It's no surprise that in a music-loving town like Austin, plenty of people have memories of Woodstock.
Last week, we put out a call for reader memories of the great music festival of 1969 that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — Aug. 15-18 — and Central Texans quickly shared a flutter of memories, some vivid and some less so. We heard stories about hitchhiking all the way from Texas, walking miles and miles to get in, showing up with no tent and no food and hearing the sounds of Jimi Hendrix. Here is a selection of memories about this precursor to the massive music festivals of today.
Hitchhiking from Texas to New York and back again
Like you, my children did not know there was any other type of music but '60s and '70s rock. We used to listen to the radio in the car and count the seconds it took me to name the tune, band and year of release for old rock songs.
In 1969, I was 18 and had just graduated from Bryan Adams High School in Dallas. I was listening to the AM rock station when the DJ announced that he had heard of a rock festival set to take place in New York in August. As soon as I was able, I called the radio station and asked for more info. They gave me what little they had and suggested I look in Rolling Stone magazine, which was not easily found. My local branch library agreed that they would ask for a couple of back copies. Once they arrived, I looked through them until I found a story about the upcoming concert.
There was no information about where to get tickets, but it was still two months out, so I decided I was going to go by hook or crook. This was very important to me because I had been too young to go to the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. I knew I would never forgive myself if I missed this one.
RELATED: Waiting for Apollo 11 to crash was one Austin man’s job
I dream of Woodstock: Chasing the world’s most famous concert
I later found out that three-day tickets cost $24. I only needed to find out where Bethel was in New York and a plan on how to get there. I decided, in the rashness and ignorance of youth, to hitchhike to New York. It sounded like a grand adventure. I had been living on my own for my senior year and had no adult types to temper my youthful ignorance.
In preparation, I started acquiring supplies I thought I might need. I got a two-person pup tent at a JC Penney catalog sale, a sleeping bag and a backpack from an Army Surplus store. From this same store, I bought three weeks' worth of C-rations, canned foods that were the forerunners of MREs (meals ready to eat). I had been eating a lot of them in the year I lived alone and found the ones that tasted the best, if you can say that about SpaghettiOs and the like. But they were cheap and not all that heavy in the backpack.
I left Dallas on Thursday, Aug. 7, hoping to get to Bethel on Wednesday, Aug. 13. It was mostly a boring trip. People were very nice, especially long-haul truckers, but by Aug. 14, I was still 150 miles from Bethel, and rides were becoming scarce in backcountry Pennsylvania.
In early morning on the day Woodstock started, I got a ride in a Westfalia VW van with 11 other hippies. They were also heading to Woodstock, but they were under the impression it was in Wallkill. I corrected their error, and after consulting my atlas to find the right road, we headed out, hoping to only be a few hours late.
About 2 p.m., we hit a very large traffic jam, and while idling, the VW van gave up the ghost. We needed to start walking. It looked like we were only about 20 miles out, and we thought we should be able to hoof it in four or five hours.
As we were walking, we noticed that the traffic was not getting any better. About four hours into our walk, we could hear music, and then we crossed a small hill and looked down into the bowl that was Max Yasgur’s cow field. It was unbelievable. There must have been 100,000 people there already. The people I was with were from Pennsylvania, and they already had their tickets, so I left them and started looking for someplace to buy mine, but several people told me that there was an announcement that said the concert was now free, so I should just go in and enjoy.
I got there in time to hear some of Ravi Shankar’s set and did not leave until close to midnight, when Joan Baez finished and they turned off the stage lights. It was drizzling a little then, so I started looking for a place to pitch my tent. I found a fire circle with many other tents and an open space. After introducing myself, I quickly pitched my tent and settled in. I stayed with this group and really got to know some of those folk well. We pooled our food, both what we had and what we got, and a couple agreed that the C-rations were not as bad as they sounded.
People in the area were bringing in stuff out of their gardens to feed us, and someone brought in a lot of eggplants. One of the girls in the group said her mom cooked eggplants, and they weren’t bad with enough red sauce, but they were not good raw.
On Saturday, I don’t think I left the stage area except to find a port-a-potty and get something to eat. I never got closer than 200 feet to the stage, but the acoustics were great even if you could not see much. You could hear music everywhere, so if there was someone you wanted to see, you could hustle back to the stage area. I got to hear a new group called Crosby, Stills and Nash. Really lucky to have been there for that.
It rained on Sunday, so the group stayed under a plastic sheet, but after the rain quit, a lot of folks left. That was a big mistake on their part. Monday morning, bright and early, I heard the unmistakable sounds of Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I quickly grabbed my shirt and shoes and made it for the rest of his set. That is something I will never forget.
