Local woman writes about music festival 50 years ago
Memories of Woodstock
Editor’s note: Sue Morris of Mill Hall, who attended Woodstock musical festival in Bethel, N.Y. from Aug. 15-18, 1969, wrote about her experience at the event, which attracted more than 400,000. Sue’s memories of the historic event originally appeared in Therapeutic Thymes magazine. The Express is reprinting her story below with permission from Therapeutic Thymes.
We’ve Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden:
An Herbalist’s Journey Back in Time to Woodstock
By Sue Morris
Back in the summer of 1969, August 15-18, less than a month after the moon landing and Neil Armstrong’s legendary declaration, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” the United States was then deeply steeped in the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights movement, and the recent inauguration of Richard Nixon. The Beatles had played an unannounced final concert in January on the rooftop of the Apple Building, John & Yoko married in March, and the country was torn by the Stonewall riots and Chappaquiddick, while the Dow Jones hovered at 800 and gas was just 35 cents a gallon. A brighter light beamed down on America, and the peace-oriented youth representing an anti-war, flower power consciousness came to gather at one of the most memorable and massive music events ever to occur, The Woodstock Music Festival.
Billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 days of Peace and Music,” Woodstock was probably the most memorable music festival of all time. Aquarian it certainly was, as hundreds of thousands of peace-loving, tie-dyed hippies, adorned with peace signs and bell bottoms, arrived unprepared, not just for the weather but lacking basic supplies as well–such as food, water, raingear, and shelter. Joined and steeped in the zeitgeist of the culture, this would be a gathering of the tribe, so to speak, all sharing a musical, muddy, drug-induced, life-changing experience, one which will likely never be repeated. It was a staggeringly unprecedented event. Poorly planned by the organizers, the trouble-ridden, road-closing, fence-breaking, debt-inducing, call of the wild unknowingly and unexpectedly assembled a mass gathering, one fully unimagined by the troubled organizers and unsuspecting but gracious local townspeople. The people heard their cosmic call and came from far and wide; they arrived, eager and inspired, to share the message, heed the signs of the times, and for the music…“3 days of peace and music” (and a lot of rain).
Hundreds of thousands of hopeful, counter-cultured young people descended on the small town of Bethel, NY, in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. It was a very hot, muggy, rainy weekend, now famous for the intermittent storms pelting down rain. Gathering on the grounds of a dairy farm owned and rented out for the weekend by farmer Max Yasgur, himself only 49 years old at the time, the youth of America poured in like a human love storm, electrified and cohesive. This family of strangers, thus bound together by idealism, rebellion, personal freedom, and a hazy vision of what love is, held up together on 26 acres of farmland thus transformed into muddy fields, blissfully enduring the elements, secured to the spirit of love and peace. Wildly and unabashedly embracing drugs and sexual openness while celebrating a communal experience with unbound freedom, all were sharing amidst the shortages of food and peaceably enduring discomfort caused by the wrath of the heavens opening under the skies over Yasgur’s 600-acre farm. This was a time prior to the age of corporate control over the masses; there were no logos on clothes, no banners, no annoyingly distracting signs to cheapen the experience or disrupt often newly formed close-knit ties.
Yasgur’s farm became the grounds for the festival at the last minute when the original town of Wallkill declined the opportunity to host the event. Fear of hippies caused Wallkill to turn the organizers away, and the town went as far as creating an ordinance against large gatherings. The original Woodstock Festival site now hosts The Bethel Center for the Arts, a not-for-profit cultural organization that inspires, educates, and empowers individuals through the arts and humanities. So much for the short- sighted inhabitants of Wallkill!
The Museum of Bethel Woods, dedicated to the weekend of Woodstock, is truly an historical gem, an authentic ode to psychedelia, educational in terms of the history of the weekend’s memorable events but also in putting the 60s in context as the backdrop to the times, the music, the musicians, and the experience. It is just plain fun to experience being there. Unlike the exhibits at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame which feature decades of music history, the Museum at Bethel is more focused on and informative about a single event, Woodstock, featuring its history and a memorabilia collection. Bethel translated from Hebrew means “House of God.”
The Catskills were a well-known haven during the summer months, primarily inhabited by Jewish families escaping the New York City heat, taking refuge for July and August in bungalow colonies, small cottages housing little gatherings of families cloistered uncomfortably close together. These were jam-packed families condensing their larger New York homes into two or three small rooms and a kitchen, mothers on “vacation” with fathers usually driving the two hours up on the weekends. It was in the town of Monticello, NY, where my story of Woodstock unfolds.
Before leaving NYC for the summer in the country which, by the way, I detested as it was boring and isolated from my friends at home, so cramped and far removed from the happenings of the city, I had seen a festival advertised. I bought a ticket. It cost me $7.00, a lot of money for a 13-year-old in the late 60s.. I had no idea how I was going to get there or who I was going to go with, but I purchased the ticket, nonetheless.
When the weekend of August 15 came along, we were living in a bungalow colony for the summer along Route 17 in Sullivan County, and I was expecting to go to the festival–I had a ticket! The roads soon became parking lots due to traffic jams; the news headlines were covering stories that told of mayhem, an invasion of hippies, drugs, danger, and chaos. Undeterred, claiming righteous indignation at being told I could not go when I actually had a ticket and every intention of going, the old ladies (probably in their 40s) in the colony had warned my mother not to let me go. “What, are you crazy?” they asked my mother when she told them I was planning to go. “You can’t let her go there!” But I got up in the morning, packed a sandwich, and announced quite certainly that I was going, even if I had to walk there. So, my Aquarius mother loaded me, with two other girls from the bungalow colony– both15 years old, into her car, a 1965 yellow Ford Galaxy, and with my 4-year-old brother safely in the backseat, off we went on a truly Aquarian expedition!
The main roads were all closed, leading my mother to find the country roads, the back roads from Monticello to White Lake in Bethel, all told about a half hour drive. Picking up hippies walking along the road, she let them hop up on the hood of our car, and she somehow managed to find her way to the closest gate where we jumped out and walked the rest of the way to the festival, an adventure off into the unknown! No cell phones, no plans for how I was getting back, no idea of what I was about to encounter, I walked amongst the “children of god” as if on a pilgrimage to the promised land.
Arriving on the grounds of the festival, I was swept up in a sea of bodies as far as the eye could see. Being a little girl from Queens, I had the advantage of maneuvering well in crowds, and in time made my way down to the very front, right to the stage where I found it too close to see. So, I meandered back into the crowd, front and center, about 40 feet back from the stage. There I stayed for most of the weekend, listening to bands I’d mostly never heard of. I was not too far from the towers where the sound system was placed. At one point, I saw a blackening sky and heard dire warnings imploring people to get down from the towers. With unexplained foresight, I headed to the porta potties, or porta johns as they were called then, and amazingly found an unoccupied one where I holed up alone for the duration of the storm. I must have been in there for a couple of hours, possibly one of the only dry people in sight! When I emerged, there was a sea of mud. The smell of mud emanating from those fields will remain one of the most joyous scents I hold in my memory.
In time, the music began again; I found my friends and spent the night listening to The Band, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Johnny Winter; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Sha Na Na, and by early the next morning, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and lastly, Jimi Hendrix, who I largely slept through, mainly because I’d been up all night but also because it was so loud and I had no idea how to relate to his music. I did, however, manage to take some pictures of him with my Brownie camera, pictures that forty years later would be published in the New York Times during their on-line coverage of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. With the many moves I’ve made in my life, somehow, I’ve held on to those historic pictures.
