“The” Woodstock Festival…That Wasn’t in Woodstock, NY

A brief story of how it came to bear the Woodstock name and Michael Lang’s role

Where was the Woodstock Music Festival? Where is Bethel, NY?

It was the culmination of societal and cultural rumblings, of change fueled by the conservatism of the 1950s, mistrust of government in the 1960s and young people yearning for a voice for their generation.  Or maybe a half-million people just wanted to hear some kick-butt rock ‘n roll. Either way the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was a cornerstone of the counterculture explosion. The three-day concert (although it actually lasted for four after delays!), featuring two dozen acts from Aug. 15-18, 1969, also put promoter Michael Lang  on the map as a musical visionary. Despite the name, the question of where the Woodstock Music Festival would be held was not certain. 

Although the Festival would bear the name of Woodstock, NY, it would take place nearly 60 miles away. To be certain, the road to the concert in Bethel, in Sullivan County, NY, wasn’t easy. In fact, the concert almost didn’t happen. And when it did, it initially lost money – lots of money. There are conflicting reports about who developed the idea for the concert. Some say it was Lang. Others say Lang and a co-promoter, Artie Kornfield, hatched it together.

A Festival Not in Woodstock, but with Woodstock’s Spirit

While debate exists as to where the idea originated, one of the biggest sources of confusion was actual the Woodstock Festival location. It’s not unusual to receive comments or have people ask us at the Woodstock Music Shop (internal link). Many think the Woodstock Festival took place in Woodstock, NY. Beyond the name, Woodstock, NY has a long history of influencing art and music. From world class music venues to iconic record studios to other wonders in and around town who are indelibly woven into the identity of the town, the confusion is understandable.

To begin, maybe it’s best to point out some reasons why the Woodstock Music Festival did NOT take place in Woodstock, NY. Although geographically separated sonme suggest the name Woodstock stuck because Lang’s musical inspiration and Woodstock denizen, Bob Dylan, lived there. Distance aside, the spirit of Woodstock, NY and the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival would be forever linked. It’s worthwhile to note that Dylan did not play the 1969 Festival. 

The 1969 Woodstock Festival, 3 Days of Music and Art … in Bethel, NY?

While the road to the concert was windy and rocky, credit should be given to Lang. His tenacity kept him soliciting for a location in New York. With past success orchestrating the Miami Pop Festival in 1968, the curly haired 23-year-old connected with Artie Kornfield to open a recording studio in the town of Woodstock. Ultimately joining with John Roberts and Joel Rosenman the quartet created Woodstock Ventures. The goal was to put on a cultural explosion featuring art and music. The purpose was to capture the counter cultural zeitgeist pervading the United States. 

The name would stick, but the town of Woodstock, NY was out. Some suggest the town backed out of hosting because the event was getting too big. The town did not have the space or resources to accommodate the throngs of people who were expected, and did, attend. While several stories exist as to what happened next what is true is that planning for the show took Lang to several towns  where he received a similar refrain from municipal officials.

In many places he was met by conservatism skepticism of such a large group of counter cultural youth or more pragmatic logistical concerns about such large groups of people. Towns kept responding to Lang with rejections. They unsuccessfully scouted sites in Rockland County before leasing property in an industrial park in Wallkill, Orange County in March. The size was good, 300 acres would hold the estimated number of 50,000 attendees. Still the feel of the deal was bad. Cement buildings populating the location clearly didn’t evoke a sense nature, as Lang and company wanted. The hesitation was mutual as local opposition began to mount to the planned festival. With less than a month before showtime the city of Wallkill pulled the festivals permit.

Sometimes Heroes are dairy Farmers: Thanks Max!

All of the publicity from the troubles over where the Woodstock Music Festival would be held proved advantageous for Lang. Coverage of the planning trouble spread to Elliot Tiber who had a permit in Bethel, NY to hold a chamber music event at his 15 acre motel along White Lake. After determining that the property was too small Tiber connected Lang with a real estate agent who in turn introduced in turn introduced the concert producer to local dairy farmer, Max Yasgur

Yasgur accepted a fee of $10,000 which would ultimately be reported as high as $75,000 for the use of his property. His bucolic dairy farm sloped like an amphitheater, there was a lake, the areas around the field were tree lined, and it was in a relative isolated location. 

He soon became a lightning rod as divided locals debated the planned festival. Many wanted to “Stop Max’s Hippie Music Festival” with protests climaxing in human barricade across Route 17B the day before the concert. Others showered him with support and wanted to open the town to such a touchstone event.  Admittedly motivated by the financial incentive there was something larger at play for Yasgur. After the festival he was quoted in the New York Times as saying “if the generation gap is to be closed, we older people have to do more than we have done” as a reason for agreeing to lease his land.

If You Build A Festival, They Will Come

Regardless, of the division in the town, the publicity had worked. They were coming. Car after car after car traveled north. While Arlo Gurthrie misspoke when he declared to the crowd  “Can you dig that? New York State Thruway is closed, man!”. While it was true that the normally hour and a half drive from New York City to Bethel Woods could take up to eight hours due to festival traffic the real traffic nightmare was the 17 mile long deadlocked jams resulting from the standstill along NYS 17B. New York State police would eventually close access to the route from the New York State Thruway. 

The music ensued, kicking off at 5:07 p.m. on Aug. 15, 1969. The first act on Friday night: Richie Havens, doing “High Flyin’ Bird.” Twenty-six acts followed, finishing with the Hendrix performance of “Hey Joe.” On the last day of the festival Yasgur addressed the crowd of more than 400, 000 right before Joe Cocker took the stage. Staring across the throngs the 49 year old dairy famer said

“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  … . This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. … a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I – God bless you for it!” 

And days of fun and music it was! In all, it cost Woodstock Ventures $2.4 million, and they never sold a ticket at the gate. There wasn’t enough food or toilets, but there was plenty of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and good vibes. While tragically two people accidentally died, two births were also recoded. All in all, it has been regarded as an overwhelmingly peaceful event in addition to being the one of the most profound cultural experiences of the 20th century, and perhaps history. 

The Site Today

Yasgur’s farm was subdivided after he died in 1973, and today it’s owned by the telecom businessman Alan Gerry. As part of his economic revitalization activities in Sullivan County, NY, Gerry founded the Beth Woods Center for the Arts. He continues as the chair of the board to this day. After a project nearly two decades in the 

The Yasgur site, sitting at the corner of Hurd Road and West Shore Drive right off of Route 17B, is a cultural destination welcoming visitor from all over the world. People come to pay homage to the site the place that helped give voice to a generation and would resonate as the sixties counterculture’s biggest statement.

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