Editor’s Note: This article was published in Yiddish in the Forward on August 19, 1969, under the headline “The Music Fair in the Catskills.”
America is, thank god, used to wonderful concerts of classical, jazz, folk and all kinds of modern music that elicit great interest and create enjoyment for those who like them. Crowds are drawn, for example, to the free concerts in parks and stadiums or other locales under the open skies.
The free outdoor concerts can typically draw crowds of 10,000 and sometimes even 100,000.
But a concert like the “Woodstock Music And Arts Fair” that took place last weekend near Woodstock in the Catskills, was one of the most outstanding ones. Such a concert had not ever been seen nor heard of, not in America itself nor anywhere else in the entire world.
The concert took place over three straight days and nights and was attended by over 300,000 youthful listeners, fans of rock and folk music who also love to smoke marijuana or knock back other drugs.
The artists who performed at the concerts were mostly famous rock and pop bands and folk singers, followed by an entire universe and a half of hippies much as Orthodox Chasidim follow rabbis.
Youthful music lovers ran off to this concert from all corners of America: folks came to Woodstock in all kinds of cars, brand new ones and those that could have already been in junk yards. Folks arrived in buses and all the roadways in the Catskills generally speaking, and leading to Woodstock specifically, were jam-packed. Traffic was so bad, cars stood still so long that it was not unlike ten hours of “meditative prayer on the roads. It was like davening shimenesre.
You couldn’t move an inch for ten hours at a time. The State Police and AAA (the automobile owner’s organization) warned those who had to get to the Catskills that weekend that it was better to stay home if they didn’t want to get stuck sitting the entire night in their car somewhere between towns.
The concert took place on a 600 -acre dairy farm and was spread out over a hill forming a natural amphitheatre. The farm belongs to Max Yasgur, a dairy farmer who owns a herd of 650 cattle and produces milk. Yasgur, as the neighbors tell it, should have made $50,000 rent from the concert’s producers.
Then entire event took place under the auspices of the “Woodstock Ventures Incorporated” — organized by four young scamps in their twenties. Two of them, Michael Lang and John Roberts are 24-years-old, the other two, Joel Roseman and Arthur Kornfeld are 26. The event was, as they tell it, arranged as a “gathering of music and peace.” The youthful organizers prepared for a crowd of around 100,000. Three times as many arrived.
The organizers had to supply food for attendees but because three times as many people arrived to Woodstock than estimated, there was a lack of food and water not only for morning ablutions and hygienic purposes but also for drinking. A few neighboring farmers sold water to the thirsty who walked miles to find some, and then promptly guzzled it. All kinds of sodas were snatched up as soon as they appeared.
With no beds or sleeping accommodations, the entire concert venue morphed into a campsite. Folks lay sleeping wherever they plopped down — on paper groundsheets, or simply right there on the wet grass. Some brought tents or sleeping sacks (a type of large item into which one crawls that covers you up to your head and neck, keeping you warm.). One such sleeper, a 17-year-old boy snuggled up in a sleeping bag, was killed by a tractor. He lay in the mud and the farmer driving the tractor didn’t see him and rode over him with it. By the time the farmer realized what had happened it was already too late.
Many of the attendees were parents of young children and shlepped these toddlers along to the concert. The children also rolled around on the grass.
It rained hard on Saturday night, soaking a lot of attendees sleeping under the open skies to the bone. A lot of other sleepers caught a serious chill. Some of the hippies who typically smoked drugs attempted to get even higher with injectables like ‘heroin’ and also L.S.D. and were seriously ill, with one reported death.
Others were brought to local hospitals in Monticello and Middletown where doctors attempted to sober them up. About 100 others were injured in all sorts of accidents and the 200 area doctors and nurses who were mobilized as volunteer medical assistance helped many others. West Point sent two helicopters to assist in removing the sick and transporting them to hospitals.
The helicopters also delivered food and water to help feed attendees.
Monticello Jewish women, members of the local Jewish community center were “feeders.” They prepared 30,000 sandwiches for the hungry music fans. Catholic nuns from the nearby St. Thomas convent (a monastery for women) distributed sandwiches prepared by the Jewish women.
State police and local residents cannot, however, get over the astonishing sense of order among the 300,000 youths. Aside from the approximately 80 drug related arrests, the police had little to do. No fights broke out, there was no unrest. The only problems for local police to handle were parking regulations. Normally, those driving to a concert can return home afterwards.
Aside from rain, mud, hunger and thirst, most of the youthful attendees maintain that the “Woodstock Music and Art Fair” was a real artistic success that was unprecedented, uplifting and genius, worth it all just to experience it.
But despite the concert being an “artistic success,” it was also quite a financial failure. The event’s mainstays estimate losses they suffered to be in the millions.
The farmer Max Yagur is the sole major earner; he managed to reap about $50,000 in rent. Simultaneously though, he truly purchased a sort of final episode. Several dissatisfied and angry characters called him on the phone, reprimanding, cursing and even threatening him for having rented his farm to the hippies. They even threatened to burn his farm.
But Yasgur wasn’t frightened by the threats. He said he received far more telephone calls from folks who praised him and he was pleased he took a stand of helping the youth.
And $50,000 rent for a mere three days is not a princely sum considering the grass that was trampled on by attendees that will need to be resown if not this year then surely next. A concert like the one held on this farm happens once in a blue moon.
Translated from the Yiddish by Chana Pollack