By the time Hendrix ended his set in the early hours of Monday morning, the crowds had thinned down to probably around 25,000. The debris of muddy clothes, blankets, towels, shoes, and garbage remained, strewn everywhere and encased in the mud. Those remaining were hungry, filthy, exhausted, and yet exhilarated, saturated with mud and music. It seemed surreal, and I found it hard to imagine returning to life back in the bungalow colony. And, for sure, by then my father would certainly realize that my mother had not only let me go but actually drove me there and left me without a plan for my return. I think, given my propensity to extreme rebellion and independence, that my mother may have secretly wished I’d never find my way back; yet somehow, I did. I arrived home in the company of a couple guys who found their car and offered to drove me to Monticello where my mother fed us all sandwiches and welcomed the stories, but then also informed me how mad my father was when he found out.
Too bad, I thought! I had shared the most eye-opening, consciousness-raising, musically- amazing, life-changing experience I would ever encounter. It can only be described as a sense of being born for the first time, amongst a tribe of my people, advocating and exemplifying the message of peace and love. Everyone got along. There were no fights, no threats, no hoarding, no overcharging, no territorial disputes, no pushing and shoving, no behaviors marring the experience of being immersed amongst the huddled wet and hungry masses. There were also, notably, no police in attendance. I felt, in fact, completely safe. It was as if a few hundred thousand people sitting in a steaming hot muddy field listening to the greatest music ever played live gave me a sense of belonging, a feeling of mass immersion in the collective spirit which exemplified to me what love and peace could look and feel like. I experienced this, as a 13-year-old girl, as an awakening. I witnessed how calmly people could behave when faced with a “crisis,” how strong you feel when bound by a belief, immersed in a microcosm of counterculture awareness, a universal commonality bound by the power of music influencing and uplifting the hearts and minds of the masses. This made an indelible imprint on my psyche, giving me a permanent idealization of the concept of peace and love, the power of music, and the knowledge of how a shared experience can act as an awakening of consciousness.
When Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” was written as an ode to an experience she did not even have first hand, her words “and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” somehow impressed themselves into my very young mind. I was a girl from Queens. I had no idea what a garden was; I just knew I had to get back to it. I returned to school, junior high school, and all through those school years until the very day I graduated from high school, I held a vision in the back of my mind that I was going to get back to the garden, some mythical place where life felt safe and we all lived in peace and harmony. I’d never seen or been in a garden. I knew nothing about nature, and the closest I came to it was those boring summers in the country. The message imprinted itself nonetheless, and shortly after graduating from high school, I left New York on a pilgrimage across America, hitchhiking across the country, hiking and camping in national parks from NY to California, back and forth for years in search of the garden and nature.
In the early 1980s, I found myself in central Pennsylvania after graduating from college. I met people there who had come to escape the cities, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, DC, and NY and were building lives in rural America. They were back-to-the-earthers, building cabins, growing gardens, living simply off the earth, and forming community. These folks taught me to garden and to build a life in the country, finding refuge in rural America. It was here that I eventually found my place, after years of wandering from coast to coast, looking for the proverbial garden. I learned to grow food. In time, I learned to grow medicinal herbs. I learned to grow a garden that would feed my family and probably could have fed half of the small town I lived near. I built a house and surrounded myself with gardens, never feeling happier or more connected to this belief that the garden was where love and peace were to be found.
In my later years, after turning 40, I started my own business making plant-based skin care products. I studied herbalism and became an advocate for plant-based healing, teaching and encouraging people to use herbs for their health care. I found my garden supported me, uplifted me, and bound me to the wisdom of living through peace and love, finding my sense of contentment and devotion most strong when in my garden. Joni Mitchell’s anthem to Woodstock steered my life in a direction that my mother could never have envisioned me taking. Woodstock was my seminal moment, imprinting on me a way of viewing the world as a place where we can live together in peace, which I hold in my heart to be true to and will never turn away from even if it is only nurtured in my own mindset while living in a highly conflicted world. The garden is where we grow, not just our food and herbs, our sustenance and our remedies, ourselves, but also the plot where we plant our intentions for a better life for everyone.
Fifty years later I am still celebrating that experience, while also fully realizing the impact that attending the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival had on my life, and I am forever in awe of the event. Always,
“Remember what the Dormouse said,
‘Feed your head, feed your head.'” *
*Excerpted from “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane