August 18, 2021

Woodstock 69: A Peaceful Disaster

by Not Past It

Background show artwork for Not Past It

Woodstock is the most iconic music festival in American history, remembered for peace and love. On August 18, 1969 it earned that reputation after being declared an official disaster zone without all the deadly side effects. It even converted its host, dairy farmer Max Yasgur, into an unlikely apostle on the way.

Where to Listen


SIMONE: In a faraway field, at the edge of civilization, heaps of trash and collapsed tents are piling up. It smells absolutely rancid and it's packed with people -- some naked, most are bedraggled. One reporter called the scene a “floating garbage heap.” Another wrote, “more than 300,000 persons wandered about in a sea of mud -- comma -- sickness.” 

[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: Young people so packed and jammed together that they could not get proper food or water or adequate medical help.]

[NEWS CLIP, Reporter 2: One youngster died of a suspected overdose of heroin. 80 others were arrested on drug charges.]

[WOODSTOCK, Man: You want a 15-year-old girl sleeping in the field in a tent? What are you, out of your mind? This never should have happened. They're all high on pot.]

[ARCHIVAL, Woman: It was right out in the open. The state police couldn't do anything about it. It was just too big.]

SIMONE: This isn’t some dystopian scene, though. No. Woodstock. 

[WOODSTOCK, Man: It’s a disgraceful mess, if you want to know the answer.]

Simone: But was it a mess? Or the more familiar story -- hippies, and peace, and the counterculture having its moment in the sun?

Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history -- and tell you the story of how it shaped our world. I’m Simone Polanen. 

Simone: On August 15, 1969 -- 52 years ago this week -- the Woodstock Music and Art Fair kicked off. At the time, news outlets covered it for the muddy disaster it was. But what they failed to capture was the miracle of that weekend festival: that in a decade mired with violence, thousands of people gathered in a revolution of peace and compassion. 

Simone: It sent a defiant message of love to the rest of the country, touching those who were open to hearing it -- including one man, a farmer named Max Yasgur. Without him, there may have never even been a Woodstock.     

Simone: Stick around, my flower children.

[ARCHIVAL: (protestors chanting)]

Simone: By the summer of 1969, America was in a full rage. Over the past decade, the country had endured a slew of high-profile assassinations. JFK. Malcolm X. MLK. RFK. Protests had exploded over segregation, discrimination against women and gay people, the destruction of our environment, and of course, the war in Vietnam. 

[ARCHIVAL, Police Officer: You are in violation of law. (protestors chanting)]

Simone: Times seemed pretty hopeless. But at least there were people trying to build community -- some, using music.

[ARCHIVAL, Michael Lang: There was a woman named Pam Copeland who was a local realtor and every weekend she ran these Sound Outs, which were concerts out on her farm.]

Simone: This is Michael Lang, in an interview he gave to CSPAN. He started organizing music festivals back in the 60s -- and he remembers these Sound Outs sessions. 

[ARCHIVAL, Lang: An amazing way to see music. I mean, she'd get a crowd of three or 400 people, and I think it was two or $3 to get in and people would come to camp over the weekend if they wanted to, or they'd come and go from town.]

Simone: The name of that town was Woodstock. Located in upstate New York. At the time, it was famous for being a bohemian hangout for musicians like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. 

[ARCHIVAL, Lang: Woodstock was becoming a Mecca for musicians, but there was no place to record. And it seemed that, that was the perfect answer, is -- build a recording studio.]

Simone: The thing is, you need money to build a professional quality recording studio. So what to do? Lang decided to take a page from these small outdoor concerts that were happening. He and three other organizers thought they could up the ante though --  and throw a big music festival. Their first choice for where to hold the event was Woodstock itself. 

Simone: However, when Lang started coordinating the event, locals shut them down. Too much potential for chaos. Too many hippies. But the name -- Woodstock Music and Art Fair -- stuck. They tried to find a new location in a few other towns in the area. And by June, they were well underway on a site in the town of Wallkill, about 40 miles from Woodstock. 

Marty Miller: And I recollect saying to the table that they're not going to hold it there.

