To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, we’ve collected 50 facts about the iconic festival and the myths and legends it has spawned. This article covers the music: Who opened, who became legends, who didn’t turn up, and who tried to upstage The Who.
Richie Havens – first act at the festival
Folk artist Richie Havens had been recording well-received albums since the mid-60s, but his star really went ascendant after Woodstock. He was scheduled to be the first to play, but logistical problems meant he was kept on stage again and again as the following acts were delayed. Havens ended up playing for over three hours.
Near the end, having exhausted his repertoire of songs, Havens started ad-libbing over the old spiritual Motherless Child. “I’d already played every song I knew and I was stalling, asking for more guitar and mic, trying to think of something else to play – and then it just came to me … The establishment was foolish enough to give us all this freedom and we used it in every way we could,” he said. The song, Freedom, born on the Woodstock stage, became an icon of 60s counter-culture.
View image of Ritchie Havens opens Woodstock in 1969
3.30am – the time Creedence Clearwater Revival played their set
Creedence may have been the first major act to sign a contract to play the festival, but the honeymoon didn’t take long to go sour. Due to the lengthy delays between sets, the band didn’t get on stage until after 3am on Sunday, three hours later than originally planned.
“We were ready to rock out and we waited and waited and finally it was our turn … there were a half million people asleep,” frontman John Fogerty told Hank Bordowitz for the book Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival. “These people were out. It was sort of like a painting of a Dante scene, just bodies from hell, all intertwined and asleep, covered with mud. And this is the moment I will never forget as long as I live: A quarter mile away in the darkness, on the other edge of this bowl, there was some guy flicking his Bic, and in the night I hear, ‘Don’t worry about it, John. We’re with you.’ I played the rest of the show for that guy.”
The band refused to allow their set to appear in the Woodstock movie, or appear on the live albums until 2019.
32 – the number of acts who played
A relatively modest 32 acts played Woodstock, a fraction of the bill that you might find on today’s mega festivals such as Glastonbury or Coachella.
Some of the sets – Jimi Hendrix. The Who, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker – went down in music history. Others – like Quill, Sha Na Na and Sweetwater – perhaps spring to mind for only the most devoted.
Three – the number of female artists who played
There’s a reason why Sarah MacLachlan et al felt the need to create the 90s female festival Lilith Fair – women were woefully under-represented in festival culture.
Woodstock was no different. Of the 32 artists that took part, only three of them were female – Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Melanie. The latter almost didn’t play – security didn’t think the baby-faced singer was the real deal, and made her sing her song Beautiful People before they would allow her on stage.
View image of Joan Baez at Woodstock in 1969
With A Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker’s Beatles cover
The gravel-voiced British soul singer Joe Cocker’s early success was partly thanks to a pair of Beatles covers – I’ll Cry Instead and With A Little Help From My Friends, the latter turned into an epic growlathon perfectly suited to Cocker’s tortured baritone.
The highlight of Cocker’s set – during which he was doused in rainwater as crew cut open the stage roof to prevent it collapsing after a heavy storm – vies with Jimi Hendrix’s set as the most memorable musical moment of the festival.
View image of Joe Cocker at Woodstock 1969
Jeff Beck Group – booked to play but split before the festival
Many bands were approached to play the festival but turned it down for various reasons – Simon and Garfunkel because they were working on a new album, The Doors because they thought it would be a second-rate follow-up to the Monterey Pop Festival.
The Jeff Beck Group had another reason – despite being booked to play, the band split just weeks before the festival. “I deliberately broke the group up before Woodstock,” frontman Jeff Beck said. “I didn’t want it to be preserved.” At the very least, this meant that Woodstock missed out on having another rock luminary on stage – Rod Stewart.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – played their second-ever concert
Crosby, Stills & Nash had only recently added Buffalo Springfield guitar slinger Neil Young to their ranks before they played Woodstock; so recently, in fact, that their set was only their second gig as a four-piece.
“This is only the second time we’ve performed in front of people,” Stephen Stills said to the crowd, as the band were surrounded on the sides of the stage by fellow musicians and industry types. “We’re scared shitless.”
View image of Stephen Stills and David Crosby at Woodstock in 1969
Abbie Hoffman – stage invader during The Who’s set
The Who’s Woodstock set came as the band were promoting Tommy, guitarist Pete Townshend’s psychedelic rock opera. The set leaned heavily on Tommy’s songs – but towards the end it featured a standout that was very much spur of the moment.
As the set drew to a close, Abbie Hoffman – a political activist – ran onstage and grabbed a mike, urging support for jailed White Panther member John Sinclair. An incensed Townshend swore at Hoffman and allegedly hit him in the back with his guitar. It’s gone down in Woodstock mythology because it was not captured on film (the camera was being reloaded) but the audio was caught, and features on The Who’s box-set 30 Years Of Maximum R&B.
View image of The Who at Woodstock in 1969
Grateful Dead – didn’t allow their set to be released
There was immense anticipation as The Grateful Dead took to the stage on the second day of the festival; the band’s epic, freewheeling jams were perfectly suited to the occasion.
Unfortunately, the rains that had deluged the site had also visited the stage, and made it an electrical hazard. There were stops and starts aplenty as the band started receiving shocks aplenty. After a long, drawn out jam, full of in-jokes and incoherent humour, the band finally stepped up a gear to finish with a blistering version of Turn On Your Lovelight.
Frontman Jerry Garcia was philosophical about the near disaster. “It’s nice to know you can survive as a band even after blowing the biggest gig of your career,” he later said. He still didn’t allow the gig to be shown in the Woodstock film, however.
View image of Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix – the festival’s final act
For many music fans too young to have wallowed in the mud, Hendrix was the embodiment of Woodstock. His closing set – taking place at 8am on the Monday, long after the festival was supposed to have finished – was played to a much smaller crowd than many of the other performers. Many fans had already started their long journeys home.
Hendrix’s backing band for the set was called the Gypsy Suns and Rainbows, which included a second guitarist and two percussionists, as well as ex Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell. The band only lasted three gigs, and rehearsals had been uneven. Demos didn’t suggest the gig could be anywhere as good as it was.
Hendrix’s lysergic treatment of the Star Spangled Banner, played in the middle of a 30-minute medley that also included Voodoo Chile and Purple Haze, came to illustrate much of what defined the Woodstock generation – rebellion against an established order that had taken the US to war in Vietnam and held back civil rights for its black citizens in the South.
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