By Turns Shambolic, Historic, Hallucinatory And Majestic, The Woodstock Festival Of August 1969 Marked Both The Pinnacle Of A Revolution In Music – And The Beginning Of Its Fall. It Also Gave Us Some Of The Greatest Moments Of Wild, Unfiltered Guitar Genius The World Has Ever Witnessed. Join Us As We Celebrate Its 50Th Anniversary And Uncover The Six-String Stories Behind The Festival’S Greatest Performances, From Hendrix To Ten Years After…
The rock festival that crowned a decade-long musical revolution took just six months to organise. And like many 60s happenings, Woodstock was launched on a flood tide of peace and love – with a fishy glint of money-spinning ambition not far beneath the surface.
The festival was originally intended as a profit-making venture – and only became a free festival when it became apparent the gig was attracting hundreds of thousands more people than the organisers had readied themselves for. The final straw was when the fence was torn down by desperate swarms of ticketless fans.
But, for the four men who put the festival together, that was all in the future. They were John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang – and the oldest was just 26. Together, they paid an estimated $50,000 to rent around 600 acres of Max Yasgur’s farm in an out-ofthe-way corner of the Catskill Mountains in New York State. Heir to a drugstore and toothpaste manufacturing fortune, John Roberts paid for the event via a multimillion-dollar trust fund and a lieutenant’s commission in the army. It was typical of the era’s naive optimism that John had only ever seen one rock concert (The Beach Boys) before he set his sights on staging the musical event of the decade.
Meanwhile, the landowner who rented the site to them, Max Yasgur, had studied real estate law at NYU before moving back to the family farm in the 40s. At the time of Woodstock, he was the biggest milk producer in Sullivan County. Joining forces with the four young men to stage a festival was thus both an unlikely partnership and a step into the unknown. Yasgur later revealed to Life magazine, in 1969, that he’d made a ‘deal’ with promoter Lang. “If anything went wrong, I was going to give him a crew cut. If everything was okay, I was going to let my hair grow long. I guess he won the bet, but I’m so bald I’ll never be able to pay it off,” he joked. The wager was accepted, however, and Woodstock concert tickets went on sale at $6 a day (and were due to sell for $8 on the gate), while three-day advance tickets were priced at $18. The price at the gate was set at $24.
WAKING THE GIANT
At exactly 5.07pm on Friday 15 August, Richie Havens opened the festival with Minstrel From Gault. His song Freedom was improvised on the spot. Called back for so many encores that he simply ran out of songs, Havens picked up his guitar and started singing, taking lyrics from the old spiritual staple Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child. A lesser musician might have buckled improvising on acoustic to an audience of half a million people, but Havens had developed his own way to set stage fright aside and perform with grace under pressure.
“The first time I played the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, I was so nervous that when I sat on the stool my knees were actually knocking,” he later recalled. “There were 9,000 people there! To me, it felt like 109,000 people – and here I was up on stage, not playing a ‘real’ guitar, and playing it my way. I thought I’d be laughed off the stage, but I said to myself, ‘There’s a giant lying in front of me. His feet are at the front of the stage and his head is away back by the fence. If I can just make him lift his head a little bit to see who’s playing, then I will have accomplished being in the whole room!’”
Havens’ bravura performance was delivered with a mahogany-bodied Guild acoustic that he used instead of the more prevalent Martin D-18s of the era, due to its less bass-heavy sound.
“The first guitar I played was a Martin. I loved it, because it had the deep bass, but I realised later that it was too good for me,” he recalled. “And you couldn’t take Martins on the road too well, either – they would lose their clean octave and you would have to get it fixed before you could play it. So I borrowed a Guild D-40 from somebody, which had equal volume on all the strings – whereas the Martin was so bass-heavy that you couldn’t hear the third string, which I used to change my chord from major to minor. So when I first heard the Guild, I went, ‘Whoa, you can really hear it.’ That really changed my view. And I kept playing the Guilds until they had four-inch holes in them. I got a reputation for putting holes in the guitars, because I had to play them hard for the mics to pick them up.”
Politically charged folk artists taking the stage armed with only an acoustic guitar – like David facing a Goliath audience – were a hallmark of the festival. With her husband imprisoned for resisting an army draft, Joan Baez played a Martin acoustic to sing the redneck-baiting Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man with Jeffrey Shurtleff, who “dedicated” it to then Governor of California and keen draft advocate Ronald Reagan.
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