Fifty years ago, a half-million people gathered on a farm in Bethel, N.Y., for an event billed as “3 Days of Peace & Music.”
The Woodstock Music & Art Fair, held Aug. 15-17, 1969, holds a special place among the cultural events that shaped America.
University of Pittsburgh senior lecturer Bernard Hagerty did not attend but had many friends who made the trip to Max Yasgur’s farm, where future rock legends such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Grateful Dead played for one of the largest concert crowds America had ever seen.
“I remember a lot of friends going, and coming back with very mixed feelings,” said Hagerty, who will talk Aug. 13 at the Green Tree Public Library about the festival, its music and its cultural impact. “It was something very special that they would never forget. But it wasn’t uniformly great: there were predators. It was really hot. But the music was pretty amazing.”
The festival came at a time when American music was emerging from what Hagerty called a relatively fallow period.
“The great musical creativity of the 1950s was kind of gone, and had moved over to the U.K. with the Beatles and early Jimi Hendrix,” he said. “You didn’t have a lot of great American music in the early ’60s. But by the late ’60s, bands like the Grateful Dead and The Band had taken American roots music and made something else out of it.”
Bandleader Tim Woods of Greensburg was 7 years old when the original Woodstock festival spread its message of peace, love and music across the nation’s consciousness. While he didn’t get to attend, he was precisely the right age to be thoroughly steeped in the music of the artists who performed.
“I had older brothers and I was exposed at a really young age to a lot of that music,” said Woods, who grew up in Murrysville.
He will bring his band to this year’s Murrysville Concert in the Park, which will be themed on Woodstock’s 50th anniversary.
“We started toying with the idea about a year ago,” said Carly Greene, Murrysville’s recreation director. “Finding the right bands, and availability, turned out to be a big challenge.”
This year’s lineup will feature the Tim Woods Band, the Granati Brothers, Elias Khouri and Jenkins & Crum.
It is one of several local August events centered around Woodstock’s 50th anniversary:
• Hagerty’s lecture, “The Music of Woodstock,” will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Greentree Library, 10 W. Manilla Ave.
• Singer C.C. Coletti will channel the spirit of Woodstock with her “Experience Janis!” Joplin tribute concert at 8 p.m Aug. 15, at the Lamp Theatre, 222 Main St., Irwin.
• The Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District will host a “Woodstock Night” on Aug. 22.
For Greene, a former Marine Corps staff sergeant who grew up in a military family, a few hundred thousand hippies gathered in a New York field was not cause for celebration.
“It was not looked upon fondly in my family,” she said. “There was so much going on at the time, politically and socially, but the whole basis of that event was, ‘Let’s get some bands together and have some music.’ ”
Woods said the music from Woodstock set the foundation for much of music that came after.
“Over the years, people just keep going back to how that time, to how good that music was and the quality of all those bands,” he said.
The Derek Woods Band, his son’s group from Greensburg, will perform next week about a mile from the original festival site as part of the 2019 Yasgur Road Reunion, held at the Yasgur family’s homestead in Bethel.
Hagerty said a big reason for Woodstock’s success was the diversity in its lineup.
“It wasn’t a folk festival — but Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie were there. It wasn’t a rock festival, but Jefferson Airplane and Sweetwater were there,” he said. “They spotted somehow that Jimi Hendrix was going to be Jimi Hendrix.”
Hagerty also agreed with Greene that the late 1960s represented a tumultuous moment in American culture and politics.
“In 1969, it was still possible to have hope: for the country, for the world. But at the same time, that hope was endangered, and the people at Woodstock felt both of those things,” Hagerty said. “Those things together kind of heightened the entire event for everyone involved.”
As for his friends who attended?
“I don’t think any of them regret having gone,” he said. “And none of them will forget it.”