Woodstock Nation, 40 (Often Groovy) Years Later

Forty years after Woodstock, the iconic music festival still looms large in the public mind as the high point - or, some say, the death knell - of America's 1960s' counterculture. What was it like to be there for "veteran" audience members and performers, and what is the legacy of this unique cultural happening?

As magical as participants say the three-day Woodstock Festival was, it didn't just appear fully formed on a Bethel, New York cow pasture, back on August 15, 1969.

"To go from a really deserted beautiful rural setting to essentially a city in the middle of nowhere with hundreds of thousands a matter of days was shocking and fascinating," says Vara Neverow, who arrived about a week early to join the Hog Farm commune to help prepare the site. 

Neverow was especially intrigued by the people themselves, who were, she says "dressed in really unusual ways, or totally undressed, or drugged out to the point where they were incoherent, or having fabulous visions of secondary worlds."

The 30 or so bands scheduled to play during the Woodstock festival represented the cream of the 1960s music culture. Among many other superstars, fans could get their minds blown by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Santana, the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, and Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, who had only performed together once before.

Hours into the festival, a driving rain began to soak the fields, turning them into a sea of grassy mud. Neverow says the rain and mud were as constant and unavoidable as the music.

"The dirt was everywhere," she says. "It was on the people. It was sucking people down into the muck. It was the signature of Woodstock ultimately that the Earth itself got involved in the celebration!"

Apparently, the attendees just took it all in stride. "People who didn't have tarps just lay there in the rain and watched the music and enjoyed themselves anyway," recalls Neverow, who was fortunate to have the Hog Farm's giant tent for her own shelter, when she could get some sleep.
Although hippies from every state were probably represented at the festival, not all Woodstock attendees came from far away to enjoy themselves. Debbie Fallon, who was 14 years old at the time, lived just down the road. Although her grandparents (perhaps understandably) did not want her to go, Fallon managed to sneak away to the festival on her bicycle.

"It was a big party. That's how I saw it," she said.

Fallon recalls that the hippies' fashion styles included bell-bottoms and big buckle belts, tie-dyed shirts, and sandals.

"It looked like a city full of just kids!," she says with a grin.  

Not all locals felt were amused by the gathering. In a clip from the famous documentary film about the festival, dairy farmer Clarence Townsend minced no words.

"It's a disgraceful mess!" he said. "My fields are all cut up. Our second cutting of hay is going. [As for] my cows, the milk truck didn't get here, so the milk had to be thrown out."

Indeed, traffic coming to the site was backed up over 100 kilometers, and, in an ironic twist, many performers had to be flown to the site on Army helicopters. Soldiers and hippies usually found themselves on opposing sides during the Vietnam era.

But "If it wasn't for them, no bands would have gone back and forth," says musician Richie Havens, who performed the festival's opening act. "How could we dislike the soldiers? They opened up the gate for us."

Vara Neverow says that while the musical entertainment was groovy.

"Woodstock was also about community, and connecting with people and kicking back and just really wondering about the world," she says. "People were just very hopeful and happy."

That was certainly true of Ralph Corwin who hails from a town nearby. He remembers riding his bicycle to a hilltop near the site and looking down at a pond.

"And there was about 200 young ladies frolicking in the water in the nude," he said. "And I said ‘today is going to be a good day!'"

Every day was also a rainy day at Woodstock, a circumstance that was met with resigned good cheer both on stage and off.

Woodstock organizers had planned for only 60,000 attendees. The 300,000 to 400,000 people who showed up severely stretched the festival's food, water and sewage resources.  

But attendees like Duke Devlin managed to make the best of things. Devlin is now a paid guide at the new multimillion dollar Woodstock museum about a kilometer down the road. 

"If I found something to eat, I ate it," he recalls. "If I found something to drink I drank it. If I found something to smoke, I smoked it. If I found a place to sleep I snoozed. Everything just happened [as if by itself]."

But that dreamland could not be sustained. By Sunday, the third and final day of the festival, food and water were running out, and disaster loomed.

"Not that anyone ever behaved badly," says Vara Neverow. "It was all extremely supportive, caring… and incredibly blissful." 

Indeed, she recalls that there was a sense of coherence and wholeness - even amid the apparent chaos which she likens to the LSD experience "… where the world is just this extraordinarily beautiful or frightening, chaotic, yet orderly vision… of an alternative world." She compares Woodstock to "falling off a cliff into another universe."

For many attendees, the Woodstock Festival has had a lasting impact. Local resident Ralph Corwin, for example, who came for some free love at the pond, often visits the site today whenever he needs spiritual refreshment and peace of mind.

"This is the only place in the world where nothing bad ever happened to me," says Corwin, who plans to have his ashes scattered on the site. "And maybe in a hundred years they'll still be celebrating [Woodstock], and somebody will walk by, roll me up and smoke me!"

Vara Neverow says that Woodstock changed her forever, that it took her life "from black and white to color." But she also believes the festival has had an enduring impact on American life.

"It was an inspiration I think for people to get back to the land, return to the ‘Garden [of Eden],' change the world, leave the constraints of urban life and do other things," she said.  

For her, Woodstock was a was a rip in the fabric of our culture that could not be "repaired." And in her opinion, and in the opinion of millions of others who wish they had been at this signal event, "that is, for the most part, a very, very good thing!"

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