The delight in a disaster
Woodstock documentary reminds how to engage with a crisis
Woodstock was an event so famous that today its name doesn’t just precede it—it misleads it. As a business venture, the festival was a complete and utter disaster. At its start, there was no shelter, not enough food or medical supplies, no fencing to ticket attendees. But something miraculous happened that made it deserving of the romantic claim it has in people’s memories and vicarious nostalgia. The festival decided to make it about the music, not the money. The documentary Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation covered the unlikely magic of the festival and is available to be streamed on Netflix for viewers to relive that magic.
Michael Lang, co-creator of the event, had a vision of creating a utopic world of music that people could escape to, but when he found the property they were originally planning to use in Wallkill, New York, he was disappointed, recalling, “You know how some pastoral scenes are beautiful and calming and make you feel comfortable, at peace? This was completely the opposite.”
Wallkill signed off to the festival for what they thought would be “a music and arts fair where kids would walk around and hear some music in the background,” as journalist Bob Spitz said. Little did they know, they were actually in for a swarth of half a million hippies, all ready to smoke weed, drop acid, and lose themselves in music.
What became known as the “Concerned Citizens Committee of Wallkill” began expressing serious apprehension about the event. “They didn’t want these hippies in their town,” Spitz said. After Wallkill passed an ordinance banning gatherings of more than 5,000 people, they had to pack up and start over with only five weeks to the festival’s start.
After nearly ten days of sifting through up-state New York, imploring landowners for help, Max Yasgur, a successful dairy farmer in Bethel New York, offered up his land to be used for the festival. Yasgur was, as local resident John Conway put it, a “law-and-order republican,” but he believed chiefly in freedom of expression and individuality. Yasgur took them to a hill on his land; it had the convexity of a natural amphitheater, and they made a deal with him on the spot.
“On Monday [August 11th] everything was in a state of preparation roughly on target for a festival to be thrown sometime in November, and not for one that was supposed to begin in four days,” one of the documentary producers, Joel Roseman, recalled. Food handlers with little to no experience were showing up and building their own stands three days before the festival. Finally they had to decide—either put up the fencing for the festival perimeter or build the stage. “I remember thinking, ‘if we don’t have gates and fences, then we’re not gonna collect tickets—we’ll be bankrupt,’” Rosenman recalled. “‘And if we don’t have a stage, we’ll be in jail.’” So all hands on deck shifted to around-the-clock stage building.
Thousands of attendees were driving into the small community of Bethel trying to find where the festival parking was—there wasn’t any. The road turned into a clogged bank of cars and a river of hiking festival attendees flowing through. “We were on the state highway, and cars were stopping,” said attendee Joe Tinkelman, “and we realized that this was parking for the concert, so we got out of the car and started walking.”
Hundreds of thousands of people stood on the hillside, hardly any of them having paid. The festival was dead as a business endeavor. Through the speakers, production coordinator John Morris announced: “It’s a free concert from now on...” They reminded the attendees that the investors were the one’s taking the hit, but that didn’t matter: “…what it means is that these people have it in their heads that your welfare is a hell of a lot more important, and the music is… than the dollar.”
The hosts described what came over them as they realized recouping the loss was impossible as a “curious calmness.” They saw the festival was not about collecting half a million tickets but celebrating what half a million people really came to do—escape into a time and place that was solely meant for music and people. Even the security they hired was a commune leader named Hugh Romney—more commonly known as “Wavy Gravy.”
When on the second night they were hit by a massive rain storm, what did they do? They danced in the rain, they slid in the mud. When food ran low, residents of White Lake, whose town had been overrun with traffic due to the lack of parking established for the event, donated food to help feed the festival. One said, “Kids are hungry, you gotta feed them.” Helicopters flew in with small foods shipments that people had donated. People shared with one another. Everyone slept under the stars and pulled together and woke up to a simple breakfast being sent out to everyone, the Yasgur family providing the dairy products. Everything was brought by courtesy of collective human decency.
Today, the failures and discomforts that came with that festival might have had people in an uproar—a hysteria of angry tweets and phone calls. During the initial traffic jam, what today would be a bunch of pissed off people complaining on social media, was a bunch of roadside picnic groups of strangers getting to know one another.
How would people today react to find there were no showers available for the entire festival? The attendees response was to host the biggest nudist event of Bethel’s history—probably the only one. Still, they continued to make a positive experience out of everything that was dealt to them, the event holders and the attendees.
It’s a reminder of something lost in this technological age—how to enjoy an experience as it steers away from what’s been anticipated. The event was dealt a raw hand having to rebuild everything in under a month, but Woodstock is a story where chaos gave way to unshakable peace. Today, as the world suffers a new chaos, this documentary incites a choice—a choice to engage with life and others peacefully and humanely, despite financially calamitous circumstances.
After the massive attendance had practically decimated his land, Yasgur gave a speech to the entire festival: “I’m a farmer. I don’t know how to speak to 20 people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world… a half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music.”