Locals share indelible memories of three days of peace, love and music from Woodstock, one of America’s most iconic music festivals.
Woodstock — the name alone conjures something groovy, gigantic and groundbreaking. In American culture, Woodstock was monumentally historical for the music and so much more.
Fifty years ago, on Aug.15, 1969, about half a million people — 10 times the anticipated number — descended upon the town of Bethel in upstate New York to be part of the peaceful, life-altering three-day music fest forever known as Woodstock. The anniversary is bittersweet, however. Just a few weeks before the 50th anniversary concert planned for Aug. 16-18, it was canceled after countless setbacks.
But 50 years ago, they came from all over the country to experience some of the most talented musicians of all time — 31 acts ranging from the famous to the relatively unknown. Richie Havens took the stage first at 5 p.m. that Friday. Jimi Hendrix concluded the festival at 9 a.m. Monday with his blazing “Star-Spangled Banner.”
“When Jimi Hendrix played the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at the end, I was floored. I could hear the bombs and devastation in his interpretation. I cried,” recalls Ann Abrams, who last year moved to Ann Arbor, “where there are still people who hold the values of Woodstock close to their hearts and live them daily.”
Woodstock was spearheaded by four Jewish promoters — Michael Lang, Artie Kornfield, Joel Rosenman and John Roberts. But it was Max Yasgur who literally saved the day after the town of Woodstock, N.Y., declined to host the event. He offered his 600-acre dairy farm about 50 miles away. The neighbors started protesting and boycotting his milk, but Yasgur, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, leased his farm out anyway and became an instant counterculture hero.
Legend has it that four years after Woodstock, and two years before his untimely death at age 53, Yasgur visited Israel and announced to retired Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion: “I’m Max Yasgur of Bethel.” Ben-Gurion replied, “Oh, yeah, that’s where Woodstock was, wasn’t it?”
Here’s what local Detroiters had to say about the iconic, legendary music event that forever shaped their lives.
Abrams was 17 and about to graduate from high school in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Her boyfriend then, Jay Grossman, had just finished his freshman year at C.W. Post College and bought them tickets, which she still has framed.
“It was extraordinary. A peaceful, huge crowd of tie-dyed, bandana-clad, blue jean-wearing contemporaries, all joyfully arriving together. It felt like heaven,” says Abrams, who has lived in Michigan for more than 25 years. “The sound of the music was incredible. As Richie Havens played ‘Freedom,’ it was more than inspiring. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll never forget this. And I still haven’t.’”
Everyone shared food with each other — and marijuana, long before it was legal. “It was legal there, it seemed,” she says.
So much music. So much talent. So much rain.
“Luckily, I brought two pairs of sandals because I left one buried in the mud,” she says.
“There were no fights, no arguments and it truly was like a dream. It was so powerful. We were all so against the war in Vietnam, and it felt like we were communicating a message to those in charge.
“I consider Woodstock one of the pivotal moments of my life,” she says. “It was transformative.”
On the 20th anniversary of the second day of Woodstock, Aug. 16, 1989, Abrams’ son was born. “I kept calling him Woody — for Woodstock. His name is Isaac, but Woodstock was still on my mind.”
Keller was a sophomore at Wayne State University when he flew to Rochester, N.Y., and then hitchhiked to Bethel. And like the thousands who got caught in the 10-mile traffic backup — deemed the largest traffic jam in the history of the Catskills — Keller got out of the car and walked the last two miles to the entrance.
Before he left Oak Park, he told his friends, “I’ll meet you at the Hog Farm,” Keller recalls. “We had no idea there would be half a million people.”
The first night it had started pouring and Keller slept under a truck. The next day, he started walking around and saw a van with Michigan license plates. So, he knocked on the door and found Dennis Miller and his brother, Danny, who were also from Oak Park.
“It was 1969, and we knew there was this whole counterculture we had a chance to be a part of,” says Keller of Birmingham. “We were the hippies who just wanted to listen to the best music and amazing bands of the time and get high.
“We’re the generation that changed the #@%# world,” Keller continues. “We ended the war in Vietnam by taking to the streets and protesting. We were all about peace, love and music.
“I think it was a cultural turning point in my life and in American history because it was like-minded people coming together at Bethel. The experience of people communing with each other was the most invigorating. We broke the barriers. Our generation definitely changed the world. If we could only recreate that now.”
London was going to be a senior at Carnegie-Mellon University when he drove from Rhode Island with two friends to Woodstock. A past Newport Folk Festival attendee, London went for the music.
The first night, they slept in their car due to the rain. After that, they slept on the field.
By the last day, on Sunday, all the concession stands had run out of food. Many walked from the site of the festival stage to another field on Max Yasgur’s farm where they were distributing government-donated food.
“This was my first taste of granola,” says London, who has lived in Michigan with his wife since the mid-1970s. “I’m standing in line and a guy walks up behind me. He was naked.
“The media reports about the wildness were overblown. It was all about the music.”
Todd Jay Weinstein
Weinstein was 18 and ready to start at the College for Creative Studies when he hopped on a plane to New York City. From the Bronx, with his homemade “Heading up to Woodstock” sign, he hitchhiked 81 miles and then walked the last two miles.
“Our tickets cost $18. I love that 18 is a spiritual number in Judaism,” Weinstein says. “But the organizers couldn’t get the gates and fences up quickly enough, so it turned into a free concert.
“Woodstock was happening at a time in our country that was a period of great unrest and protest,” says Weinstein, a photographer who has lived 50 years in New York City.
“Woodstock was an opportunity for people to escape into music and spread a message of unity and peace.”
Weinstein was lucky to find the Hog Farm, along with its leader, Wavy Gravy. They were brought in to help create a safe ground for people. At Woodstock, they set up a children’s playground for families and set up a free food tent.
“I would see people swimming nude in a small lake passing by the legendary Ken Kesey Bus called the ‘Furthur.’ It was amazing to witness.
“The last day I started thinking about how was I going to get back to Detroit? I had no clue,” he says.
Out of the 500,000 attendees, Weinstein was lucky to run into fellow Oak Parkers Mark Keller, Saudia Sharkey, Jeff Shine, Susan Rosensweet, Jon Levin and Dennis Miller.
“The amazing thing was I got a ride right to my front door in Oak Park. The experience of Woodstock will be tattooed into my soul. We had no idea how important the Woodstock festival was as an event in our U.S. history. I guess you can never plan such an event. That is the magic of it all.”
Sandi Gerber Reitelman
Reitelman was a 14-year-old rebellious teen about to enter 10th grade in the neighboring borscht belt community of Liberty, N.Y., which is about 12 miles away from Bethel. She already had her tickets and the infamous Woodstock poster hanging in her bedroom — the one that replaced her Beatles and Monkees posters.
“My father essentially knew everyone, including Max Yasgur, who was just another Jewish farmer in the community,” says Reitelman, who now lives in Birmingham. “I was dying to go, but my parents said it was going to be a ‘bad scene.’ We had stranded hippie people staying at our house.”
The next best thing was flying over the site with a family friend who kept his plane at the nearby small airport.
“I remember looking out the window, still disappointed I hadn’t been able to go, but very excited to be flying there. In less than two minutes in the air, I could look down at a massive crowd with a huge stage in a very large field,” says Reitelman, who has been back to the site and the Woodstock Museum in recent years.
Although Woodstock 50 was canceled, she has many friends from high school who plan to descend upon Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel this weekend to attend festivities at the Bethel Center for the Arts where Ringo Starr, Santana, the Doobie Brothers, John Fogerty, Tedeschi Trucks Band and Grace Potter are slated to perform.
Jon “Yoni” Levin
Levin had just graduated Berkley High School in June 1969 when he decided to take a pre-college road trip for the summer. Hearing about the 10-mile backups to Bethel, he parked his ’67 Austin America within two miles of the site and started walking. After about 15 minutes, a hay wagon pulled by a tractor came alongside him.
“A few hippies in the wagon waved me aboard,” says Levin of Oak Park. “I have a clear memory of coming around one final curve when the entire festival site came suddenly into view. My jaw dropped. It was as if I were looking at an ant colony. There were some hillsides covered with colorful creatures.
“Spirits were high — and so were the people,” Levin says. “A small group offered me a dry corner of their blanket to sit on and I shared my O.J. with them. This is how I was slowly absorbed into this pop-up community of nearly a half-million.
“In retrospect, I count being a mere audience member — one ant on those hills of Woodstock — as a small point of pride.
“It says something that in the year prior to Woodstock, I was at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and after Woodstock, I was at the largest anti-Vietnam war protest in Washington, D.C.,” Levin says.
“Some events are so pivotal in a historical perspective that just being in the audience, just knowing to have been at that longitude and latitude in that moment, shows one to have been at the leading edge of a generation seeking change through being a living