Back to the garden

A local resident celebrates the 50th anniversary of this iconic gathering

When the buzz about Woodstock’s 50th anniversary celebration first hit last year, I immediately said, “I have to go!” I’d missed the original one back in 1969, when I was 16 and my mother said I couldn’t go.

For months, the impending 50th was repeatedly in the news. Would the weekend of music take place? Would the promoters find a venue? Oh, they lost another possible venue? They experienced many of the difficulties they’d encountered for the first concert. And then, the shocker … the 50th anniversary celebration of Woodstock would not take place. Friends came to me and said they were sorry the event I’d so looked forward to had been canceled.

Of course, knowing the original site was not actually held in Woodstock, but in Bethel, N.Y., I knew myconcert weekend hadn’t been canceled.

Bethel Woods Center for the Arts didn’t disappoint. A commemorative art and music festival for four days was indeed held from Aug. 15-18, complete with Woodstock Museum tours, films, ongoing craft and music tents, great food and mementos. The 50th anniversary celebration commenced on the original grounds of the Woodstock Festival. “We are golden” took on additional meaning as aging hippies — present company included — descended upon the hallowed grounds.

Several of the original artists performed. Arlo Guthrie did a free concert Thursday night following the “Woodstock” movie. Edgar Winter rocked the crowd Friday, paying homage to his brother, Johnny, throughout his set.

Saturday featured Santana, who stole everyone’s thunder with his highly charged mix of African beats. His wife wailed on the drums and his son played keyboard and brought the music up to date with his hip-hop raps.

On Sunday, John Fogerty celebrated Creedence Clearwater Revival. Those originals were joined by Ringo Starr, who, at 79, danced, sang and drummed without missing a beat along with his All Starr Band. Blood, Sweat and Tears sang their entire original set from Woodstock ’69. Also appearing were The Doobie Brothers, Grace Potter and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

People of all ages came from all over the country and all over the world to be at Bethel for the 50th, mostly older and gray-haired, with a smattering of enlightened young music lovers and locals. My friend and co-concertgoer Sue Grant had four 20-something nieces and nephews who traveled all the way from Washington State to attend, wearing personally designed T-shirts made by Chris, the eldest of the group, commemorating Woodstock then and now. He’d decided he wanted to be a part of history and booked a flight to New York. His siblings caught his excitement and scrambled to book their flights, too, not wanting to miss out on the “happening.”

Vickie Grant, who attended the original Woodstock with her little brother, came from Florida to relive the excitement. “I was 15 years old and my family spent summers in the Catskills at Kauneonga Lake in Bethel,” she said. “There was talk of a music festival coming to our town. Once we heard Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were going to perform, my friends and I wanted to go.” They had discussed going back and forth endlessly. Would their parents let them go? Would it be safe? They walked the mile and a half to the site where the stage was being built. “We watched the hordes of young people coming to the area on West Shore Road, which was so totally backed up that my father, who would normally have come up from Brooklyn on the weekend, couldn’t get through,” she added. “By Friday the crowd was overwhelming.” She and her friends made the hike to the venue on Saturday. “What first caught my eye was all the naked people walking around,” Grant said. “We were shocked that we could just walk in and didn’t need a ticket. The first song we heard was Country Joe’s ‘Fixin’ to Die Rag.’

“Hearing 400,000 people respond to ‘give me an F, give me a U…’ was incredible,” Grant continued. They left when the rain came and listened to Jimi Hendrix from the comfort of their bungalow colony. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that I am so grateful to have experienced.” She attended with her little brother, now 63, and her boyfriend, a blues musician.

Linda Cohen Eckers from White Lake, N.Y., recounted her tale. “I was 16 and at a bungalow colony about 10 minutes away. For me, it was all about the music. I actually remember being there because I never did drugs, alcohol or even smoked cigarettes. I was a goody two-shoes. My friends and I bought tickets for Sunday for $8 each. My dad drove a bunch of us as far as he could and then we had to walk the rest of the way. My mom sent me with about 25 homemade brisket sandwiches, just in case we got very hungry. We got there in time for Joe Cocker to go on, only to have the sky open up. My sandwiches got soggy instantly and I did not want to eat them. I had no problem giving them away, as so many people around me were hungry and would eat just about anything. We stayed a while longer and decided to leave because we were drenched.

“There were no cell phones back then, so I couldn’t call my dad to come and get me. I walked several miles and came upon a sleep-away camp. They were wonderful. They gave me towels and a phone to call home. I had no idea how to explain where I was and there was no GPS. Somehow, he found me, by some miracle. I ended up getting sick the next day with a bad cold and cough from being drenched through and through. Was it worth the experience? For sure.”

There were so many stories of who had gotten to go to the original and who hadn’t. Richard Walka from Bayville, N.Y. went at 18 years old, despite warnings from both his father and his boss not to go, and if he did, “don’t come back,” they said. He went with five guys in a 1965 Chevy, which is pretty much all he remembered, though he said snippets of the weekend come back when he hears a particular song. “There was endless music in the background playing all through the night,” he said. “I remember waking up as Sly Stone was singing ‘Stand’ bathed in purple and white light.” Happily, he got to be a part of history and was accepted both back home and at work. This time, he brought his wife and 14-year-old son, a budding guitarist.

One young woman came clad in her tie-dyed T-shirt, traveling alone all the way from Germany. Another guy said he had been up in the Catskills at camp 50 years ago and all the camp counselors just up and left to go to the concert for the weekend, leaving him in charge.

This year music once again wafted through the bucolic woods on three stages. Every aspect of the weekend was meticulously planned. Except for the rain. It did rain every single day. It wouldn’t be Woodstock without it. But the event was so organized that guests were sent into the pavilion to safely take shelter, or back to their cars until the biggest and windiest storm passed. Bethel Woods set up an “alumni tent,” where you could meet and talk to some of the folks who were present 50 years ago. I met the couple Bobbi and Nick, whose photo hangs in the Bethel Woods museum as they hugged in the rain wrapped in their blanket. They celebrated 50 years of marriage this year and their now famous photo graces the cover of the Woodstock commemorative album.

Adding to the fun of the weekend, a photo booth was set with ’60s costumes, creating a montage of this year’s concertgoers. There were memory boards to leave messages that will ultimately become part of the museum’s collection of exhibits. Sue and I made hippie crowns of flowers, leather bracelets and paintings.

The entire surrounding area pulled together to make this a weekend of peace, love and togetherness. Sullivan Catskills Dove Trail was conceived just for the occasion, with 50 dove sculptures perched in villages, towns and at several restaurants and businesses. The art installation, inspired by the “Summer of ’69,” was of beautiful doves, all hand-painted and permanently mounted to commemorate the 50th anniversary. It’s worth going up and spending the day following the trail to find them, all while enjoying the countryside and its offerings along the way.

Yasgur’s farm still exists. At one time known for simply delivering milk, it opened up down the road from the Bethel Woods venue and Woodstock Memorial, offering ongoing music, food and weekend camping. Local watering hole Hector’s had amazing music all weekend, along with $3 beers and continuous outdoor grilling.

Carlos Santana put the whole Woodstock anniversary celebration at Bethel Woods into perspective with his closing inspirational words and song, saying (paraphrased), “We tonight are the real Woodstock. Everyone coming together in love and light. We need to bring it back.” Their last song heralded, “Come on people now. Smile on your brother. Everybody get together. Try to love one another right now.”

Whereas the actual summer of love cannot be replicated, the feeling, the hope of peace, love and understanding can. As a song “Woodstock” says, “We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

I’m so glad I made it to this celebration of love, peace and togetherness. I hope that for some of the younger folks attending it was a life-changing experience they can carry back to their homes and carry on the spirit of Woodstock.

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