50 Years On… Why Woodstock Is Still The Festival To Beat

Rainbow-painted school buses. Plumes of smoke on a hill. Jimi Hendrix shredding ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. This year, Woodstock – the most iconic festival in history – turns 50. Nothing has yet surpassed it.

Before it came to symbolise rock ’n’ roll and the hippie movement, Woodstock looked like an impossible feat to 1960s festivalgoers. But four music lovers made it happen.

Here, we explore what makes Woodstock an unrivalled event even now, 50 years on…

Vision meets opportunity

Woodstock’s story begins with Michael Lang, a New Yorker who moved to Miami and set up a shop selling cannabis smoking gear in ’67. He promoted a few events there, including the 1968 Miami Pop Festival with Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Arthur Brown among those on the bill.

Lang met Artie Kornfeld that year, and the two became inseparable – he even moved in with Kornfeld’s wife so they could shoot ideas at each other full-time. Kornfeld was a maverick. By his early 20s, he’d risen to Vice President of Capitol Records and written dozens of hit songs. Lang was also just 27 when the two decided to try and build a rock star retreat-cum-recording-studio in Woodstock, back in New York state.

Then came an opportunity. They saw an ad in The New York Times from two investors – Joel Rosenman and John Roberts – promising “unlimited capital” for the right opportunities. Lang and Kornfeld replied, outlining their vision. This morphed into something much larger – a two-day festival with 50,000 attendees that could honour the pop revolution everyone was buying into at the time.

Woodstock Ventures, Inc. was founded.

Mud, sweat and fears

From the start, the four organisers were in an uphill battle. They spent far more money on acts than they’d budgeted for after booking Creedence Clearwater Revival early to tempt other groups. Janis Joplin, Santana, The Who and Jefferson Airplane were confirmed after tenuous disputes, as well as Hendrix, who asked for more than three times the pay.

With each new signing, the buzz grew. Predicted crowd numbers grew with it. This made the search for a hosting ground that much harder. At first, Woodstock Ventures, Inc. got licensing for an industrial park in the town of Wallkill at $10,000. But when residents discovered how big the event was going to be, they were furious. Permission was swiftly withdrawn.

Running out of cash and patience, the four members of Woodstock Ventures jumped at an offer from dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who owned land near the Catskill Mountains. He asked for today’s equivalent of half a million dollars – enough to buy the property outright. The organisers paid up. At least, they reasoned, 100,000 presale tickets had sold: double what they were expecting.

The actual crowd swelled to 500,000. No one was ready for it. 

The weekend arrives

People started arriving at Woodstock a few days early. Toilets, security and medical tents were barely set up. As Lang remembers it, “You do everything you can to get the gates and fences finished – but you have your priorities. People are coming, and you need to be able to feed them, and take care of them, and give them a show. So you have to prioritise.”

By this, he means ‘screw it’ – let anyone who wants to be there, be there.

As Richie Havens plugged in on Friday at the festival, word spread that Woodstock was a free event. A million hippies, teenagers, bikers and astral projectionists swarmed to the farm. Cars were abandoned on the highway as they made their way on foot. Police had to step in and turn many of them away, but still, when you see aerial footage of the Woodstock crowd, it looks like a force of nature.   

The performers were astounded. Janis Joplin whipped her mic chord into a frenzy, while Country Joe and the Fish exorcised the rage of Vietnam. The Who’s seven-minute ‘My Generation’ performance was sealed in rock legend. Jimi Hendrix, of course, blew what was left of the minds of the remaining 25,000 attendees, playing into an extended Monday morning set – a story that would be retold over and over to their grandchildren. 

Through it all, the Woodstock founders came up with solutions in the moment to control the chaos. They hired members of a hog farm to keep the peace (they threw pies and doused people in seltzer water). Helicopters from the Stewart Air Force Base were used to ferry acts to and from the site. Only a dozen police officers were there, but they didn’t have much to do – there were barely any fights or major injuries. It seemed that the message to drop acid, not bombs, was lived up to.

As farmer Yasgur said when he took to the mic, “You’ve proven something to the world…”

What Woodstock teaches us

Everyone who left Woodstock, wild-eyed and filthy, had a sense that they’d been a part of something special.

Sure, Woodstock wasn’t a great business model. But it did demonstrate the strength of an idea – how easily you can make history when you have the right balance of madness and the drive to shape your reality.

Anyone with a vision can follow in Lang and Kornfeld’s footsteps. Fatsoma exist to make it happen. Want to live up to Woodstock? Create your own event, and who knows where it might lead.

Image via Instagram (@woodstock)