You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Woodstock fans really need to thank these unsung heroes

Mediafeed 8/12/2022 Constance Brinkley-Badgett
Woodstock festival © James M Shelley / Wikimedia Commons Woodstock festival

Ideas come and go, and more frequently than not, they die as they began – just ideas. Too few of us put our ideas into action, and even when we do, failure is sometimes the result.

But every now and then, the stars align, what could go wrong rights itself through the actions – or even inactions – of the parties involved, and something magical and memorable – even transformative – takes place.

That was the case with 1969's Woodstock Music & Arts Festival near Bethel, New York. That summer, a wild and wonderful convergence occurred thanks to the ideas of a handful of young men, some much needed financial backing, the kindness of more strangers than can be counted, musicians willing to do something a little different and, of course, possibly the best audience in concert history.

Author Dan Bukszpan's new book, "Woodstock: 50 Years of Peace and Music" delves into how people and communities came together to make the festival the almost mythical cultural touchstone it ultimately became. Here's a look at the people who made it happen. What follows is excerpted with permission from his book. It's quite possible that without the involvement of all of them, Woodstock could be remembered quite differently than it is today.

1. Michael Lang

Michael Lang booked almost every act that performed at Woodstock. Before that, he had coproduced the 1968 Miami Pop Festival, featuring performances by such artists as the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Blue Cheer, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

“I was sort of inspired by Monterey Pop, so we called it Miami Pop,” he said. When the festival ended, he moved to Woodstock, New York. The town was known as an artists’ hub, and it was home to Bob Dylan. It held “Sound-Outs” during the summer, overnight concerts on small farms just outside town, and the concept of bringing music out into nature left a lasting impression on Lang.

“Things were turning violent in the States, and 1968 was the year of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and riots around the world,” he said. “We were kind of losing this dream, and so we thought, ‘Let’s give it one last shot, and take people out of the cities and take them out of their usual pressures and see if we could make it work on our own.’” 

Despite his idealism, he knew that a large gathering of young people would present challenges.

“There was a movement afoot in the counterculture that said music should be free,” he said. “The logic behind it was kind of flawed. I mean, somebody’s got to pay the bands, got to pay the stage crew. Without those realities, you don’t have a music event.” 

Nonetheless, “music should be free” was the prevailing mentality, and Lang knew exactly how he didn’t want to see it handled. “I was in a bunch of festivals that year, and [authorities] were tear-gassing at the gates, people were trying to break in, and there were these sorts of confrontations that were almost preplanned,” he said. 

“I made it sort of, part of the fabric of the festival that there would be free kitchens, free campgrounds, free stages; you could come whether you had money or not. If you wanted to be a part of it, you were in.”

2. Artie Kornfield

Artie Kornfeld has been a music fan for as long as he can remember. He started off as a child, playing trumpet. 

“I was the first tenth-grader that ever made first-chair All-State solo trumpet in the All-State symphony,” he said. But when he heard rock and roll for the first time, he fell in love, and he never got over it. 

“I wanted to write rock,” he said. “I worked a whole summer, simonizing cars, so I could buy a cheap acoustic guitar and get a tape recorder.” He got a record deal, but he saw the most success as a songwriter. He cowrote “Dead Man’s Curve,” a hit for Jan and Dean, and “The Rain, the Park & Other Things” by the Cowsills, which he also produced.

He moved up the music industry ladder quickly, becoming vice president of Capitol Records when he was still in his twenties. Even then, he identified as a music fan, first and foremost. 

“I always felt I was a groupie,” he said. “I was just shocked that I was even there with these people. Every time I sat and talked to John Lennon for an hour or two, I couldn’t believe I was sitting with John Lennon for two hours.” In 1968, Kornfeld met Michael Lang, who was in New York to promote a band called the Train.

Kornfeld said that he and Lang got an embryonic idea for Woodstock during a long night of hanging out and kicking around ideas. 

“It was three in the morning, and I said, ‘You know, Michael, it would be great to have a concert at a Broadway theater...I’ll just spend all my money, I don’t care if I spend it all. And we just keep on getting acts and then make it free and see what happens’.” 

