There are plenty of pivotal moments in U.S. history, but not that many come with their own soundtrack. The famous Woodstock festival, which took place over three heady days in the summer of 1969, is an exception.
Famous musicians played at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival (Aug. 15-18), including Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Who. This summer you can get a feel for what it was like, and hear live music at the same spot where the legends played and the hippies danced, when the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts marks the concert’s 40th anniversary with a year-long celebration.
The Bethel center opened in 2006 overlooking the original concert site, in beautiful Sullivan County, N.Y. The organizers of the concert had hoped to hold their festival in the town of Woodstock, an artists’ haven about an hour away. Eventually they found a dairy farm in Bethel. So many young people showed up, concert tickets couldn’t be collected or sold and the police had to shut down the New York State Thruway.
Rocky Molinari actually bought his tickets in advance, for about $6 apiece at a woman’s dress shop called Paraphernalia in Bergen County. “It was insane,” he says of the ride to the festival. “There were cars everywhere and there were people in the median and it was a dead stop, and we took some side roads and we parked and just started walking. We hitched a ride on top of a car. There was no gate to take my ticket. We must have come in behind the stage.”
Molinari, who grew up in Paterson and later spent years working in Hudson and Passaic counties, was 18 at the time. Today he’s 58 and plays with a local group called The Shed Band. In 1969, he spent three days in the mud with an estimated 500,000 people, hearing the music but never seeing the performers. At one point, he and his friends left to find food and ended up at an A&P. “We were filthy, filled with mud. I still remember what we ate—it was Pepperidge Farm Pirouette, those cookies. It’s almost like a dream.” Three years ago he went back for the first time and planned on returning in the summer. “I’ll bring my original tickets!”
Things are a bit different these days; Bethel Woods visitors can pre-order gourmet picnic baskets and there are plenty of B&Bs. Duke Devlin, who works at Bethel as a site interpreter, remembers what it used to be like. Originally from Newark, he was living on a commune in Texas in 1969 but was drawn to Bethel by Woodstock. Once there, he was put to work talking people down from bad acid trips. After everyone had gone, he got a job painting summer bungalows, made friends, and never left. He loves his job, he says, because, “I meet everybody from jail to Yale. From all over the world, veterans, kids whose grandparents or father or mother were there, kids coming for the first time, kids that look like they are back in the 1960s fashion, with flowers in their hair.”
Although this summer’s celebration is still being planned, Bethel Woods offers a range of events. Major concerts have featured the likes of Bob Dylan, the Jonas Brothers, and the New York Philharmonic. The $100 million performing arts center features large and small stages, and a well-planned museum with permanent exhibits, special galleries, and a shop. The architecture complements the landscape—it still feels like farmland—and is a testament to the vision of local cable television pioneer and philanthropist Alan Gerry, who bought the original site. Sullivan County was once filled with the sort of Catskills resorts featured in the movie Dirty Dancing, but most are now closed. The lack of tourism hurt the county’s economy, but the slow pace of development has left the countryside largely undisturbed.
When Woodstock happened, the country was going through turbulent times, including the Vietnam War, the draft, the civil rights movement, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Museum Director Wade Lawrence says Woodstock “meant something to people all over the whole world. It meant unity and solidarity and peace, and a sense of belonging to a cause and a somewhat naïve belief that we could change the world.” While the museum’s initial concept featured static exhibits, Lawrence said the team “recognized that this is much more. It isn’t just about a three-day concert. It is about a generation and a country coming of age.”
Some might complain that the spirit of Woodstock can’t—and shouldn’t—be captured but those who were there, like Devlin, seem to enjoy the performing arts center and the tourists it has brought to the area. Singer Richie Havens, for example—who was the opening act and today lives in Jersey City—was on hand when the museum first opened.PM
Famous for its fly fishing, Sullivan County, about 90 minutes from Manhattan, is packed with wonderful lakes, scenery, and antique shops. To get to Bethel Woods, take the New York State Thruway North to Exit 16, then take Route 17 west to Exit 104.
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts
Highlights of the fall season: Sundays, late August to Columbus Day, Bethel hosts a harvest festival featuring a farmers market, craft village, live performances, corn and hay mazes, pony rides, and more. Themes, such as fall foliage, are featured weekly. October 2, 8 p.m., John Sebastian of the The Lovin' Spoonful with David Grisman. November 13, 8 p.m., Tom Rush, who helped shape the folk revival in the ‘60s.
The town of Woodstock (in nearby Ulster County) offers lovely shops, restaurants, and hiking opportunities.
Sullivan County Visitors Association
The museum at Bethel Woods offers a bistro.
Benji & Jake’s
Featuring an extensive menu, wood-fired pizza, and live music, nearby in White Lake
5 Horseshoe Lake Road
Take a Load Off
Near Bethel are B&Bs, a resort, campgrounds, and the rustic Creekside Cabins (popular with fishing fanatics).
Villa Roma Resort
Features a recent renovation and golf course, about 20 minutes from the Woodstock site
B& B in Jeffersonville, 15 minutes away
B&B, eight miles away
Seeing is Believing
Two movies will be released this summer in anticipation of the anniversary. Warner Home Video’s Woodstock: The Director's Cut, with new footage, and director Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock.