Memories of mud and music as onetime ‘hippie’ recalls Woodstock

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A mere mention of the 1960s can bring to mind images of peace signs, drugs, free love and rock ’n’ roll — as well as the Woodstock music festival in 1969, which incorporated all of those elements into a four-day experience in upstate Bethel.

As the 50th anniversary of Woodstock approaches — the event began on Aug. 15 — Peter Held, 67, formerly of Wantagh, relived his experience at the event.

“After 50 years I still consider it an important part of my life that I was able to attend Woodstock,” Held said. It was “a unique experience, and whenever I tell people I went to Woodstock, a lot of them are surprised, because they’ve just heard about it or saw the movie.”

Held, who now lives in Chandler, Ariz., said he was into the alternative lifestyle that the festival represented. “I was pretty young — 17 — impressionable, and it was a lot of fun,” he said.

Woodstock was the brainchild of Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, four men who were searching for an investment opportunity, according to History.com. They created Woodstock Ventures and organized the festival.

Attended by an estimated 400,000 people, the festival was originally going to be held at Howard Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill. But Wallkill town officials passed a law to prevent it from being held in the town. A month before the concert, a dairy farmer named Max Yasgur offered to rent the organizers part of his land in Bethel.

Woodstock Ventures originally planned to charge festival attendees, but fences, entrance gates and ticket booths weren’t set up in time, and people began to arrive several days before the festival began. More than 100,000 tickets were pre-sold, but the event became a free concert when it was clear that it would be impossible to charge an admission fee at the gate. “There was no gate,” according to Roberts. Film footage of the event shows concertgoers trampling over chain link fences that had been set up in a makeshift effort to control the immense crowd.

After graduating from Wantagh High School and before starting classes at Suffolk Community College, Held, then 17, made his way to the festival with two high school friends — Ken and Craig, whom he declined to identify further. The trio had attended other concerts during their senior year, including the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island that July, which, in addition to showcasing such jazz greats as Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie, was also a kind of musical Mecca for artists in the folk and rock scene.

“We were into the music at the time,” Held said. “We’d just graduated high school. We were footloose and fancy-free for a little bit.”

The festival included dozens of musicians of the time who have since become icons, including, to name just a few, Joan Baez; Credence Clearwater Revival; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; the Grateful Dead; Richie Havens; Jimi Hendrix; Janis Joplin; Santana; the sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar; Sly & the Family Stone and The Who.

“It just seemed like during 1968 and 1969, things were starting to get to a tipping point,” Held said. “It was the height of lifestyle changes, alternative lifestyles [and] political actions.”

He recalled driving with his friends from Wantagh to the festival on Aug. 14 to avoid the traffic.

“It rained quite a bit,” he recounted. “It just turned into a big mud pit, and people sort of embraced it, because they couldn’t do much about it. They were sliding down mud hills, covered with mud, and people were having fun.”

On the first day, Held and his friends were close to the stage. “But as the day went on, and into the next day, the crowds got bigger,” he said. “We felt a little claustrophobic, so we decided to move back a little bit.”

Several acts stand out in Held’s mind, including Shankar and the rock band Country Joe & The Fish. Held and his friends stayed until the end, he said. “We saw Jimi Hendrix play when the sun was rising on the last day.” The performance was made famous by Hendrix’s electric guitar improvisation on “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Throughout the festival, Held said, he and his friends walked around and talked to people. Attendees slept in the tents they pitched, or in sleeping bags under the open sky, or in their vehicles, and ate at food booths and kitchens set up on the concert grounds.

“It was definitely an alternative scene,” he said. “People wearing bell-bottoms and beads and tie-dye.”

In that era, Held recalled, rebelling against “the establishment” was big, and “the Vietnam War was in full swing then,” he said. “There was quite a bit of upheaval as far as racial injustice.”

Despite the issues of the time, Held described the festival itself as calm. “It was a very peaceful event, and very uplifting,” he said. “It seemed to capture the spirit of the time.”