me and Karyl in a VW bus. We all were English majors and were, of course, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; but for now we had arrived at Woodstock. Even after all these many years, being at Woodstock was inspirational and significant. 

I had heard a reference to this great-sounding festival on my car radio. I may have seen one flier. I assumed I could buy tickets there and thought it would be small enough that I could just bump into a few friends who said they were going. My entire generation at that time was yearning for small journeys, being on the road, seeing America, getting away from the ordinary and the ugly. For many of us who went, Woodstock was not a festival, it was a journey. The music was a part of it, but just one part. I think it was that way for many people.

Going to a rock festival, or any event of this scale, at that time was not without risk, and that is important to note. In 1969, our country was not at peace in the world—or with itself. Woodstock seemed like a possible alternative to the discord, but even an event dedicated to peace was a risk. In the year leading up to Woodstock, and the years that followed, unrest and protest were everywhere—the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy and violent protests in more than 100 neighborhoods and cities across the country; the contentiousness of the Vietnam War; the riots of the Chicago Democratic National Convention and the city’s later bloody “Days of Rage” protests; the collapse of Students for a Democratic Society and rise of the more violent Weathermen; the Stonewall riots and brutal police intervention in New York City; and much more. It felt like every day in 1969, the radio and television news brought grim stories; overshadowing things that should have been good news like concerts and festivals. By 1969, I had already experienced my first riot at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. The sixties music and festival scene crashed to a close in December 1969 when a free music festival at Altamont Speedway in Northern California resulted in violence, destruction, and murder. 

It was during this climate of unrest that Woodstock came along. Unlike a common misconception that roving bands of free-range hippie kids came en masse to Bethel, New York (where the festival actually took place), most of the audience had to work and/or had weekday obligations, whether they were college kids or young folk out in the workforce or members of the military on leave—all of whom I met there. I was driving a meat truck that summer as one of my many ‘colorful’ jobs during college. I remember parking my truck in Stoughton, Massachusetts, on Friday, August 15 at 6:00p.m.—one hour after Richie Havens kicked off Woodstock with his performance—after a full 150-mile day of delivering wholesale meat products to delis and restaurants on Cape Cod. I had a roundabout 450-mile drive ahead of me, picking up Karyl in Maine, driving by mistake to Woodstock, New York (Woodstock the festival was not held in Woodstock the town) before finally arriving at the festival in Bethel, but I loved it. I was on the road.

The road to Bethel was magical. There were other Ramblers like mine, VW buses and Bugs, colorfully painted school buses and bread vans and repurposed vehicles of every kind, and both young and older people in festive garb with wide eyes and smiles on their faces, recognizing kindred spirits who just wanted a few days of peace and music. Having long hair and embracing the so-called ‘alternate lifestyle’ was actually not the norm in 1969, much to many people’s surprise; it’s what the media today celebrates and shows for that time period. Until those three days, I felt like I was part of small outpost of like-minded, somewhat disheveled alternative lifestyle seekers marooned on the East Coast. During the first part of the drive, we got our usual share of fists being shaken, but about 40 miles out we started to see other people with long hair and cars with peace signs and colorful beads hanging on rear view mirrors. People started flashing their headlights and honking horns and waving in solidarity. It was an amazing sight of hopefulness and power. 

It is probably no coincidence that my first 10 years in arts administration was in part about producing arts festivals, and my whole 45-year career has been about community development with and through the arts.

By the time Karyl and I arrived, the festival had already been happening throughout a full night. The fences were down—it had been declared a free event—and the roads had been closed at least 20 miles from the festival site. Many of our road companions never made it to the event, but my brief driving career had taught me to find a few shortcuts around the roadblocks. We got within a mile of the site, found a field to leave the Rambler, and walked the rest of the way to a spot at the top crest of the natural amphitheater overlooking a mass of more than 400,000 people. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were camped out near the legendary Hog Farm commune and the Merry Pranksters bus. I was in heaven. I remember the soothing voice of the stage announcer who became the source of news for the outside world, an even-keeled safety monitor helping the lost find their friends and urging people—like my brother Roger—to climb down from the sound towers because of impending lightning storms. 

The bands playing at Woodstock were some of the most iconic of rock and roll history. I got to hear more than a dozen of them and missed even more. We came in while Carlos Santana was playing and left on Sunday in the middle of Country Joe and the Fish. I probably could have been satisfied with the musical part of the experience even if I had to leave right after Santana! John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival energized the crowd after midnight, followed by the always all-giving performance of Janis Joplin, which then kept us awake for dawn with Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane.

Beyond getting there, the real joy of Woodstock was being there. I remember the skywriter airplane that formed a peace sign above us and dropped flower petals on the crowd, and the friendly and generous people who hadn’t brought in many supplies but shared what they had. There was a whole community to explore during the long pauses between music performances, including unofficial craft booths, official and unofficial marketplaces, makeshift health centers, jam sessions, mini stages, Hog Farm food stations, and a carnival with games and rides, even a Ferris wheel.

At dusk on Sunday we had to leave—our jobs were calling. Karyl had to waitress the breakfast shift. I had to find a pay phone to ask my boss if someone else could drive my meat truck so I could stay (sadly, the answer was no). On the way to our car, we caught a slow ride on the now dissembled Ferris wheel and from there could see families, many of them Orthodox Jewish families, standing on front lawns waving and handing out food and water.

The whole lesson for me, perhaps unintended, but I’m sure welcomed by the producers back then, was a mass showing of the power of community, humanity, generosity, and caring. I witnessed compromise, appreciation, and community-building. I witnessed the making of a successful creative place, ignited and fueled by the transformative power of the arts. Woodstock was certainly not equipped to function as the small city it became, but it succeeded anyway by the grace of human kindness and ingenuity. People’s best natures were on display—at least for a few days. That was a surprise given the volatile times. In a chaotic world, the Woodstock chaos was calming. We sure could use some of that now in our current chaotic times.

So many people imagine Woodstock as a muddy mess of nudity, drugs, and lawlessness; but it was a moment of community, of coming together that we rarely see in the media today. There was little police presence and yet there was peace. There were no strict rules and yet there was order. Yes, there was mud; a lot of it when the torrential rains came on Sunday afternoon. But nobody wanted to leave. The magic prevailed despite the mud. I also saw the value and power of the arts and chose that area as a career path. It is probably no coincidence that my first 10 years in arts administration was in part about producing arts festivals, and my whole 45-year career has been about community development with and through the arts. 

Roger went on to the Peace Corps and became a public defense lawyer and Tae Kwon Do master. Karyl became an artist, educator, and entrepreneur. A couple of years ago, to beat the anniversary rush, Roger and I went back to the site of Woodstock where the wonderful Museum at Bethel Woods now stands. We had already experienced the crowds a half century earlier and this time we hoped to park closer in. We went into the museum for an hour visit, came out six hours later, and went back the next day. Every once in a while, there is a moment of magic in life. Woodstock was one of those for me.

Americans for the Arts President and CEO Robert L. Lynch with his brother Roger Lynch.

This blog also was published on Bob Lynch's channel.