Simone: That's Marty Miller. He grew up in upstate New York, not far from Wallkill. One night, in the early summer of 1969, he was sitting around the dinner table with his parents, and his aunt and uncle. Discussing the fate of the festival site in Wallkill.

Marty: And the question is, why aren't they going to hold it there? And the observation that I made was that Orange County was way too politically conservative and they would not allow that to happen. 

Simone: Wallkill was also in the middle of preparing for another big event. 

[ARCHIVAL, Announcer: Come see a world of fun in the big toy box at Sears.]

Simone: The grand opening of a brand new Sears, which seems like a minor point, but the store was expected to draw 20,000 people per day. And when faced with the choice between a shopping mecca and a hippie festival. The town chose Sears, leaving Lang & Co. in a time crunch to find an alternate venue upstate.

Marty: So the next question is, what do you think is going to happen? I said, well, I think they're eventually going to come to the family and want to rent the farm. 

Simone: "The farm" was Yasgur Farms. A 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York that was known for its famous high-fat, gold-tinged Guernsey cow milk and state-of-the art bottling and delivery operation. The farm had been owned and operated for decades by Marty’s uncle, Max Yasgur -- the very uncle sitting at the family dinner table that night. 

Simone: Farmer Max wanted to know: why would the Woodstock organizers want to come to his farm?

Marty: And the answer is because we have a lot of contiguous land and we have a natural amphitheater. So there's a whole discussion at the table about the event. Of course, the real decision was Max's. 

Simone: Max was a shrewd businessman. And he carried himself that way around the farm. He wore a lot of button-down, short-sleeved shirts and clean-pressed slacks. He had thick dark eyebrows which peeked over the top of his glasses. 

[TAKING WOODSTOCK, Max: You say you wanna use these fields here?]

SIMONE: Maybe the best way to describe Max might be that he was played by Eugene Levy in the 2009 movie “Taking Woodstock”. 

[TAKING WOODSTOCK, Max: You’ll clean up after yourselves, I’m hoping?]

[TAKING WOODSTOCK, Lang: Of course.]

Simone: The likeness is really uncanny. Marty says Max was a moderate guy -- what at the time they called a “Rockefeller Republican.” And he was also a pillar of his community. 

Marty: He was someone who was very much involved in public service. As a member of the community in Sullivan County, he was particularly active. He was at one time president of the local Lion's Club.   

Simone: Back at the dinner table, Max had one more question for his nephew Marty. 

Marty: I can recall Max asking a question of “who's going to be attending this event?” And I can recall my mother's comment, which is the one that's burned into my memory, “They're going to be college kids just like Marty.”

Simone: Welllllll…yes and no. This is how Marty described himself at the time. 

Marty: I was very much a khakis person with button-down shirts. It may sound rather peculiar, but at that time, I don't think I ever owned a pair of blue jeans. 

Simone: Actually, being young might be the only thing Marty would have in common with these expected attendees. They’d probably own several pairs of jeans, for one. And have long hair, tie dye shirts, dank doobies hanging out of their know, hippie vibes.

Simone: In either case, over dinner, Max considered the prospect of renting out the rolling green hills of his dairy farm to this folk festival. Because in some ways, this could be an unlikely solution to a problem that had recently rained down on Max.

Marty: It was a very wet year and there were problems in raising crops, crops were needed to feed the cows. 

Simone: No crops to feed the cows meant Max would need to buy feed -- an expense Marty says he really didn’t want to take on. The extra money Max stood to earn from the festival would help him cover those costs, not to mention a few upgrades to his property that he imagined would come with the deal -- for things like water wells and powerlines. 

Simone: But Marty also says there was another reason his uncle was inclined to play host. 

Marty: Max was very much a member of the Jewish community. I think because he was a Jew and he felt that they were often discriminated against, he had that attitude for others.

Simone: So Max was more open-minded, including towards the counterculture that was scorned by the neighboring counties. After some thought, Max made up his mind right there at the table. 

Marty: If they come to us, we'll rent to them, but we are not going to seek them out.

Simone: And a few days later, just as Marty predicted, Woodstock organizer, Michael Lang showed up at Yasgur Farms. 

