SRU history professor recalls his Woodstock “peace and music” experience
The Woodstock Music Festival took place 50 years ago this week, attracting 32 popular musical acts of the time and nearly 500,000 spectators, including Alan Levy, a Slippery Rock University professor of history.
Aug. 15, 2019
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — It was August 1969 and Alan Levy was a freshly minted high school graduate in Richmond, Virginia. The 17-year-old stuffed a jar of peanut butter and a few other essentials into a laundry bag, told his parents he was "off to visit some friends" and made a more than 400-mile drive to Sullivan County, New York, in the family's 1966 Ford Mercury.
What neither Levy - a future professor of history at Slippery Rock University - nor his parents knew at the time was that he would be soon become a part of history. When he reached his destination, Levy would join his "friends" - approximately 500,000 of them - at a music festival that would come to be defined as a cultural landmark and defining moment in U.S. history: the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of that event, which occurred Aug. 15-18, 1969, near Bethel, New York, attracting 32 of the most popular musical acts of the era.
"Recalling the actual events as opposed to letting things jell in your mind as far as meaning is concerned are two separate matters," said Levy, whose been on the faculty at SRU for the more than 30 years and has authored several books ranging from music and sports to politics and education. "The main thing I remember is the music and the interactions between people. It was a positive experience and everyone was friendly."
In hindsight, the festival, billed as "3 Days of Peace & Music," embodied an idealistic sense of the counterculture movement of the '60s and '70s, serving as a moment of tranquility in a turbulent sea of rapid change and political and civil unrest that included everything from landing a man on the moon a month earlier to the United States' controversial involvement in the Vietnam War. Other outdoor concerts, such as California's Altamont Festival four months later, while similar to Woodstock, could not replicate the communal spirit captured on a 600-acre dairy farm near a New York town with a population of fewer than 3,000.
Levy said Woodstock was bereft of any pushing and shoving, both in a metaphorical sense, with the political protests of the late 1960s having taken center stage, and in a literal sense, with a half million concertgoers sharing a crowded space and resources meant for only 50,000, for more than three rain-soaked and muddy days.
"There were people there to take care of each other and there was a collective sense of purpose to do things that were good for everyone in terms of medical care and sharing food," Levy said. "We all got along and it just naturally occurred. Woodstock provided the best example for those who were in favor of the counterculture movement because they could say, 'The critics are wrong; we made it work.' Woodstock didn't have a lasting effect as far as any kind of major political movement or anyone being elected to government, but for the idealists of that generation, it provided a memory that became a touchstone."
Levy admittedly didn't walk away from the event with any profound change in his life; he just wanted to hear some music. A fan of such Woodstock acts as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Sly and the Family Stone, Levy would often go to concerts with friends from the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area where he grew up, but when he left Richmond on Wednesday, Aug. 13, he did so as a solo act. Levy told his parents he was going to visit some friends -- "In a way, I did; I didn't lie," he said with a laugh.
With an estimated one million people having descended upon the area, traffic was gridlocked for miles around the festival site. With little choice, Levy parked his Mercury alongside the road, threw his bag over his shoulder and walked for hours before arriving at the festival grounds. He said few concertgoers where aware of the significance of the event, aside from Arlo Guthrie announcing, "The New York Thruway is closed, man," and a few performers saying the world was watching.
"There were a lot of outdoor concerts like that," Levy said, referencing the Atlantic City Pop Festival that took place two weeks earlier. "There was always this talk about a big event that was going to happen that's bigger than any of these (concerts) that's going to take place in August in this little town of Bethel in Sullivan County, New York. Word was getting out but the idea that close to a half million people were going to show up - no one had that
The actual town of Woodstock, New York, located 43 miles from Bethel, got spooked about hosting the event and backed out of the deal it had with promoters forcing a hurried search for a new venue. That search led promotors to strike a deal with dairy farmer Max Yasgur to use his hayfield, for a $10,000 fee, which provided a natural bowl and easy access to state route 17B.
Levy jokes that many people don't remember being at Woodstock because of the experimentation with psychoactive drugs that took place among young adults in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, for many people, the stories and images from Woodstock that have been passed to subsequent generations continue to symbolize the simplicity and idealism of youth and the counterculture movement.
"My dad always talked about seeing The Who at Woodstock and how it was one of the most memorable experiences of his life," said Melissa Ford, an SRU assistant professor of history, whose father, Jim, like Levy, attended Woodstock the summer between attending high school and college. "So many people want to claim being there because it's such a fantastic historical event and people want to be a part of it. You have the music lovers but you also have the people who wanted a greater connection because music was such a huge force in the politics of the time. Woodstock was a nice time to not necessarily put aside the politics, because musicians would come on stage and say, 'Get out of Vietnam,' but it was a nice moment to focus on the music and the cultural expression that came out of that."
"That generation could conceive simple solutions to complex questions," Levy said. "Back then it was seductively easy to answer, 'just get out,' (when discussing) with Vietnam. The same with living communally for three days; the simple solution was just to get in and get out."
Levy finally got out of Woodstock on the morning of Aug. 18 as the concert crept into a fourth day because of weather delays. He met three people who he would drop off along the drive back to Richmond. As they were walking away from the site he could still hear Jimi Hendrix playing his now famous rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in the distance, a fitting way to leave Woodstock in the rearview with college, a career and a life as a professor and author ahead of him.
"That was poignant," Levy said. "It was a new world and a new generation and here's this totally different version of the national anthem that was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before; it showed that the world was changing and we were entering a new and different time."
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