Kornfeld credited his wife, Linda, with the idea of taking the concept outdoors. But it might not have been successful without his knowledge of the music business, and it also never would have made its money back if he hadn’t negotiated with Warner Bros. over the rights to what would become the Woodstock documentary. 

“I made the movie deal four days before Woodstock,” he said. Kornfeld said that to him, Woodstock wasn’t just a musical event. It was a political statement. 

“I was very antiwar,” he said. “My grandfather’s brother was the president of the American Socialist Party, and Woodstock was a very socialist event. Woodstock proved that socialism could work.” 

3. Joel Rosenman

Joel Rosenman was one of the two men who gave Woodstock its financial backing, along with John Roberts. According to Artie Kornfeld, there would have been no festival without them. “It never would have happened without Joel and John putting up that first $270,000,” he said. 

A musician and a Yale Law School graduate, Rosenman wanted to entertain and wanted to go into business. He split the difference by starting a venture capital company with Roberts, but he had an ulterior motive — they would write a sitcom about two men looking for investment opportunities and find material for it by running a classified ad asking for that very thing. 

Kornfeld and Michael Lang responded to the ad, looking for backing for a recording studio. Rosenman and Roberts were already backing one and weren’t interested in another, but they liked the idea of a Bob Dylan concert, which Lang and Kornfeld had proposed as a way of celebrating their new studio, if it opened. 

Dylan didn’t perform at Woodstock, and Lang and Kornfeld didn’t build a recording studio. But the idea of putting on some kind of outdoor concert event had legs, and the four men formed Woodstock Ventures

4. John Roberts

“The day after that festival, we were $2,600,000 in the hole,” said Woodstock production coordinator John Morris. “John Roberts and Joel—but it was John’s inheritance—were faced after the festival with a tremendous debt and bankers said, ‘You have to go bankrupt or pay the money.’”

Morris said that Roberts, whom he characterized as “a real Edwardian gentleman,” wouldn’t hear of it. “John said, ‘We are not burdening anybody on this festival; we will pay all the bills’,” he said. “And Joel said, ‘I agree.’” 

Roberts, the fourth member of Woodstock Ventures, was Joel Rosenman’s business partner, so it’s accurate to say that they took on the financial risk for the festival jointly. But the resources to do that came from Roberts’s family, who owned the Block Drug Company, makers of such products as Poli-Grip, Sensodyne, and Beano. 

Rosenman and Roberts became close friends after Rosenman’s brother arranged a golf game for the three of them. He said that it was surprising that Roberts would back Woodstock, simply because it wasn’t his world. 

“If anyone was not a member of the counterculture, it was John,” Rosenman said. “He dressed like a member of the establishment, he did establishment things. He was the kind that gets rushed to the guillotine when the revolution happens, except that he was adored by everybody, so that no matter what happened, he would have been one of the chosen few.” 

When Woodstock was done, Morris told Rolling Stone that Roberts had taken out $1.3 million in loans to pay off the debts that had been incurred.

Roberts died in 2001 at the age of 56, from three kinds of cancer — lymphoma, leukemia, and lung.

5. John Morris

(Pictured: John Morris onstage at Woodstock.) John Morris was Woodstock’s production coordinator and part-time emcee. This has led many people to assume, wrongly, that he was the one who made the announcement warning festival-goers to stay away from the brown acid. 

He set the record straight about that. 

“[Stage lighting designer Chip Monck] did that announcement,” he said. “I get credited with that, and I did not do it. I did not do drugs, because I was usually in charge and I didn’t feel I could. So me saying the brown acid is not particularly good would be very out of character, because I would not have the vaguest idea.” 

Morris worked at the Fillmore East, first helping to set up the venue and then creating shows with such groups as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. 

“The main thing I was being hired to do was to supervise the production, the stage, and other things, and to help book the artists for the show,” he said. 

When the time to prepare for Woodstock came, a person’s individual specialty was less important than the prevailing sense of “just make it happen.” 

