It was a time of great controversy. A time of strife and social instability. A time when it felt as though America would remain divided forever. And, at the time, many believed the path to the future could no longer lay through peaceful means. It was 1969 and a little known festival held in Bethel, NY – the Woodstock festival – would soon change everything. But before there was “Peace, Love, and Woodstock,” there was the story of how a small town of Bethel, NY and a staunch conservative named Max Yasgur saved the festival.
The first thing that surprised me about Woodstock is that it was held nowhere near the town of Woodstock, NY. Instead, the festival took place in a town about an hour south – Bethel, NY. Today, on the site of the original festival you will find Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and the Museum at Bethel Woods. The museum is dedicated to the preservation of both the history and the spirit of the sixties and the Woodstock festival. Here, you can walk the original grounds, learn about Woodstock’s history, and work on developing your own skills as an artist or a musician. As I strolled the museum, accompanied by a docent Charlie Maloney – a Woodstock 1969 attendee, I learned how the festival came to Bethel and how it left a lasting impact on the world.
The Sixties – A Decade of Change
As we walk into the main exhibit at Bethel Woods Center – Woodstock and the Sixties, I am greeted by pictures of well-dressed families. They are perfect the way one might see the 60s on “Leave it to Beaver” or the first episode of “Mad Men.” “Everything was black and white back then,” Charlie shrugs. “Not just on TV. The world was black and white.” As we stroll through the exhibit, I understand what he means. The reality of social change can be seen right here as the exhibits gain color and shade.
On the exhibit’s walls, I see the photographs of a changing age. The hair gets longer, the clothes grow looser, but something changes about the faces too. The people staring back at me are no longer satisfied with polite emotion. There is a raw feeling in the pictures that didn’t exist before. “Social and technological change came together,” Charlie explains. “We were listening to music on FM radio – the Doors and Janice. Those songs weren’t played on the tightly regulated AM waves. But on FM, the DJs played entire records, without stop, without a commercial.”
The changing face of America is on display in the first hall of The Museum at Bethel Woods. A time of instability. A time when people joined each other’s causes. The anti-war protesters joined the civil rights marches, and the queer folk welcomed the civil rights groups. It was all coming to a headway and the tension tight in the quickly warming air. “We needed to get away,” says Charlie.
Why was Woodstock held in Bethel, NY?
The four original promoters came up with the idea of “a festival of peace, love, and music” in early 1969. They had plenty of time to get the festival off the ground. The men went looking for venues, which turned out to be harder then they’d realized. Wherever they found a suitable venue the town’s residents opposed the venture. “We were dirty, we were loud, we had long hair. Charlie
Enter Max Yasgur. A conservative farmer from Bethel, New York, Max disagreed with just about everything about the hippie movement. However, he and organizers came to an agreement – the festival (of no more than 50,000 people) would be held on his alfalfa farm in Bethel. No matter how hard things got for him later, he never wavered from his word. When the town boycotted him, Max refused to cancel the festival. “They have a right to their opinion and their speech” was Max’s response.
In the first exhibit hall at the museum, I see a picture of Max Yasgur. He seems unlikely to have helped herald a cultural revolution. A thin man with a receding hairline, thick glasses, he smiles at shyly at the camera. Superheroes often wear unusual costumes.
And so, Charlie and I walk into The Museum’ at Bethel Woods main exhibit hall – otherwise known as Woodstock central. The world is no longer black and white – the colors of Woodstock and hippie culture shock me and leave me in awe. Right in the middle of the room, I see a school bus like creation. I enter the vehicle – the inside is much like it would have looked 50 years ago. Which is to say, an ideal place for social media images (a must in our post-hippie world). Next, to the bus, a VW bug that could only be designed by a flower child. And to the side, a large amphitheater with screens that cover the walls and the ceiling.
Here I take a seat in one of the bean bags, and, find myself at Woodstock. Surrounded by giant screens on the walls and the ceiling, I hear the music of Jefferson Airplane, Jimmy Hendrix, and The Who. All around me, ring the voices of those who were at Woodstock 1969. “We ran out of food on the first day,” says a woman. I lift up my head to look at Charlie. “You ran out of food? And there was no rioting?” He shrugs. “No – we all helped each other out. Some managed to go into town to buy food. The townspeople, even those who didn’t want us there, brought sandwiches. And if you had an apple you’d share it. And tomorrow someone would share their orange with you.”
The Rain at Woodstock
“And then the rain started,” says the same voice. The screens on the sky above me grow cloudy and I hear the sound of water dripping all around. The hippies had a reputation for being dirty and these overgrown kids, on the screens, are covered in dirt. Dirty, hungry, cold. And yet almost no one left. No one rioted. I think back on the recently infamous Fyre Festival and wonder what made it different. “We had different expectations,” says Charlie as though he guessed my question. “We didn’t expect luxury.”
I hear the sound of choppers overhead. An announcement from the speakers “Do not be alarmed. The army is sending us medical personnel. They are here to help. They are with us – not against us” The order could have, just as easily, been to disperse the crowd. Hundreds of thousands of people attended Woodstock – technically illegal with a permit for only 50,000. But instead, the order was to help. Countless lives saved. The National Guard would have to be activated by executive order. I make a mental note to check who the president was at the time, and later learn that it was Richard Nixon.
We Are Golden – Special Exhibit to Celebrate 50 Year Anniversary of Woodstock
I take a selfie with Charlie (another must in our post-hippie age) and make my way downstairs. Here, I am greeted by a special exhibit to celebrate Woodstock’s fifty year anniversary – “We Are Golden.”
The 2019 special exhibit “We Are Golden” offers a wealth of previously unavailable materials from the original Woodstock days. From the original posters supporting (and opposing) the festival to the items left behind on the field. Here too you’ll find instruments and musician memorabilia from the performers themselves. I walk around the rooms and learn about the performers, and how their lives were changed by the golden age of the hippie.
But of all the things to see at the “We Are Golden” exhibit my favorite is, no doubt, the photography collection. Featuring many unknown prints, the photography documents the reality of Woodstock in a way few other things can. I hold tighter to my camera and wonder about the impact our pictures create on the world.
Other things to do at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts
In addition to celebrating and preserving the history of the sixties and the Woodstock festival, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts preserves the spirit. With a wide range of programs, from musical education to the arts, the center focuses on preparing the creators of tomorrow. Learners of all ages can take classes in photography, learn to play a musical instrument or pursue other artistic endeavors. The Museum also offers drop-in programs, many available on weekends in the summer.
And of course, it wouldn’t be the site of Woodstock without concerts! Every year you can attend a variety of musical performances at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. This year, to help celebrate Woodstock’s fiftieth anniversary, the cultural center will host a variety of artists from Dave Mathew’s Band to Adam Sandler on its pavilion stage. Be sure to check the updated schedule and book early.
Bethel Woods – The Woodstock Festival Field
Finally, I work my way outside and the sun is blinding. The original field is just beyond the horizon and today the entire area is a part of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. I slowly walk over a paved path. I remember learning that the stage was set up in an area of a natural elevation, and I recognize the space – not the least because it’s marked by a huge peace sign.
It is April 2019, almost 50 years after the original Woodstock festival. New York weather, as always, is invariably unpredictable. In early April, the seasons range from “where the hell did I put my ski pants” to “let’s have wine on the front porch.” Yesterday, these hills were covered with freshly fallen snow, but today the snow has melted and I see tiny blades of new grass. Yesterday it felt like this land would be forever frozen, but today I remember. I remember that it is always coldest before spring finally sets in. And that it is always darkest, just before the light.