There were many memorable events in the 1960s, times that people continue to ask about by saying, “Where were you when…” One such event began August 15, 1969 in White Lake, New York. Billed as “three days of peace and music,” the Woodstock Art & Music Festival began like any other music festival, but quickly transformed into a cultural phenomenon.
Held on 600 acres of farmland leased from Max Yasgur in the hamlet of White Lake and the township of Bethel near Woodstock, New York, tickets for the festival were being sold at music stores in the New York City area, and through the mail. Advance tickets were $18, while purchasing them at the gate cost $24. The promoters of the event had cleared many hurdles to stage the event, having been denied permits at two other locations amidst local opposition and fear of the negative impact crowds might have on the surrounding towns. With advance ticket sales of about 186,000, the promoters had hoped for a crowd of about 200,000. What they got was at least double that number.
If every boomer who claims to have been at Woodstock was actually there, the numbers would certainly rise exponentially. Nonetheless, so many people began arriving at the site that promoters knew it was not going to be possible to have a secure and orderly entryway. At that point they decided to tear down the fences and make it a free concert.
Thirty-two acts performed over three days, the first being Richie Havens, while the last was Jimi Hendrix. Traffic jams were so large that it delayed both concert-goers as well as performers. Richie Havens opened his set at just after 5 p.m. on the 15th, but was asked to stretch his time to allow for more bands to arrive; in all, Havens was on the stage for more than two hours.
A seasoned club performer, Havens had already released eight albums before being booked for Woodstock. A couple of years earlier he had signed with Bob Dylan’s manager and had even covered some of Dylan’s songs. Havens had a great reputation as a live performer among fellow musicians, so was an easy choice to lead off the festival.
Mister Boomer only heard about Woodstock when helicopter views of the vast traffic jam on the New York State Thruway made the national evening news. At sixteen years old and a thousand miles away, it wasn’t a concert Mister B would have been able to attend. Other than media reports, Mister B’s true connection to the festival was, like many other boomers, via the Woodstock movie released in 1970.
Brother Boomer took Mister B to see it on the big screen at a drive-in theater. Mister B was in awe of the musical acts and how the sheer volume of humanity was able to co-exist under such harsh conditions for three days. The opening act — Richie Havens — was unknown to Mister B until the movie. He was impressed enough to buy a Richie Havens greatest hits 8-track soon after seeing the movie, which included two of his forever memorable Woodstock performances: an acoustic cover of The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun on a twelve string guitar, and the song that became his anthem from then on, Freedom.
The story goes that, having run through his set and asked to stretch his time on stage, Havens needed more material. Havens improvised on an old spiritual, setting up a rhythm on his guitar and singing the phrase, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” That song became known as Freedom. A veteran performer before Woodstock, Havens found stardom on the Woodstock stage.
He continued to perform another four decades. He stopped touring in March of 2012 after a poor recovery from kidney surgery. At the dawn of the environmental movement he became known as a staunch supporter of ecological and environmental concerns. He also acted in film, on TV and on Broadway.
Richie Havens died of a heart attack on April 22, 2013. He was 72. Woodstock made such an impression on Havens that he is quoted as saying not a day went by that someone didn’t ask him about his experiences. One of his last wishes was that his ashes be scattered at the Woodstock site. In August of 2013, the estate of Richie Havens was granted permission to do so. On August 18, 2013, the ashes of Richie Havens were scattered on the very site where the Woodstock stage stood in 1969, near the monument that now marks the spot.
Though Mister Boomer’s Richie Havens tape 8-track is long gone, he does still have in his possession a necktie that has a one-color photo of the Woodstock crowd stenciled on it. Every now and then it reminds him that, as Joni Mitchell sang, “we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
Where were you in August of 1969, boomers? Did you, like Mister B, become a fan of Richie Havens after seeing the Woodstock movie?