[ARCHIVAL, Michael Lang: And that was when the miracle happened.]

Simone: This is Michael Lang again. 

[ARCHIVAL, Lang: We all got out of the car, looked at each other and tried not to, you know, float off the ground too far. And, and we said, who owns this? It's a local dairy farmer named Max Yasgur. Then I said “he’s our guy.” So, we went right to his house and knocked on his door and he came out. And Max and I went off into the field and we struck a deal right there on the spot.]

Simone: In case you didn’t catch that, Lang says that they struck a deal right on the spot. 

Simone: The family has never shared how much the Yasgurs got for renting out the farm. Rumors suggest the price tag was somewhere between $10,000 and $75,000. Whatever it was, the deal was done. Woodstock was coming to Yasgur Farms in beautiful Bethel, New York! 

Simone: There was no time to waste. The festival started in a matter of weeks. And it wasn’t gonna be as simple as slapping a flower crown on a dairy cow and calling it a day. Marty, Max, and the rest of the festival crew had a ton to do in order to turn the family farm into a festival venue. There were water wells to install, power lines to erect, and lots of building. 

Marty: There were a lot of people building. I mean, it was, they built a village, playgrounds, rope courses, things in the woods. And I can remember being on the stage pounding nails. I would work all day and then show up and they'd work into the night because they were very much behind schedule.

Simone: By the skin of their teeth, the grounds were ready for the start of the festival. In the days leading up to the event, young people started showing up in their Volkswagen vans and their Pontiac sedans, pitching tents, waiting for the music to start. And on August 15th, 1969, Woodstock, as we know it, officially began. 

[WOODSTOCK, Announcer: What better way to start than with the beautiful Richie Haven.]

[WOODSTOCK, Richie Havens: (singing) Freedom, freedom. Sometimes, I feel…]

Simone: You can see all of this in the Oscar-winning documentary Woodstock -- which we’ve borrowed from throughout to tell you this story. But, for now, picture thousands of people spread across the 600 acres of Max’s farm. An unusual smelling smoke billowed out of the tents and onto the makeshift grounds...Where, there was yoga...

[WOODSTOCK, Instructor: Exhale and relax.]

Simone: And lots of drugs... 

[WOODSTOCK, Man: Now, people have been saying that some of the acid is poison. It's not poison. It's just bad acid. It’s manufactured poorly.]

Simone: And, of course, there was music. Music that, legally, we can’t just, like, play for you. But trust me when I tell you, it was epic! Over the course of four days, Neil Young performed only his second gig with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Janis Joplin crooned in her newfound fame. Pete Townshend smashed his guitar. Carlos Santana -- he got so high he thought his guitar was a snake. And Jimi Hendrix produced the cultural reset that is his cover of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Simone: All the things that festival organizer Michael Lang had promised. All that…and more than enough college kids and hippies than anyone expected. 

[ARCHIVAL, Announcer: There’s about 300,000 of you fuckers out there. How do you expect to ever stop the war if you can’t sing any better than that? I want you to start singing...]

Simone: It’s hard to pin down exact numbers, but most estimates reckon there were about 300 to 500,000 people crowded onto Yasgur Farms during the festival. Way more than was originally expected. That’s because Lang and the rest of the organizers spent a good chunk of their time advertising the event on national and local newspapers, Rolling Stone magazine, and on radio programs throughout the US. 

Simone: In fact, so many people showed up, that the freeway exits leading into Bethel shut down because of all the traffic. 

[WOODSTOCK, Man 1: The New York Thruway is closed.]

[WOODSTOCK, Man 2: Closed?]

[WOODSTOCK, Man 1: Isn't that far out.]

Simone: Yeah, man -- far out! But then again, Bethel had gone from a town of about 1,000 people -- to around 500,000 people practically overnight. All those people kinda created some problems. 

[WOODSTOCK, Man: Some of you may have noticed, or all of you may have noticed a familiar colored helicopter over there. The United States Army has lent us some medical teams. They're with us, man. They are not against us. They are with us. They're here to give us all a hand and help us.]