As I was cleaning up my site, some folks from the pig farm asked if I would like to make some money cleaning up. I agreed and spent the rest of the day helping a couple hundred folk clear the mess. I left the next day because I needed to be in Houston on the Tuesday after Labor Day to start college. I'd learned that, when thumbing rides, I needed a couple of extra days for padding.
Along with marrying my wife and the birth of my children, Woodstock was the highlight of my life. I had to say that; she is looking over my shoulder.
— Forrest Pettigrew
Chow mein sandwiches and 'Pinball Wizard'
The summer of 1969 I had just graduated from high school and was going off to college in the fall. I was living at home on Long Island. I caught a bus from New York Port Authority bus station in downtown Manhattan in the midafternoon on Friday. There were several buses going from NYC to the concert site, and there were hundreds of us packed into a large area at the bus station. It was stifling hot. Someone in the crowd decided that, to cool things down, he would set off the ceiling fire extinguishers. He got on a friend’s shoulders and held a lighter up to a sprinkler. Putrid, decades-old, rusty warm water sprayed the crowd. We were off to a good start.
The bus miraculously navigated the traffic on the thruway and got us to the concert site in good time. We were let off about a half-mile from the stage. I had planned to meet a friend, who had scouted the site the week before. His directions were to meet him about a quarter-mile from the stage, near a road, at two trees that looked like one tree. I found the spot easily, and he escorted me to his multi-person tent he had set up earlier that day. It had a number of his other friends in it.
I dropped off my small backpack and sleeping bag and headed off to the stage area. We spent our time watching the performers from the edge of the giant mud-filled bowl, which was in front of the stage. It was an excellent viewing spot. We watched and listened to music into the morning of the next day. This was to become our go-to listening spot.
I had been operating on a lot of adrenaline and had not really noticed the absence of food. The next morning, I hiked to the area where purportedly food was for sale. Going anywhere was a matter of navigating through large crowds, and when I got there, I found empty food stands with empty paper plates.
I delivered the bad news to my friends back at the tent, and we decided to take the 6-mile round trip walk to my friend’s car, which he had abandoned at the side of the road with thousands of others the day before. He had brought a good bit of canned and boxed food, which we hauled back to the tent. We quickly prepared chow mein sub sandwiches. We all agreed that it was the best meal ever and one we would never forget. And I haven’t.
That evening, we again listened to the music into the wee hours of the morning. The highlight for me was watching the Who play a very long set, including "Pinball Wizard," complete with guitar-smashing antics. As the sun rose, I headed back to the tent because I could not keep my eyes open any longer. As I got into my sleeping bag, I heard Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane come to the stage. My thought was, "How can I go to sleep when Jefferson Airplane is playing?" I then went to sleep with the alternate thought that I was being serenaded to sleep by Jefferson Airplane, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Sunday was more of the same, perhaps highlighted by the then-unheard-of group Sha Na Na playing and running around the stage in orange jumpsuits. Sunday’s music carried into Monday morning, and I had to start my hitchhiking trip home. About 10 a.m., I walked away from the stage toward the road that led to the New York State Thruway with Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Wow.
I quickly picked up a ride in a VW bus full of young people like myself, and a few rides later, I was home. It was Monday afternoon, and my mother asked me if I had a good time. I said yes and went to sleep.
— Peter Kircher
Three days of peace, love and rock 'n' roll
I was 18 years old and at home in Westfield, N.J., for the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at Ohio State. The NYC radio stations were talking up the festival to be held in upstate New York. I had no clue what was about to happen. Two of my guy friends from high school, Paul and Fran, were planning to go, and Mom and Dad agreed to let me go with them. Before leaving, Mom gave me three instructions — "no liquor, no sex, no drugs" — and off we went.
Reports were coming in on the radio that the New York State Thruway was closed due to the extreme traffic heading toward Bethel, so we drove the backroads up through the Delaware Water Gap. Our trip ended abruptly when we came to Bethel, where traffic was at a standstill, so we pulled off the road into some farmer's field and pitched our tent with about 100 other cars doing the same thing. We had no idea that we were 5 miles down the road from the festival, a hike we would make back and forth every day.
By the time we got there, the gates were all knocked down, our tickets a complete waste as masses of people converged on Yasgur's Farm in a valley that was a natural amphitheater. We found a spot to put down a blanket, and then Richie Havens kicked it off and the place went wild. I remember that he was seated, stomping his feet and singing "Freedom." Then came Donovan, Joan Baez. All the folk artists performed.
