BETHEL – I didn’t get to the Woodstock Music & Art Fair back in August 1969. Although a few of my friends made the trip, I, at age 14, was too young to even consider asking Mom and Dad for permission.
However, like many others of my generation, I was there in spirit. Over the past 43 years, I have done everything I could to learn all about the world’s most famous rock music festival.
I bought every Woodstock album and compact disc. I have seen the movie at least a dozen times. I’ve had long talks with friends who were there, hanging on their every word.
And finally, a few weeks ago, my wife and I drove to the site of the festival, walked around the grounds and visited the first-rate museum devoted to the event.
So, is the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts worth a visit for those who didn’t go to Woodstock but wish they had?
I truly enjoyed the experience, and found parts of it fascinating and moving. Anyone who grew up loving the music of rock icons like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who and Sly & the Family Stone should go. The Bethel Woods experience earns an A- or, at the very least, a B+.
My only disappointment? I wish more of the museum was dedicated to the thing that made the festival so unforgettable – the music.
Built at a cost of approximately $100 million, the Bethel Woods center opened in 2008. It sits on a lovely hillside in the Catskills region, overlooking the original 2,000-acre concert site.
The Woodstock festival was not held in the artsy town of Woodstock, which is about 90 minutes away from Bethel Woods. The festival promoters wanted to have it in Woodstock, but people who lived there turned it down. So the promoters found a different location – a farm owned by a man named Max Yasgur.
One of the first things you’ll notice on the grounds is a beautiful, 15,000-seat amphitheater, which is a showcase for a host of musical acts. It has welcomed Woodstock veterans Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Richie Havens, in addition to stars such as Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews, the Moody Blues, quite a few country singers and even toddler favorites the Fresh Beat Band of Disney Channel fame.
All kinds of people visit Bethel Woods, some because they love the music and culture of the ’60s, and others just because they are curious.
“A lot of people come because they were at Woodstock, or they grew up hearing about it,” said Edie Downs, 74, a volunteer docent at the museum. “We get people from foreign countries who ask me, ‘Is this where all the hippies and drugs were?’ And we get busloads of young students who have never seen a 45 rpm record or a transistor radio before.”
As we entered the museum, we were greeted with a music and video presentation of 1950’s and 1960’s culture. We heard about the civil rights movement, the exciting rise and tragic deaths of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the advent of the hippie movement and how all these things set the stage for what was to come at Woodstock.
I found the historical stuff somewhat interesting, but kind of routine – maybe because I was so eager to hear about the event itself.
In small video booths we found films explaining how a young, hip group of entrepreneurs came up with a vision for a music festival that they thought would draw perhaps 50,000 to 80,000 people, most of them from the New York City area.
They were astonished, of course, when 500,000 people showed up, rock fans from all over America, creating perhaps the biggest traffic jam in state history.
In a delightful series of interactive displays, I found out all kinds of interesting tidbits about what happened at the Woodstock festival:
• Most rock fans know about the future superstars who played at Woodstock, but there were also a lot of little-known acts, most of whom faded into obscurity soon after the festival. It was very cool to hear about artists like Bert Sommer, Sweetwater and the Keef Hartley Band, and hear snippets of their music.
• So many performers were tied up in traffic that opener Richie Havens had to improvise a set of three hours. He made up the song “Freedom” as he went along.
• John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful band only came to party, but needing to fill time, the promoters convinced him to get up and do a solo set. Stoned out of his mind, Sebastian sounded a bit giddy, but Woodstock turned out to be the biggest break of his career.
• Most acts were paid $15,000 to play at Woodstock, but some – such as Hendrix – got a lot more, and others got a lot less. “I think we got 500 bucks,” Santana drummer Mike Shrieve laments on one video.
• The Grateful Dead hated Woodstock. They played in pouring rain, most of the stage lights weren’t functioning and guitarist Jerry Garcia kept getting electrical shocks.
• The Who’s Pete Townshend, never a shrinking violent, screamed at hippie leader Abbie Hoffman to “get off my [expletive] stage” when Hoffman tried to get up and make a speech.
• Artists who turned down a chance to play Woodstock included Dylan, Vanilla Fudge, the Doors and the Moody Blues. Now that’s what you call a bad career move. Iron Butterfly got stuck in traffic, and missed its set, because promoters refused to send helicopters to get them.
• Lines to use portable toilets were often two hours long. (Ouch!)
One of the enjoyable museum exhibits is an old hippie bus that has been turned into a small theater, where you can sit and watch a video about “Wavy Gravy” and other California hippies who traveled across the country to Woodstock. They were a huge help in preparing and serving food, and in helping doctors treat people who freaked out on drugs.
There are a couple of larger theaters with huge screens and sound systems, where we saw parts of the best performances from the four-day festival.
As much as I enjoyed it all, this is where Bethel Woods falls short. I didn’t want to hear snippets of songs; I wanted more. How cool would it be to see and hear the entire Woodstock sets of Hendrix, Joe Cocker or Creedence Clearwater Revival?
Museum organizers should try to get their hands on every bit of archival footage they can find and put it out there – perhaps focusing on a different artist each month – to satisfy the music fanatics like me.
You can find full setlists and lists of the musicians who played, even in the lesser-known bands, in the interactive displays at Bethel Woods and on the center’s website.
The museum also features interesting artifacts such as the bizarre jumpsuit Wavy wore, a photography exhibit, and memorabilia from a doctor who worked at the festival.
After spending about two hours scouring the museum, we walked the grounds. A simple marker sits at the spot where it all happened. The monument is a short walk from where the stage was. Looking out over the rolling hills and pastures, I wondered what it was like, standing up on that stage, playing to half a million people. It was an exhilarating thought.
Most of the funding – about $85 million – for the center came from Alan Gerry, a cable television billionaire whose daughter ignored her dad’s orders to stay away from Woodstock. About $15 million more came in New York state funding. Some have criticized using taxpayer money for such a venture, but speaking as a taxpayer, I think it was money was well-spent.
With the possible exception of the Beatles’ appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Woodstock was the most publicized rock music event of all time. We are lucky that it happened here in our state. Why not celebrate it?
If you go
Bethel Woods is in Sullivan County, about 300 miles and five hours from Buffalo. The museum is open every day of the week but closed between Jan. 1 and April 6, and also on several holidays. Admission is $15; $13 for seniors 65 and older; $11 for ages 8 to 17; and $6 for ages 3 to 7. Visit BethelWoodsCenter.org or call (866) 781-2922.
To get there from Western New York, take the Southern Tier Expressway (Route 17/86) east to exit 101; turn right onto County Road 71 (Ferndale Road); go two miles and turn left onto NY Route 55 West. After 7 miles, turn right on County Road 141 (Horseshoe Lake Road), then left on West Shore Road to Hurd Road. The museum is at 200 Hurd Road, Bethel.
Other attractions: The Upper Delaware Scenic Byway is a 70-mile stretch of small towns, museums, shops and natural beauty. Information available from the Sullivan County Visitors Association at scva.net or (800) 882-2287.
The Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum, at 1031 Old Route 17 in Livingston Manor, has superb fishing, a nature trail and all sorts of information for fly fishermen. See cffcm.net or call (845) 439-4810.
Sullivan County attracts an unusually large number of bald eagles, especially in winter. Visit the Eagle Institute at 3364 Route 97 in Barryville. See eagleinstitute.org or call (845) 557-6162 for information.