Simone: This weekend of music and hippie love looked like it was on the brink of complete pandemonium -- I mean, the National Guard was called in. But a series of small miracles kept the potential for total collapse at bay. That's after the break. So keep it here, ya dig?

Simone: Hey, man, you stuck around! Before the break, we met the Jewish farm family that hosted Woodstock in Bethel, New York. Music was played, drugs were taken, and…the National Guard was sent in.

Julia Fell: They were facing a lot of risks having a crowd that large with so few resources all packed into one spot. 

Simone: That’s Julia Fell, the Assistant Curator for the Museum at Bethel Woods, which helps to preserve the site of the festival. And she says, early on in the weekend, local and state officials started to worry about the potential for disaster.

Julia: They were very afraid of people collapsing from starvation or dehydration. They were afraid of disease outbreak. They were afraid that it would become a riot and people would be trampling each other.

Simone: These fears led the governor of New York at the time -- Nelson Rockefeller -- to declare Woodstock a disaster area. 

Julia: I believe that was on Saturday, and Saturday’s also when they started sending in helicopters with food, provisions, and supplies. They were helicoptering people and things in and out throughout most of the festival. And that also involved bringing people who needed more serious medical attention out of the festival site.

Simone: And the first news reports that trickled out reflected some of this reality…

[NEWS CLIP, Reporter 1: Young people are so packed and jammed together that they could not get proper food or water or adequate medical help.]

[NEWS CLIP, Reporter 2: Many of the people who live here are asking why such a spectacle was allowed to happen.]

[Woodstock, Man: It’s a disgraceful mess if you want to know the answer!]

[NEWS CLIP, Woman: Also the moral aspect, you know, there were a lot of good children who came to this. And a lot of them who never smoked pot before, you know, did it that weekend. And a lot of them who never experienced sex before, did. It was right out in the open. The state police couldn't do anything about it. It was just too big.]

Simone: Okay, so I don’t want to paint a picture of Woodstock that’s all sunshine and rainbows. The organizers were legitimately unprepared for the influx of people. The festival was, at times, a muddy mess. Two people died. One of a suspected heroin overdose, another because of a tractor accident. Around a hundred people were arrested for drugs. But all of that -- in a makeshift city of half a million young people? All I’m saying is…it could've been a lot worse. 

[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: Admittedly, there was marijuana as well as music at the rock festival, but there was also no rioting. What did not happen at that dairy farm is possibly more significant than what did happen.]

Simone: None of the worst-case scenarios ever happened. No riots. No trampling. No mass death.

Julia: There were instances of people who almost got into a fight. I've heard this from many different Woodstock alumni, but everyone around those individuals said, “Hey, that's not cool.That's not what we're about here. We're not doing this.” And were able to calm them down. The tone of the festival had been set from the very beginning to be peaceful.

Simone: It wasn’t just the festival attendees setting this peaceful tone. One of the most important pieces of this vision was a commune by the name of the Hog Farm.

Julia: They were specifically brought in to help set the tone during the festival. So they were a part of what we would call a security force. They called it the Please Force. 

Simone: That’s P-L-E-A-S-E, because they are very punny. Turns out, this kinda harmonious vibe was contagious -- and they recruited other attendees to get on board. 

Julia: They had these armbands that they made up that were red armbands with a flying pig on them, for the Hog Farm. And they handed these out to people and they're like, “All right, you're an honorary Hog Farmer now. That means that, you know, you can come hang out with us. You know, we're all gonna take care of each other, but you have a responsibility to make sure that the vibe we're setting here gets carried out throughout the site.”

Simone: The vibe of peace and love really permeated the whole event. 

[WOODSTOCK, Man: We must be in heaven, man! There's always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.]

Simone: Woodstock organizer Michael Lang also recognized this little bit of heaven.

[ARCHIVAL, Lang: What you have here is, you have this culture and this generation away from the old culture and the older generations, you know, and you see how they function on their own. Without cops, without guns, without clubs, without hassle. Everybody pulls together and everybody helps each other. And it works.]

Simone: Another person observing all of this peaceful coexistence was the square dairy farmer whose land it was all taking place on: Max Yasgur. Here’s his nephew Marty Miller again.