Morris, and the people he worked with, relied on some unorthodox methods as a result. 

“We used Boy Scout manuals and U.S. Army field manuals to plan for toilets and stuff,” he said. “Of course, we thought we were going to have 50,000 to 75,000 people, not half a million.” 

When Morris was deputized to make stage announcements, he said that the job was made easier by the fact that the audience was compliant. 

“We asked them to take care of each other; we asked them to cooperate,” he said. “I mean, during the storm, I was asking people to get off the towers, because the towers were dangerous, and they got off the towers.” 

The crowd was even responsive when informed that an anarchist group from New York City called the Crazies planned to descend on the festival and destroy the concession stands. This was capitalism, the Crazies reasoned, and it needed to be smashed. 

“When they came running out of the woods, they got smothered by about 50,000 people who said, ‘Nah man, you don’t want to do that’, and saved the concession stands,” he said. 

“One of the major things about Woodstock, and to me it’s the greatest example, is that Woodstock got a lot of people to do stuff they wouldn’t have normally done, and help other people totally selflessly,” Morris added. “I mean, [there were] just a tremendous amount of people who did that.”

Special recognition: The audience

Can we just stop for a second and give it up for the 400,00-some-odd folks who showed up and dealt with less than perfect conditions? The crowd was so great, in fact, that Joel Rosenman, credits them with the refusal to let Woodstock go down in history as a catastrophe.

“It’s clear if you think about it for more than 15 minutes, the real hero of Woodstock is the audience,” he said. “They endured a lot, and in the words of Max Yasgur [the farmer who owned the property where Woodstock eventually took place], they showed the world that homo sapiens is not necessarily a lethal mutation. It’s actually got these very fine instincts for taking care of each other, loving one another, supporting one another, and that was all in the audience.”

Much of the coverage of Woodstock at the time focused on the lack of amenities and general unpleasantness. All of that is true, and

understandably, it’s led many people to ask about Woodstock, “What went wrong?” This is the wrong question. The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, which was marred by violence and death, took place only four months later, and it showed that many gatherings descend into chaos.  Sporting events, with enough food and seating for everyone, have descended into riots, with overturned cars, smashed windows, and fires, even when the home team wins. 

Given the conditions that the Woodstock audience endured, why didn’t the same thing happen? Why didn’t it turn ugly? The real question to ask, really, is not “What went wrong?” It’s “What went right?” Dan Mouer, a Vietnam veteran and author of the book Warbaby: Talking About My Generation, worked in the underground press and covered Woodstock. He described conditions that don’t come through on the soundtrack album.

“Crowded. No food. Practically no toilets,” he said. “We all slept on the ground in the rain. And mud. Lots of mud.”

He went home early, but he was there long enough to see why Woodstock didn’t go down in history as The Catskill Mountains Humanitarian Crisis.

“It was a bit of a nightmare, but folks shared, helped each other, made the best of it,” he said. “It was miserably uncomfortable, but most everyone seems to have enjoyed it...loved it, even.”

6. Chris Langhart

Chris Langhart was Woodstock’s technical director. John Morris called him “an absolute, flat-out genius…the person who could anticipate and think of what we might miss.”

Morris recalled one event just prior to the festival that impressed him greatly. “Langhart came in and said, ‘How much does Jimi Hendrix weigh?’” Morris guessed 160 pounds. Langhart returned to his trailer, returning later to ask what the average groupie weighed. Morris guessed 125 pounds. Langhart disappeared again and returned hours later with the design for the bridge to the festival stage.

“He had loaded it, taking Hendrix’s weight and as many groupies as you could possibly get on the bridge chasing him,” Morris said. “He tripled that and made that the loading quotient for the bridge. The bridge was excellent, and it took two decent bulldozers about a day and a half to pull it down after the festival.” 

Langhart and his crew of approximately 130 people outfitted the grounds with electricity and running water. They spread out across the field, relying on decades-old communication methods to relay information. 

“We had [hand-cranked field phones], those World War I, World War II kind of things, where you run a wire in the trench,” Langhart said. “You had to crank on the telephone and it would ring and you would get a hold of somebody.”

Langhart said that his experience with Woodstock didn’t end when the festival did. He had been instrumental in making a field inhabitable for over 400,000 hippies, so the government branded him a dangerous subversive and tapped his phone for a year. 

“Looking back on it, you can see that this is the second-largest city in the state of New York, which happened in two and a half weeks,” he said. “If you were the Civil Defense Authority, you would want to know why that was.” 

7. Chip Monck

(Pictured: Chip Monck, left, with Joshua White of the Joshua Light Show.) When it comes to stage lighting design, John Morris was unqualified in his praise for Chip Monck, the man who he said was the best in the business. “Chip is the best rock-and-roll lighting designer ever,” he said.

As if to underscore the point, Monck won the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, the staging and lighting industry’s highest honor. 

Before Woodstock, Monck was already well known in the music and theater world. He had worked at the Newport Folk Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Apollo Theater. He heard about Woodstock through Hector Morales of the William Morris Agency, whom he would contact every couple of weeks to find new work. 

“I went to Hector, and he said, ‘Oh, by the way, this guy Michael Lang, here’s his number, he’s hiring everything in Christendom, I suggest you get in touch with him.’ Michael and I started to chat about what I could do, what I do, what I did, and how could I help.” 

There were only a couple of weeks to get the Bethel site into shape, and one of the casualties of the time crunch was the stage, which had been designed by stage production manager Steve Cohen.

“What we should have had was five Navajo riggers who were the best in the oil business, and maybe four or five Texas, heavy duty, redneck oil workers that could have put the staging together as it should have been, but we didn’t,” he said. “We had one person that was on the crane, standing in a 55 gallon drum, trying to tighten nuts and bolts to keep things in the air.”

After Woodstock, Monck went on to work other rock festivals, including the violence-plagued Altamont festival. Despite the way that that turned out, he kept working for the Rolling Stones for the next five years. Today, he lives in Australia, where he works in corporate and retail lighting, and where he’s much less likely to have his teeth knocked out by speed-addled bikers with pool cues.

8. Bill Hanley

Bill Hanley is known as “the Father of Festival Sound.” Woodstock was one of his most high-profile jobs. “I was trying to find someone who could do a sound system for Woodstock, and there was no one who had ever done something like that before,” Michael Lang told Front of House Online. “Then there was this crazy guy in Boston who might want to take a shot at it.”

He got a call from Michael Lang, who offered Hanley the Woodstock job based on what he had done over the past few years. Hanley said that he had lofty goals for the sound quality that he wanted to provide. 

“I wanted to have a sound like the sound that you do in the recording studio, without multitracking,” he said. 

Hanley said that despite the fact that he was doing sound for the entire festival, he wasn’t able to listen to the music and enjoy it in the way that the audience did. 

“No, I was working,” he said. “I was trying to figure how to kill this parasitic oscillation problem.” Regardless, Hanley’s work won raves from the people he worked with. 

“I thought the sound was great, and everyone I talked to thought the sound was great,” Lang told Front of House Online. “Everyone could hear, nothing blew up, and it all hung together perfectly.”

9. The Hog Farm

One of the best decisions that the Woodstock promoters made was to fly in a hundred members of the Hog Farm commune from New Mexico. The group was led by Hugh Romney, better known as Wavy Gravy. They were described as working security for the festival, but that doesn’t really capture what they did. 

Ethel Romm of the Times Herald-Record, one of the few publications that covered Woodstock from the scene, wrote in the Huffington Post in 2009 that one of the things the collective did was tend to people having bad drug experiences, such as a young woman who appeared on the paper’s front page, being carried on a stretcher to the First Aid tent. 

“The Hog Farm was probably there within ten minutes, comforting her, which would have made a truer picture [than the stretcher] of how bad drug reactions were handled,” she said.

The Hog Farm accepted the help of anyone who wanted to pitch in. This included 17-year-old Dikko Faust, an attendee who said that he helped with food prep and whatever else needed to be done. 

“I am convinced they saved the festival,” he said. “Thanks to Hog Farm, I didn’t starve.” 

Wavy Gravy said that the Hog Farm was approached by Michael Lang about working Woodstock while they were in New York City. At the time, the collective was based in New Mexico, and when Lang offered to fly them out, he assumed that Lang was just talking drug-addled nonsense, so he disregarded it. 

“However, there we were, Summer Solstice on a Tesuque Indian reservation, and this guy shows up with one of those slightly aluminum rock-and-roll briefcases, and inside there is paperwork that indeed we have our own American Airlines AstroJet to take us to Kennedy Airport, 85 of us and 15 Native Americans,” he said. 

Wavy Gravy said that they were paid “about $600,000 for clearing land,” but accepted no money for working security.

10. Bill Graham

Concert promoter Bill Graham had no formal involvement with Woodstock, but it’s hard to imagine it happening without him. He was the first to present the music of the counterculture as a marketable commodity, and without that, August 15 would have been just another sleepy Friday in the Catskills. 

After serving in the Korean War, he settled in San Francisco and met the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a political satire organization that regularly ran afoul of the law. When members of the troupe were arrested on obscenity charges, Graham organized a benefit concert for them, featuring the Fugs and Jefferson Airplane. He quickly established credibility with the city’s psychedelic underground, and he recognized its commercial potential. This inspired him to host “Bill Graham Presents” shows at the Fillmore Auditorium, which helped start the careers of such future Woodstock acts as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

He came to New York in 1968 to open the Fillmore East. This venue would employ such talents as Chris Langhart, Chip Monck, and Joshua White, all of whom would work at Woodstock. 

Graham had offered guidance to the Monterey Pop Festival organizers, and he did the same for Woodstock Ventures. Sometimes, they took his advice, sometimes they didn’t. 

“When I went to see Bill, he said, ‘Look, it’s simple. You dig a trench around the stage, because you’ve got to protect the stage’,” Joel Rosenman said. “‘And you fill the trench with oil, and then if they try to rush to the stage, you light the oil... I think dogs would be helpful, the guards should have dogs.’” Woodstock Ventures did not take this advice.

In 1990, Graham was killed in a helicopter crash, along with pilot Steve Kahn and Bill Graham Presents staffer Melissa Gold. He was sixty years old. 

11. Max Yasgur

(Pictured: Max Yasgur, the owner of the farm where Woodstock took place.) Max Yasgur was a dairy farmer in Bethel, New York. He allowed the promoters to use his land when the original site in Wallkill fell through. It was not because he shared the promoters’ beliefs. 

“He was older, he was Republican, he was pro the war, but he was the most fair-minded person I’ve ever known,” Michael Lang said. “He just wanted to give us the opportunity that he felt we deserved.” 

Woodstock was originally supposed to take place in the town of Woodstock, New York. When that fell through, Lang said that Joel Rosenman and John Roberts found an industrial park in Wallkill. That fell through as well. 

“The town decided that they were being invaded by all these hippies and passed a law, the terms of which we couldn’t meet,” Lang said. 

The law had been hastily invented, specifically to stop the promoters from holding the festival there. “I think it was ‘Local Law Number One,’” Lang said. 

Miraculously, the eventual site was found the very next day. Lang was on his way to look at a different site, and on the drive there, he saw Yasgur’s field and thought it was perfect. Lang had a meeting with him that could best be described as a “cold call,” and a deal was made. Woodstock Ventures may have been up against the clock, but in truth, both parties needed each other.

“It was a bad summer for [Yasgur’s] hay crop,” Lang said. “He had the biggest dairy farm in the area and he needed to buy hay, so he needed some money.” 

Lang said that they agreed to rent the property for $50,000.

There are many other people whose involvement was instrumental in making Woodstock happen. You can read more about them in "Woodstock: 50 Years of Peace and Music," (Copyright © 2019 by Hourglass Press llc. Text copyright © 2019 by Daniel Bukszpan (An Imagine Book, Published by Charlesbridge.)

This article was syndicated by

More from MediaFeed:

Every single act that played at the original Woodstock

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon