Woodstock at 50: Five weird facts about the world’s most famous music festival
Woodstock at 50: Five weird facts about the world’s most famous music festival

Woodstock turns 50 this year. 

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For 50 years, we’ve stewed with the cultural significance of the three-day peace and music blowout that was the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. It’s shorthand for the late ’60s and increasingly synonymous with a generation that redefined youth culture. It would be an impressive feat of self-seclusion or obliviousness to never have seen images of a half million attendees wearing jeans and fringe and singing and dancing in mud-caked fields.

The event weighs heavily for the artists it launched (Carlos Santana; it was super group Crosby, Stills,Nash & Young’s second gig), but also for becoming an idealized moment in the middle of the Vietnam War when a generation of young people came together for a few days of celebration and non violence. 

“What happened at White Lake this weekend, may have been more than an uncontrolled outpouring of hip young people, struggling as they did to survive,” one commentator said in the CBS Evening News at the time. 

A half-century later, there’s been plenty of interest in replicating it, even if the most recent attempt, Woodstock 50, never ended up happening due to difficulty finding a location and acts dropping out. 

Still, as well-trodden as some of the stories surrounding Woodstock are — the helicopters airlifting musical acts and food, the bad weather, the fact that it  didn’t actually happen in Woodstock, New York — a few details may have escaped you. Here are five things you might not know about the iconic cultural event.

A band from movie Grease played a set

Fans of the 1978 movie musical Grease might remember Johnny Casino and the Gamblers, the band that played the televised Rydell High School dance. The band was actually called Sha Na Na and just 9 years before, took the stage at Woodstock right before Jimi Hendrix. 

Considering some of the other artists at Woodstock — The Who, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Santana — you might not think a band specializing in covers of Doo-Wop and early rock would land a spot on the roster. The group, which formed at Columbia University, came on the scene in 1969, both paying tribute to and sending up oldies that were, in actuality, not that old. 

Sha Na Na covered songs like Get a Job by the Silhouettes (the band pulled its name from the song’s “sha na nas” in the chorus) and Duke of Earl by Gene Chandler, as well as a smattering of Beach Boys songs. Good stuff, but not exactly Pete Townshend-guitar-smashing rock.

Nevertheless, it was actually Hendrix who persuaded Woodstock organizers to catch Sha Na Na at a club, leading to them to offer the band a spot, according to Variety. 

The media initially ignored Woodstock

As large as Woodstock looms in the cultural consciousness — it’s the subject of how many articles 50 years after the fact? — not everyone anticipated its significance. That includes the media. 

Initially, The New York Times rejected a pitch from one of its writers to cover it at all, according to a 2009 NYT piece looking back at the event. The writer, Barnard Collier, went anyway, and managed to persuade his editors it was worth a story. The Times wasn’t alone in its apathy. When Collier walked into the trailer set up to accommodate press, it was empty. As a side note, Collier’s article is a real gem for explaining such terminology as “grass,”https://www.cnet.com/”joints” and “grooving.”

By the end of the festival, though, all three major networks (CBS, ABC and NBC) ran stories recapping Woodstock, acknowledging the drug use and logistical failings of the promoters, as well as how surprised locals were the kids were so darned polite. One ABC commentator even used  aerial shots of the grounds to segue into a piece about overpopulation.  
The Times’ lookback piece also included an interview with Kenneth A. Paulson, one of the founding editors of USA Today, who marked Woodstock as a turning point for how media covered youth culture. 

“The journalism world got hip very quickly,” he said. 

Most attendees missed Hendrix’s set

While there’s no official number of Woodstock attendees, it’s thought to be somewhere around a half million. That was owing, in part, to the fact that the festival promoters made the event free when so many more people showed up than expected. 

Attendees put up with a lot, like rainstorms and a lack of food and water (Fyre Festival, anyone?). As Woodstock was coming to a close, though, the crowd thinned out significantly. By the time Hendrix, the closing act, took the stage at 9 a.m. Monday, Rolling Stone writer Jan Hodenfield wrote at the time, only about 30,000 people were still around

“Most of them straggled off into now free-flowing traffic that passed the clutter of a civilization that had spanned its own eternity in three days,” he wrote. 

That means they missed Hendrix’s iconic version of the Star Spangled Banner. On the Dick Cavett Show, Cavett asked Hendrix why he played it and noted that some folks were offended by the “unorthodox” take on the national anthem. “I’m American, so I played it,” Hendrix said, adding that “I thought it was beautiful.” 

Woodstock Crowd

Woodstock was packed. 

Ralph Ackerman/Getty Images
The Grateful Dead played five songs in an hour and a half

Jam bands, amma right?

Organizers were split about a repeat performance 

A few months after Woodstock, in October 1969, Rolling Stone ran an article talking about the event’s aftermath. One of the organizers, Michael Lang, had said in a press conference just four days after Woodstock that they’d do it again the following August. It wouldn’t be in Bethel, New York, though. Max Yasgur, the dairy farmer who graciously allowed his land to become the scene of the festival, told the publication that 2,000 acres wasn’t enough space for a half million kids, and he was heading to Canada to decompress. 

On the other hand, one of the other organizers, Artie Kornfeld, summed up his feelings on the matter like this: “I don’t think there could be another Woodstock Music and Art Fair,” he said. “That trip’s been had.”

Originally published Aug. 9.