Marty: He was absolutely overwhelmed and impressed by the fact that you had a group of kids that got together and were having a good time causing no issues, helping each other.

Simone: Max wasn’t just impressed. He fully drank the peace-and-love Kool-Aid, giving out food to the festival goers for free. Making sure that the kids wouldn’t have to pay for water when some of his neighbors were charging. Even using his own milk bottles to serve the water in. And a few locals followed his lead. 

[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: Residents freely emptied their cupboards for the kids. Merchants were stunned by their politeness.]

[NEWS CLIP, Man: There were people out in the road, you know, giving away free food, you know, townspeople, and water.]

[WOODSTOCK, Man: Saturday night, we got word over at WVOS that a lot of kids in town wouldn’t have anything to eat. Word went out that everybody should contribute food. We went over to the park and kids are hungry! You got to feed them.]

Simone: Peace, kindness, togetherness. It was contagious.

[WOODSTOCK, Announcer: We have a gentleman with us. The gentlemen upon whose farm we are, Mr. Max Yasgur.]

Simone: On Sunday Max took the stage, and spoke to the hundreds of thousands of people assembled on his farm.


[Woodstock, Max Yasgur: I'm a farmer. I don't know how to speak to 20 people at one time, let alone with a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world, is that a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music. And have nothing but fun and music, and I God bless you for it!]

[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: Well, the great rock festival is now history. The last of the nearly half million young people who traveled to Bethel, New York during the weekend have now departed and the dairy farm, where they listened to three days of rock music, is quiet except for the normal sounds of cows mooing.]

Simone: Festivalgoers cleaned up the grounds, so Yasgur Farms could return to normal. Life for the Yasgurs, though, wouldn’t go back to how it was before.

Marty: Immediately following the event and for a number of years thereafter, we were pariahs in the community. It was not uncommon to have people dump garbage on our lawn. It was so bad that the postmaster disliked him so much that they refused to deliver the mail. 

Simone: Some of the townspeople couldn’t get over the disruption to their lives and businesses, the way their small town was taken over by hippies. Still, that treatment didn't sour Max's feelings about the festival. The glow remained. Here he is in an interview with CBS a few weeks after Woodstock. 

[NEWS CLIP, Max: These young people made me feel guilty today because there were no problems. They proved to me and they proved to the whole world that they didn't come up for any problems. They came up for exactly what they said they were coming up for: for three days of music and peace.]

Simone: I really admire what they managed to achieve at Woodstock—this sort of large-scale communing over music and peace and love. Especially at a time when I feel so uncertain about the world -- where it's headed, and the social challenges we face. The story of Woodstock shows us that destruction and despair aren’t inevitable. And change just takes commitment. 

Simone: A commitment to peace and love. A commitment to reforming obsolete systems. A commitment to people. Young and old. Local, out-of-towner. Performer, audience. Hippie, farmer. Jeans, khakis. For those three days, they built a little miracle in the town of Bethel, New York. It didn’t matter that the outside world didn’t get it. They still chose love. 

Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. This episode was produced by Julie Carli. Next week, we are whistleblowing with Enron.

Sherron Watkins: I did use some pretty inflammatory language, you know, I think I said, um, “Has Enron become a risky place to work? For those of us who haven’t gotten rich in the last couple of years, can we afford to stay?”

Simone: The rest of our team are producers Sarah Craig and Kinsey Clarke. Our intern is Laura Newcombe. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Andrea B. Scott and Zac Stuart-Pontier. Tape Sync by James Napoli. Fact checking by Jane Ackermann. Sound design and mixing by Bobby Lord & Matt Boll. Original music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. Our theme song is “Tokoliana” by KOKOKO! With music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart-Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka. Special thanks to: The Museum at Bethel Woods, John Conway, Debra Conway, Marie Carli, Jonathan Fox, Kevin Scott, Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey, Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles, and Nabeel Chollampat. 

Simone: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. And follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.

Marty: Did I hear some of the music? The answer is sure. Do I have a clue as to what I heard? Not a clue. I have no recollection.