UNITED STATES NEWS

Peace, music and memories: As the 1960s fade, historians scramble to capture Woodstock’s voices

Mar 1, 2024, 10:05 PM

FILE - Music fans relax during a break in the entertainment at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, A...

FILE - Music fans relax during a break in the entertainment at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, Aug. 16, 1969, in Bethel, N.Y. An estimated 450,000 people attended the Woodstock festival in August 1969, and most of that crowd was composed of teenagers or young adults now in the twilight of their lives. That ticking clock is why the Museum at Bethel Woods, based at the site of the festival, is immersed in a five-year project traveling around the United States recording the oral histories of people were there, preserving the Woodstock memories before they fade away. (AP Photo, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo, File)

BETHEL, N.Y. (AP) — Woodstock didn’t even happen in Woodstock.

The fabled music festival, seen as one of the seminal cultural events of the 1960s, took place 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) away in Bethel, New York, an even smaller village than Woodstock. It’s a fitting misnomer for an event that has become as much legend as reality — and has less to do with location than the memories it evokes about a society’s state of mind at the close of a jumbled decade.

An estimated 450,000 people converged on a swath of land owned by dairy farmer Max Yasgur to attend an “Aquarian Exposition” promising “three days of peace, love and music” from Aug. 15 to 17, 1969. Most were teenagers or young adults — people now approaching the twilight of their lives in an era where only a small portion of the population has living memories of the 1960s.

That ticking clock is why the Museum at Bethel Woods, located on the site of the festival, is immersed in a five-year project to sift facts from the legends and collect firsthand Woodstock memories before they fade away. It’s a quest that has taken museum curators on a cross-country pilgrimage to record and preserve the recollections of those who were there.

“You need to capture the history from the mouths of the people who had the direct experience,” says music journalist Rona Elliot, 77, who has been working as one of the museum’s “community connectors.” Elliot has her own stories about the festival; she was there, working with organizers like Michael Lang, who entrusted her with his archives before his death in 2022.

Woodstock, says Elliot, is “like a jigsaw puzzle — a panoply of everything that happened in the ’60s.”

A QUEST FOR ORAL HISTORIES

Woodstock attendees have done hundreds of interviews through the decades, particularly on major festival anniversaries. But the Bethel Woods museum is plunging deeper with a project that began in 2020, relying on techniques similar to those of the late historian Studs Terkel, who produced hundreds of oral histories about what it was like to live through the Great Depression and World War II.

“There is a difference between someone being interviewed for a paper or a documentary and having an oral history catalogued and preserved in a museum,” says Neal Hitch, senior curator and director of the Museum At Bethel Woods. “We had to go to people where they are. If you just call someone on the phone, they aren’t quite sure what to say when we ask you to tell us about these personal, private memories from a festival when they may have been 18 or 19.”

To find and meet people willing to tell their Woodstock tales, the museum received grants totaling more than $235,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services — enough money to pay for curators and community connectors such as Elliot to travel the country and record the stories.

The odyssey began in Santa Fe, New Mexico — home to the Hog Farm that provided hippie volunteers such as Hugh “Wavy Gravy” Romney and Lisa Law to help feed the Woodstock crowd. Museum curators have traveled to Florida, hopped on a “Flower Power” cruise ship and visited Columbus, Ohio, before making a California swing earlier this year that included a San Francisco community center located near the former homes of festival performers Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

Richard Schoellhorn, now 77, made the trip from his Sebastopol, California, home to San Francisco to discuss his experience at Woodstock. He was initially hired to be a security guard at the ticketing booth when the festival was supposed to occur in Wallkill, New York, before a community backlash prompted a late switch to the Bethel site.

Schoellhorn still reported for work in Bethel, only to promptly discover his services weren’t going to be needed because the festival became so overwhelmed that organizers stopped selling tickets.

“I was walking around at Woodstock and Hugh Romney comes up to me and says, ‘Are you working?’” Schoellhorn recalled to The Associated Press before sitting down to have his oral history recorded. ”And I go, ‘No, I just got fired!’ He goes, ’Well, would you like to volunteer?’”

Schoellhorn wound up working in a tent set up to assist people having bad experiences on hallucinogenic drugs they had taken. He wound up getting stoned himself while reveling in the first concert he’d ever attended.

“It felt like everyone was in the same freaking boat,” Schoellhorn said. “There wasn’t like one section where people were rich. Nobody was special there, right from the get-go.”

Before attending Woodstock, Schoellhorn said he was a loner intent on pursuing a career in marketing. After Woodstock, he became so extroverted that he wound up living in a Colorado commune for several years before spending 35 years as a dialysis technician.

