My college roommate, Joe, a nice Jewish boy from Fairlawn NJ, heard about a “Big concert” in upstate New York and asked if we should go. We found a store in Hartford, near our school, bought weekend tickets for $18, jumped in my car and took off. It was August 15, 1969. We had each just turned 19. It was that time of life when ideas struck and we acted on them, without much thought or planning.
At around 4 that afternoon, we found ourselves in a two-mile backup outside of the concert venue in Bethel. As I recall, we crept along for a spell, parked the car on the side of the road, and headed off on foot. We carried packs on our backs and sleeping bags under our arms. The only items I remember having packed were a few joints of “grass.”
We reached town and saw a sign that read “Woodstock,” which was hanging in front of an opening of a large grove of trees. We looked for a ticket booth but soon realized that we had spent money for no reason. No one was taking tickets here! We trekked in and after around 10 minutes arrived at a clearing. A group of 20-30 long-haired, breast-feeding folks were sitting around a small, wooden platform, listening to two guys play music. We sat down and I distinctly remember thinking something like, “We made it to Woodstock!” After a few minutes I commented, aloud, that I thought there would be more people here. A fellow with blond hair down to his tuchus said, “Man, you mean the concert? Dude, like, you gotta keep walking a ways down that path.” And so we did.
About five minutes later we came to the edge of a field and there, before us, sat half a million music fans, fanning out across and up and down an enormous expanse of land. Joe and I were speechless, though speechless doesn’t come close to describing the awe and excitement we felt. We snaked our way in search of a bare spot to settle, stepping over and through all manner of humanity engaged in all sorts of activities – kissing, hugging, smoking, drinking, and, most importantly, soaking in the initial sounds of Richie Havens singing “High Flying Bird” on a stage, perhaps three football fields distance from us.
I didn’t know much about Heaven, but it had to be a place similar to this joyous gathering. What, exactly, was I feeling as we lay our sleeping bags down among the multitudes? Looking back, I would say mainly disbelief: disbelief that so many of us like-minded, college-aged people were jiving and mellowing out to music we all loved, utter astonishment with the immensity of the place and the sheer freedom we all felt! Freedom from what? I’m not sure. But our sense of unity was palpable. I truly felt part of a coming together of young people who believed in peace in the world, acceptance of all races and ethnicities, and, maybe most importantly, having fun.
We spent that night in a state of youthful bliss. Arlo Guthrie played later that night, announcing as only Arlo can, “The New York State Thruway is closed, man! It’s shut down!” In 1969 I guess we considered that some sort of major accomplishment, as in, “Take that, you uptight, warmongering, capitalist country. Ha!” What I actually felt at the time is difficult to describe, because my values and belief system were still forming. I know for certain that I hated Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the elite power structure that ran the country. I wasn’t highly politicized at 19 years old, but I was emotionally invested in wanting a better country and a better world. And I was sure everyone around me on that field felt the same way.
We fell asleep to the sweet voice of Joan Baez singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
A few hours later, around 5 a.m., I awoke. My sleeping bag was partly submerged in mud. It had rained all night and was still drizzling. Lying on my back, I opened my eyes. Standing directly above my head was a long-haired guy, beating a small drum and chanting Hare Krishna. He was completely naked. Of all my hazy memories of Woodstock, this one is the sharpest. For a relatively naïve, sheltered Jewish “kid” from Swampscott, I hadn’t been exposed to a whole lot, certainly not unclothed Hindu chanters. I believe I just lay and grinned.
Joe and I passed the day in filth and squalor, listening to Creedence Clearwater, The Dead, Janis, and others. In the early evening, just after Jefferson Airplane performed, we decided we couldn’t bear any longer the condition we were in. There was no way we were going to sleep in the mud another night, so we gathered our soggy belongings, trudged almost two miles back to the car (which, miraculously, we were able to locate), and drove three hours to Lake George, where we booked ourselves into a “luxurious” cheap motel. The springs on a bed had never felt better.
Gene Stamell is a retired elementary school teacher. He is also a singer/songwriter who now resides in Leverett.