Celebrating Woodstock’s Golden Anniversary From Banner Elk to Yasgur’s Farm
By Todd Bush
This year we celebrate two key events from 1969 that defined us as seekers of science and soul. Like many, I well remember our first steps on the moon that July 20th and the historic mid-August gathering, An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music, aka Woodstock. Last weekend offered up two Woodstock 50-year celebrations on the rolling land of Max Yasgur‘s Farm in Bethel, NY., the site of 1969’s Woodstock festival. I was blessed to be able to experience both.
Imagine pastures, meadows and woods as far as the eye can see, two lane roads and classic American farms – a land that looks much like it did 50 years ago. No big box stores or franchise wars have stripped the character of this idyllic land. Now, imagine those acres blanketed with families, friends, and strangers clad to reveal their flower power and coming together with hopes to share something special in peace for all. That pretty much sums up the Woodstock site and the vibe, then and now.
There was no question that I would be celebrating Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. But my ability to do so at the original site unfolded somewhat serendipitously. Several months ago, news and rumors around Woodstock 50 all revolved around the 1969 festival’s founder, Michael Lang, planning an event with a stellar lineup at Watkins Glen, NY. Having met Lang and seen him as an icon of Woodstock, I anxiously awaited ticket sales. But news followed about how this event’s obstacles ultimately led to it’s demise. Meanwhile, I noticed on the website for my sitar teacher, Hasu Patel, that her performance schedule included the Woodstock 50th celebration. Sitar great Ravi Shankar had played at Woodstock in ’69, and Hasu Patel was to carry the tradition of classical Indian music performance at Woodstock reunion concerts in years to follow.
Not long after the original Woodstock festival, my hippie older brother Bruce turned me on to sitar music, Eastern philosophy, and an inspiring wave of possibilities demonstrated from 1967’s Summer of Love through 1969’s Woodstock. In the early ’70’s, my parents supported my interest in the sitar, as they did the other serious interests of my brothers and I throughout our lives. After sitar master Hasu Patel accepted me as her first American student, my Dad lovingly drove me 45 minutes across town for weekly lessons. This delightful, disciplined East Indian woman became became my musical guru and part of my family.
I searched fruitlessly for the name “Hasu Patel” in the lineup for Woodstock 50, before it was canceled. Nor did she appear in the website of another Woodstock anniversary concert scheduled for a venue called Bethel Woods. Their lineup included Ringo Starr and Carlos Santana but no Hasu Patel. Finally, Hasuji (adding ji to her name offers respect) informed me she was playing on the land of the original Woodstock at an event called The Yasgur Road Reunion. YRR has gone on for years on the anniversary of Woodstock. For this year’s special anniversary show, Hasuji invited me to accompany her classical Indian music performance at the Woodstock 50-year Celebration on Yasgur’s Farm. So, of course, excitedly I agreed and made plans to get to the Yasgur‘s Road Reunion, as well as getting tickets to attend the anniversary weekend’s concerts at Bethel Woods.
As the crow flies, the two venues are quite close and both were part of Max Yasgur’s farm. But on meandering trails and roads, they are about an hour’s walk or a 25-minute bicycle ride apart. So, to avoid driving back roads clogged by miles-long traffic jams, I bought a folding bicycle off Craigslist, loaded it in my trusty Subaru, packed instruments and camping supplies and headed north – festival style.
Fittingly, the halfway point between my home in Banner Elk, NC and the Bethel, NY venues wound up being Woodstock, VA, and coming and going I spent my nights there. It was a typical Interstate grind crossing Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, with escape of that in the drive’s final hour or so. The Cochecton crossing of the Delaware River from PA into NY is a 6-span Warren truss bridge with an open-grate steel deck. It is one of those places where you feel you’ve left one state and entered another. References to Woodstock 69 start popping up on historical markers. And, especially after the highways turn into lovely two lane roads through quaint hamlets and charming boroughs, you get the sense of being somewhere very special.
Turning up the unassuming gravel drive of Yasgur’s Road, you glimpse Max Yasgur’s home place, barn and farm. Next, the greeters, organizers, volunteers, and security staff of the event welcome you and efficiently direct you to registration and parking. Full Event admission ranged from $200-$1200 with day passes for $60, but being a performer included admission and a great parking spot. Unloading, I first grabbed tent, sleep system, and backpack-able items and headed into the woods. Amidst the commotion of others arriving, the branching paths into the camping areas took me passed colorful tents, fun-loving attendees, vendors with hip-looking souvenirs, a main stage in the woods on one side, and a groovy amphitheater-shaped drum circle set up on the other. Finding a sweet semi-flat spot among moss and ferns, I set up my tent, hammock, prayer flags, chakra tapestry, and strung a tarp above a couple chairs and my duffle full of musical instruments, welcoming others to this place that would be my home for the next five days.
I could fill this article with descriptions of interesting explorations and joyful encounters I shared on Max Yasgur’s farm. Yet, like with other music festivals, I could also boil my experience down to mud, sweat, smells, joy, pain, Porta Potty‘s, vendor food, lots of music, and lots of happy people. As festivals go, though, the folks putting it on had it dialed-in and stayed on top of it, making sure things went as smoothly as possible. Really fine bands started to play at the Yasgurs Road Reunion around 3pm and kept going back-to-back well into the wee hours. The headliner Thursday night was Melvin Seals (wailing on his Hammond B3 organ) with JGB (Jerry Garcia Band). Jerry’s daughter, Sunshine Garcia Becker, along with with her partner in crime, Lady Chi, sang towering backing vocals. Zach Nugent more than held his own playing guitar and singing in Jerry’s role.
From Thursday afternoon’s first moments on the land through leaving Monday morning, everyone’s interplay reflected, manifested, celebrated, sang, and painted PEACE! My days and nights at Yasgur’s Road Reunion and evenings at Bethel Woods concerts all made me feel like I was a drop of water in an ocean full of other drops of water that only wanted to be kind to one another. Yasgur’s was the rawness of mud, hippies, drum circles living an economy of action; Bethel Woods was parking lots, lawn chairs, folks looking much more primped, and everything being pricey. But not to demean the scene, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is also an incredibly beautiful locale that includes the National Register Woodstock Music Festival Site. They do an admirable job displaying, portraying, and making accessible the sacred ground of one of the wildest and most hopeful moments of a special era of American history. Occasional voice-of-god recorded messages remind visitors of this, discouraging violence and inappropriate behavior, honoring the message of peace.
My black and green folding bike, Jetson, had been plastered with colorful reflective bits by my caring wife, Lorie. Friday evening I rode Jetson out of Yasgur’s Farm. Cresting a hill, lines of backed-up cars came in view, funneled into the turn to Bethel Woods, and I was very glad the area roads included bike lanes. State and local police directed traffic and politely assisted in my road crossing. The bike was a good choice! Riding uphill passing an infinity of parked cars, it felt like I was getting away with something, breezing by on a bicycle. Then, at the pedestrian entrance, all became lemmings inching through security checkpoints to get into Wonderland. While securing my bike to a lamp post, a couple of really nice volunteers came over to say hello and give me some wonderful insight into Bethel Woods. Soon after, I met up with close friends from the High Country, Valerie, Ed, and Max Midgett of Boone’s beloved Neighborhood Yoga who had just seen David Crosby and had a great time in the Big Apple. Not sure if any other High Country residents made it for the celebrations, but we had representation there and sharing the scene with this euphoric Boone family made the experience all the better.
For those who are open to it, among these hills where monuments, markers, signs and images relate to Woodstock 69, an impact can be felt. It feels alive and rare and it moves and reinforces the connection to a peace and love we all may be lucky enough to feel. The curving walkway from the visitor center and museum peers out onto the hills seen in the legendary yet familiar photos of Woodstock. Atop one hill a tent was adorned with the decor of the era, including two arched-back wicker chairs occupied by none other than the blanket-wrapped couple shown embracing in the timeless photo on the first Woodstock album’s cover. They are Bobbi and Nick Ercoline, and meeting them and feeling the down-to-earth warmth of their personalities was a thrill. Bobbi and Nick showed me the spot on the hill that impressively composed photo was taken. Standing there Friday evening were three glowing siblings in embrace who unknowingly happened to be re-creating a tender moment from the past… and were excited to learn they were.
The welcome center and museum are housed in a beautiful building, but the real centerpiece of the Bethel Woods center for the Arts is the Pavilion Stage amphitheater with seating for 15,000. Framed by its ginormous sloping lawn that fanned out beyond the amphitheater, the first sight of this setting filled with thousands of tie-dyed visitors lit in the golden amber of late afternoon was awe inspiring! Blood Sweat and Tears opened. Edgar Winters blew everybody away and was a musical beast! His Woodstock 2019 version of Frankenstein was music like we’ve never heard, as if it was sculpted by aliens. Ringo Starr was amazing and so energetic, youthful-looking (at 79!) and mischievous. His spot-on drumming drove the bus.