There were announcements over the loudspeakers about the weather forecasts, bad drugs, where to go if you needed help. At one point between acts, the guys went to get food and drinks at one of the many tents set up on the perimeter, so I was lying down taking a break with my eyes closed. I felt I was being watched and opened my eyes to see this naked man with a long, white scraggly beard, straw hat and poncho, nothing else, squatting at the end of our blanket. He introduced himself as one of the "Hog Farmers" commune, and he was walking the crowd looking for anyone who may be overdosing on bad drugs so he could get them to the medical tent. I told him I was fine, and off he went.
It rained and everything turned into a wet mess at one point, but the music went on. There was Santana, whose first album I bought immediately upon getting home, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Ten Years After. The rain created a huge muddy Slip 'N Slide right down from the top of the hill to center stage that was right by where we were sitting. I remember the helicopters coming in and out of the backstage area, bringing in the performers because all the roads within a 10-mile radius were blocked.
I don't remember what time I got home, but it was pre-dawn Monday morning, maybe 2 or 3 a.m. Mom was waiting for me at the door. Woodstock had been the highlight of the news all weekend, with reports of flooding rains, rampant drug use and hippies gone wild. But amazingly, absolutely no incidents of violence, arrests or people getting injured, except for the cases of drug overdoses.
She took one look at me with filthy, long hair sticking out in all frazzled directions and mud sticking to my clothes and sent me straight to the shower. She stayed in the bathroom with me while I showered. I think she thought I would keel over. While I was showering, she asked something to the effect of, "How did you do with the three instructions?" My reply: "Don't worry, Mom, I only broke two." That's my answer, and I'm sticking to it.
— Alison Barnes Jaroszewicz
The traffic jam
I went to Woodstock. I was spending the summer at home in Connecticut after my freshman year in college, and we heard about this festival happening in New York just a few hours away, so we decided to go. More than anything else, I remember being astonished by the huge traffic jam as we got close (preparing for later life in Austin, maybe?) and then the mud and how badly it smelled. I think my memories of it are more vivid from the movie than from real life. It was 50 years ago, after all. I do remember listening to John Sebastian and to Santana, which was not thrilling because no one I knew had yet heard of him. We had traveled there in a van, and for some reason left after the first day. Wish I had more stories to tell, but I don't really remember much about being 19.
— Soll Sussman
The helicopter sandwich drop
At the risk of dating myself, I'm writing to say I went to Woodstock in 1969. Or I should say, I went to the Woodstock Festival, which was actually outside of Bethel, N.Y. I had just graduated from high school and went with 12 other kids on a yellow school bus.
It started on Thursday, but we arrived on Friday afternoon, and there was no longer the need for the tickets we had because the fences had already been taken down. The organizers had no idea how many people would come.
We had to park the bus in Bethel, a couple of miles away from the concert site, and walk back and forth each day. The weather was great, except for the rain on Sunday, and there was plenty of people-watching to do, so the walk was no problem. Of course, cars were parked all along the road, so everyone else was walking, too.
I don't remember all the acts we got to see, but I do remember that my absolute favorite was Sly and the Family Stone. I remembered being disappointed in the Grateful Dead because it was not a good sound mix for what they were doing. And I missed Jimi Hendrix. I think he may have played near the end after we'd already packed up the bus and left.
The little town of Bethel was not prepared to serve the huge crowd that came, and the general store in town ran out of everything.
Woodstock didn't have food trucks like current festivalgoers are accustomed to seeing, but famous hippie guy Wavy Gravy and his Hog Farm people were set up to provide what must have been thousands of plates of rice and vegetables, until they ran out, too. After the rain came, a helicopter hovered over the crowd and individually wrapped sandwiches were tossed out to those lucky enough to catch them.
I finally saw the movie "Woodstock" for the first time a couple of months ago. It was the director's cut, and I think longer than the one that was originally released. What fun to watch! Also good because I didn't see everything there, and I don't remember everything I did see.
— Lissa Hattersley
So it goes
During the summer of 1969, I was a counselor at a large YMCA camp in the Catskills in New York. Another counselor asked if I wanted to go to a music festival in nearby Woodstock. We both had a few days off that weekend, but it had been a long summer and I was thinking about my upcoming freshman year at Duke University.
For a nominal cost, counselors on break could stay at the Castle, the huge stone house on the edge of and away from camp. The Castle had been built by the former owner of the property, and craving a few days of relative peace and quiet, I declined my friend’s offer to stay in the Castle. He went, had a “groovy” time and barely made it back to the camp. He has Woodstock stories, and I have ... vague recollections of a relaxing weekend. So it goes in life.
— Jeffrey Smith