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The following is the original coverage that appeared in WWD on Aug. 18, 1969.
IT WAS A GATHERING OF GENTLE PEOPLE. The biggest gentlest gathering imaginable. Like lemmings they came, drawn to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, uncomplaining and docile.
This story first appeared in the August 11, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Before it was over, a gathering of nearly a half million young people turned Bethel, N.Y., a bucolic hamlet in the Catskills, into a muddy morass surrounded by a hopeless jumble of stalled and abandoned cars.
But these people would not be dissuaded from making the scene. One had the feeling that if the festival were to be held on Mount Everest they would all show up. Few were sorry they came.
THEIR MASS MIGRATION to a folk and rock music festival ended in cultural if not physical suicide. Those who came—by car, bicycle, bus, motorcycle, airplane and on foot—wound up in the muddy pastures of Max Yasgur’s dairy farm. Few of them actually heard the concerts.
Instead, the weekend hegira turned into a fight for survival. There was little water and food ran out quickly. What water was available was treated with Halazone tablets and tasted like pure chlorine. Kindly natives ran their garden hoses into the roads leading to the festival so that the visitors would have water.
The music provided an acceptable opportunity for them to come, although no more than a third listened to it at any time. But few actually came for that purpose. It provided the opportunity for a liberated zone—an area where they could shed their inhibitions with reasonable assurance that the Establishment would wink at their activities.
And so, they indulged themselves with drugs and sex took place more openly. They seemed to be completely unaware of their bodies. On the shore of one of the lakes several couples in various stages of undress prepared for a swim. A nude youth urinated against a tree while talking to his girl friend and some other couples. He might just as well have been lighting a cigarette.
BUT MOST OF THESE PEOPLE DIDN’T SMOKE TOBACCO. They smoked pot and dropped LSD, which was being hawked openly. “Bad trips” kept the field hospital busy. By Sunday, a death had occurred from overuse of drugs and several others were critically ill.
There were reportedly three births and four miscarriages. When a doctor was pressed for exact numbers he wearily shook his head. “I don’t know. There may be more. One girl delivered herself. I’ve treated about 3,000 people so far, and I’m not sure.”
The steady roar of arriving and departing helicopters was a major distraction. The choppers were used to remove the wounded and ill to nearby hospitals as well as to shuttle performers, press, and VIPS to the scene.
The loading of Army helicopters with stretchers looked like scenes from Viet Nam.
One cop commented, “This isn’t a music festival. It’s a drug convention.”
It really wasn’t a music festival. There was nothing festive about it and the music, although at the core, was only a part of the activities.
WHAT THEY WERE REALLY DOING was showing the more conventional world that they could make it—drug scene and all—eating, sleeping, loving—on a plane where the more practical aspects of life were simply not that important.
Said one sympathetic observer: “Most of the kids came to listen to the music, and they did, but they were so naïve…many came with just the clothes on their back and a bottle of pills and expected Providence to provide for them. Providence didn’t, but some of the local folk were absolutely marvelous. And the spirit of sharing what little everyone had was apparent everywhere.
“There was strong resentment over the lack of organization by the promoters. They just didn’t plan anything and gave the idea beforehand that everything would be well organized. The kids who spent $21 for three-day tickets were understandably sore when they saw so many go in for nothing, and it was because the promoters didn’t have the fences completely built. There was no provision for removing garbage, not enough toilets and those they had were overflowing, and most of all we suffered for the lack of water. But they came for the music and they heard, despite the fact that the amplification was terrible. I guess I’d do it again, but I’d do it differently next time and come better prepared.”
THE FACT THAT MANY WOULD DO IT again speaks for their determination, if not necessarily for their judgment and sense of responsibility.
By Sunday, some of the strain was beginning to tell. The Saturday concert had ended 9 a.m. Sunday with intermittent halts during the night, and many were worried about getting home. Some stayed and many left. Reluctantly, they tore themselves away, as if waking from an only too brief dream.
The site of the festival was just a few miles from the Ten Mile River Boy Scout camps and Daytop Village, a narcotics treatment center.
And Bethel means House of the Lord.