The basic facts regarding the original Woodstock festival are well known.
From Aug. 15-18, 1969, approximately 500,000 young people gathered at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York, not far from the town of Bethel.
Thirty-two acts took the stage. Richie Havens opened the show late Friday afternoon. Jimi Hendrix, who was scheduled to perform Sunday night, finally took the stage to wrap the festival at around 9 a.m. Monday, playing a full set. In between: a full roster of classic folk and rock acts, including Santana, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The more difficult question is what Woodstock represents in American culture. Was it an example of peaceful coexistence, a short-lived utopian community? Or was it an early warning of a culture that had gone off the rails with drug use and free love? This debate began during the festival and continues to this day.
Lebanon resident Tony Hayden, 80, experienced Woodstock firsthand. He has a very positive view of it based on the people he met and the events that took place in his own life over that four-day period.
“I know there were a lot of people there that were searching. There was a lot of spiritual energy there,” he said.
Hayden was born and raised in Lebanon by a family with deep roots in the community. His father, Robert M. Hayden, owned the Lebanon Express for several decades. The younger Hayden filled a variety of roles at the newspaper as he grew up. He learned more about the business during a three-year stint in the United States Army, where he worked in the Army Information Service. During the mid-1960s, he was the chief photographer for the Albany Democrat-Herald.
In the summer of 1969, Hayden was in New Orleans working for an alternative newspaper, the Inarcane Logus. The paper was published on a somewhat haphazard schedule, but the staff quickly learned that issues with music coverage sold well. So Hayden and his colleagues traveled widely through the Southern states, attending concerts and festivals. Hayden, for example, photographed Janis Joplin at a concert in Atlanta in July 1969 (see photo).
Perhaps because of its music coverage, one day the Inarcane Logus received a batch of tickets for an upcoming festival in rural New York.
“They were free; we did not pay,” Hayden recalled. “I don’t even know if we knew about this festival until we got these tickets in the mail because we were apparently on a mailing list.”
The lineup was impressive, and several staff members, including Hayden, decided it was worth the trip. They traveled together in a Volkswagen bus and arrived at the festival site on Thursday. Getting there a day early allowed them to avoid the worst of the traffic to park on the grounds. (The New York Thruway was a consistent 10-mile long jam — not of the musical kind — for much of the festival's duration, and many attendees parked wherever they stopped and then walked for miles to reach the site.)
“We found a place right by this pond and I rolled my sleeping bag out by our VW bus,” Hayden said.
Hayden was both an observer and a participant in that weekend’s activities. On the festival's first day, before the music had started, he had a terrible headache, unlike any he'd ever suffered before.
“I prayed to God to give me some proof of his existence and the headache just got worse. All of a sudden, I just felt better. It was a state of grace or something. I was in the van and I felt just wonderful. I opened my eyes and I saw this guy and he was pointing at the sun — this sounds crazy, I know — and he was pointing at me,” he said. “I had prayed to God to show me proof, a concrete example, of his existence. Wow, this is it.”
He left the van and joined the man in a walk around the grounds. It turned out that his new friend had a gift.
“He could tell if a person was in pain, or not, and he would walk up to them and sort of lay hands on them. If a person had a backache, or a headache or a shoulder ache, he was healing people. This guy was a healer. And he was a concrete example of what I had asked for,” Hayden said. “There was just so much spiritual energy at that place because I think there were just a lot of spiritual people there.”
Hayden enjoyed the music, especially the performance by Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, which became one of his favorite bands.
The festival was definitely chaotic and its organizers were in over their heads. In the months before the event, they reportedly told local officials they expected 50,000 people to attend. Privately, they prepared for 200,000 and panic set in as it quickly became apparent the true attendance would far exceed that number.
Final approval to hold the event was granted so late there wasn't enough time to adequately prepare for the crowds already on the way. The lack of preparation was compounded by heavy rainfall, which turned the farm into a muddy mess.
But even the rain had an upside, Hayden believes.
“At some point, it started to rain, and it did rain," he said. "Somebody passed out a bunch of tents. I had never seen a tent like it."
The tents were made of plastic and triangular. You could turn them in various ways and keep the water out.
“They were very small, a one-person tent, and they were all over the place on top of the mud,” Hayden said.
After the rain stopped, someone started a fire and a bunch of guys found a log. They put the log on their shoulders and people came from all around to throw their wet blankets and sleeping bags on it. The men walked around the fire, changing sides to allow all of the blankets the opportunity to dry.
This was just one example, Hayden said, of strangers working together to solve problems that arose during the festival.
Hayden acknowledges that by the end of the festival, the site was covered in debris. This was partly a result of the rain and partly a product of the lack of organization.
“That wasn’t good; that really wasn’t too cool to have such a littered mess of crud all over the place. That should have been better, been more thoughtful, I think,” he said.
But on the whole, he recalls the festival fondly.
“I felt really good,” Hayden said. “There was a feeling there, I felt like I was just floating. Everybody seemed happy. That’s pretty simple, but there was just a lot of happiness there.”