MEMORIES OF UP-CLOSE EXPERIENCES

Another Woodstock attendee, Akinyele Sadiq, also came to see the curators in San Francisco to excavate his memories of watching the festival from 25 feet (7.6 meters) away from the stage.

Although the festival wasn’t supposed to begin until a Friday, Sadiq departed on a Bethel-bound bus on a Wednesday. When the bus broke down, he hitched a ride that delivered him to the festival site by noon Thursday, allowing him to claim a spot so near the stage that he is visible in photos taken during the performances.

By the time he left Bethel a few days later, in a hearse that a fellow festival-goer had converted into a van, Sadiq had changed.

“Before Woodstock, I didn’t have real direction. I basically didn’t have a lot of friends, but I knew I was looking for peace and justice and wanted to be with creative people who were looking to make the world a better place,” Sadiq, now 72, told the AP before having his oral history recorded. “Before Woodstock, if you were living in a little town, you thought there might be a dozen people out there you might be able to get along with. But then you realized there was at least a half a million of us. It just gave me hope.”

Hitch says curators have heard many life-changing experiences while collecting more than 500 oral histories so far and are convinced they will amass even more during the next year. Community connectors hit Florida last month and are heading to Boston in March and New York City in early April. That will be followed by return trips to New Mexico and Southern California.

The museum intends to focus on finding and interviewing festival attendees scattered across New York state, where Hitch estimates roughly half the Woodstock crowd still lives.

The museum will spend 2025 combing through the oral histories before turning to special projects such as reuniting friends who attended the festival together but now live in different parts of the country.

Elliot is convinced — “both karmically and cosmically” — that the oral history project is something she was meant to do.

“I want this to be a teaching tool,” she says. “I don’t want historians telling the story of a spiritual event that just appeared to be a musical event.”

United States News

Associated Press

Hawaii says it’s safe to surf and swim in Lahaina’s coastal waters after wildfire

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii authorities say coastal waters off the wildfire-stricken town of Lahaina pose no significant risk to human health and it’s safe to surf and swim there. The state Department of Health announced the decision Thursday after reviewing water sampling test results collected by groups including University of Hawaii researchers, the Surfrider Foundation […]

35 minutes ago

Associated Press

A state trooper pleaded guilty to assaulting teens over a doorbell prank. He could face prison time

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A suspended Delaware state trooper is facing prison time after pleading guilty to criminal charges involving a brutal assault on a teenager who targeted the trooper’s house in a prank. Dempsey Walters, 30, pleaded guilty Friday to second-degree assault and deprivation of civil rights, both felonies, authorities said. He also pleaded […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Sawfish rescued in Florida as biologists try to determine why the ancient fish are dying

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A large sawfish that showed signs of distress was rescued by wildlife officials in the Florida Keys, where more than three dozen of the ancient and endangered fish have died for unexplained reasons in recent months. The 11-foot (3.3-meter) smalltooth sawfish was seen swimming in circles near Cudjoe Key and […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

‘HELP’ sign on beach points rescuers to men stuck nine days on remote Pacific atoll

Three men stranded on an uninhabited Pacific island survived for more than a week and used palm fronds to spell out HELP on the beach – leading to rescue by Navy and Coast Guard aviators who spotted the sign from several thousand feet in the air. They had embarked March 31 in a 20-foot boat […]

4 hours ago

Associated Press

1 dead and 13 injured after semitrailer intentionally crashed into Texas public safety office

BRENHAM, Texas (AP) — A Texas semitrailer driver rammed a stolen 18-wheeler though the front a public safety building where his renewal for a commercial driver’s license had been rejected, killing one person and injuring 13 others, authorities said Friday. The intentional crash into the single-story brick building off a highway in Brenham, a rural […]

4 hours ago

Associated Press

Prosecutors: South Carolina prison supervisor took $219,000 in bribes; got 173 cellphones to inmates

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A supervisor who managed security at a South Carolina prison accepted more than $219,000 in bribes over three years and got 173 contraband cellphones for inmates, according to federal prosecutors. Christine Mary Livingston, 46, was indicted earlier this month on 15 charges including bribery, conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering. Livingston […]

5 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

COLLINS COMFORT MASTERS

Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.

...

Fiesta Bowl Foundation

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade is excitingly upon us

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe is upon us! The attraction honors Arizona and the history of the game.

Peace, music and memories: As the 1960s fade, historians scramble to capture Woodstock’s voices