“If I could I surely would stand on the rock that Moses stood.”—Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1915
The lyrics to that old gospel song “Mary Don’t You Weep” kept running through my head. I knew it from Aretha Franklin’s 1972 Amazing Grace album and it’s haunted me ever since. It was Bruce Springsteen who reminded me to love it anew in 2006 on his rousing We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions album. It ran through my head as I stood on the same ground in 2018 as I did in 1969 at the original Woodstock Music & Arts Fair in Bethel, NY, Sullivan County, Catskill Mountains.
It’s 8:39 a.m. August 16 as I write this column. Forty-nine years ago on this day, at this exact time, I was fast asleep on the grass after talking politics (and falling in love) with a girl who was silently weeping after a pregnant Joan Baez finished her Friday night Woodstock set at 2 a.m. She was crying for David Harris, Baez’s husband, jailed for draft-resistance. She was crying for Joe Hill, executed by firing squad in 1915 for a murder he did not commit because he dared to stand up for itinerant workers in a pre-union era. His last words were, “Don’t mourn, organize!” Baez had sung her husband’s favorite song, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” She was crying at the injustice of it all. I just wanted to get in her pants.
My pilgrimage back to the farm that our hero Max Yasgur used to own — and who let us have our festival on his land despite being blackballed from his own community for so doing — was necessitated when I accepted an offer from F+W Media (the people who own Goldmine magazine) to author a book about that historic August weekend. My first book will come out next year after I turn 69. Yeah, you could call me the Grandma Moses of rock journalism. There’s going to be a plethora of Woodstock-themed books, concerts and documentaries next year for the 50th Anniversary. My book, Ultimate Woodstock (working title), is not family-friendly. How could it be? I want to put the reader in the mud, meeting naked girls, taking the brown acid, smoking massive amounts of pot and hashish and reeling with the feeling as I did. My story will be interwoven with the 21 interviews I’ve conducted with members of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Canned Heat, Willie Nile (who went as a fan), Sly & The Family Stone, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Sha Na Na as well as the sound, lighting and production crew plus fans. Plenty of fans.
Yeah, I was there…hungry, thirsty, wet, dirty, freezing (yeah, freezing in August in my soaked clothes after the Sunday deluge), and, of course, having to go to the bathroom (none of which I was able to correct). Sure, I didn’t get to brush my teeth or shower for five days (at least I went skinny-dipping where I met a topless laughing girl but that’s another story). Thursday night, Friday and Saturday were idyllic, filled with great music (Fri/Sat), monopoly (Thurs), stoned-out reveries, breasts, politics and, best of all, freedom. Yelling “FUCK” at the top of my lungs with hundreds of thousands of others was rather liberating when you’re 18 in ‘69. And we got to do it twice, both at the behest of Country Joe McDonald, who I still say was the heart and soul of Woodstock.
I had gone to look for America as Paul Simon poignantly wrote a year earlier in 1968. I wanted to enjoin with like-minded people, away from the jocks and greasers of 1967 Newark where I survived the race riots despite being plunked down right in the middle of the riot as I worked downtown in a Broad & Market newsstand as rioters rioted right in from of my astonished face. I wanted to meet fellow pot-smoking acid-gobbling longhairs like myself who were against the Vietnam war and for civil rights. And, of course, I wanted to see Jimi Hendrix (which I never got to do). So after buying tickets at The Last Straw in Bloomfield and throwing them away when I realized the concert was free because they forgot to put up gates and half a million people just streamed in from all directions, I found what I was looking for. Boy, did I ever. They practically sat in my lap. (I learned at Woodstock how to take up as much space as possible so people wouldn’t crowd me in my spot right in front of the stage.) And, yeah, I peed on the Sly, as it were, during The Family Stone’s set when I spotted an empty bottle at my feet with a top.
Go there now and it’s beautiful.
The Bethel Woods Center For The Arts is right on the grounds where the festival took place. The Museum at Bethel Woods is but a small part of a gorgeous campus that houses a concert space, restaurant, souvenir shop and those zen-inducing rolling hills where we once played in the mud, 500,000 strong with no police yet no violence whatsoever. It hadn’t ever been done before in the history of mankind and it certainly hasn’t been done since.
Wade Lawrence is the curator of the Museum. He’s passionate about his job. “We created the Museum of Bethel Woods so that it would be an enjoyable experience for all ages. You don’t have to be an expert on the ‘60s or Woodstock to enjoy it. Some museums are designed for the geeks, those who know every detail and want to see the shoelace on the shoe of an artist’s album cover. We aren’t about that. We’re about telling a story. We tell of the era that produced an event like Woodstock, Woodstock itself and why it still matters. In the museum we have lots of music, lots of video, lots of inter-actives, 21 films in all that were all created specifically for the museum. They range from the rise of suburbia and the change from AM to FM radio to how the bands were selected and how the festival was constructed. The stories are tailored to everybody and you can pick and choose your own storyline. You can spend all day here. I think that the measure of success for our museum is that on any given day you can see grandparents and grandkids enjoying it together, and the kids are just as excited as the grandparents. You can see them talking about things like the timeline that talks about the political and social upheavals of the era year by year. It’s amazing to see the old folks looking at the timeline and remembering while the young folks learn when each thing happened. It starts conversations.”
The early paintings of psychedelic poster artist Peter Max (now 80 and living in Germany) will be on display throughout the end of the year. Other events such as a Harvest Festival (Sundays in September) and a wine-fest (October 6) are only the icing on a beautiful bucolic cake that not only brings back memories but engenders thought. For further information: bethelwoodscenter.org/the-museum.