Wandering down from the cheap seats on the lawn, you could walk the outer rim of the amphitheater for a closer look. Getting different perspectives, meandering the paths and lawn during the concert, I noticed one tie-dyed couple sitting under a tree with a golden fuzzy Pomeranian named Snorri. We met and they explained Snorri was blind. They were Pat and Jim from New Jersey and mentioned being in a photo at the Woodstock museum with their VW bus. I ended up spending much of my time with this warm trio for two of the three evenings at Bethel Woods and I feel we’ve become friends for life.
Leaving the concert on a bicycle amidst the droves of cars in night time was a bit intimidating. Driving down the steep hill, passing traffic-stopped cars on the the road’s right edge, a nut came loose that holds the pedal arm of my bicycle onto its shaft. Coming to a stop, I was able to find the pedal arm and pedal in the dark grass but no nut. Coasting the rest of the way down then walking the bike to the next intersection, a linebacker-sized, bald-headed, all-business NY state trooper named Mike was directing traffic, but saw me and offered to help. Mike pulled out his billy club and tapped the pedal arm on, then pulled out a blunt edged knife tool and shoved some orange surveyor’s ribbon in as a wedge, then lashed the pedal arm with the only thing at hand, more of that orange surveyor’s ribbon. The kindness of strangers is a wonderful thing!
Saturday morning I strolled out of camp through an enchanting mist, heading up to the high point of the farm to greet the day. The program called for our Indian music set to begin at 10 am on Stage B but there was some confusion as to where Stage B actually was. I asked a suntanned, smiling security guard named Vanessa about Stage B. She checked around and found that apparently the stages are right next to each other to enable set up of one while another band was playing. I loved her quote in that edgy New York banter, “So when you find the one – you find the both.”The festival ran shuttles all weekend long, transporting belongings and attendees to and fro. I hitched a ride from the parking area by the farm house down to the stage in the woods for my instruments and some oriental rugs to sit on during our performance. Not long after, other shuttles brought Hasu Patel, the rest of our band and their instruments down to the stage for set up. I got to meet our tabla player, Sanjay Rikhi Ram, who made sitars for Ravi Shankar, and his son Rishab, who was Ravi’s youngest student and is an upcoming sitar musician in his own right. Also arriving with them was Tejas Gopal Nair, Hasu Patel’s youngest student, who plays the haunting multi-stringed instrument called the Esraj. So beside Hasu Patel on stage were her youngest student and me, her first student. Sanjay the instrument maker, with wire cutters in hand, snipped some of the strings on my sitar and skillfully restrung it, converting it to a different four-stringed drone instrument called a Tanpura, which I have never played. So Sanjay gave me a one-minute lesson on how to strum the open strings to a 5 beat pattern of 1 – hold – 2,3,4. Not exactly enough for musical bragging rights, but it was an honor to accompany these 4 skilled artists as they soared and played together like birds flying to the sun and back. The performance consisted of three ragas (pieces) and our receptive audience began their day in meditation and – according to some – exaltation. Classical Indian music will do that.
After the performance, our group greeted festival attendees, had lunch, then said bittersweet goodbyes. I spent much of the afternoon trying to find a nut to hold that bicycle pedal arm of mine back on. Beginning to get a little concerned about how I would get to Bethel Woods, I noticed a peace flag created by local NC High Country artist Treva McLean hanging from an awning in the RV area. It was a sign from above for me to go meet them. They were thrilled to learn about Treva and it turned out these 4 kind folks did, indeed, have a nut in their toolbox that worked for my bicycle. I profusely thanked them and they offered me a ride to the Saturday night Santana show. With rain promised for the night, forgetting about the bike for the evening, I took them up on their offer and we rode together to and from the show.
There is a monument in the Woodstock field I didn’t have a chance to visit the previous night. So Saturday evening before the concert I made way, merrily running down across the main Woodstock field, reaching the monument a bit out of breath. There I met a shirtless Serbian lad offering to snap my photo at the monument. I asked if he was willing to try to get a shot of me jumping through the air right when I got above the monument. Channeling my 12-year-old inner child, I went up the hill then came barreling down, jumped in the air twisting to face my jovial photographer. But he said he didn’t get it and asked me to do it again, which I happily did. He really nailed it on the second run and we both got a big kick out of his impeccable timing. He then shared a lesson about atrocities committed in his country. People everywhere have the same needs and wants. When you meet someone who has lived under strife and put a face on their troubles, it brings it home. We parted ways and I met up with my Yasgur Farm friends seated on blankets on the lawn. Sitting nearby I was pleasantly surprised to notice Pat, Jim, and Snorri amidst the crowd of near elbow-to-elbow conditions and we got to visit once more. The Doobie Brothers opened for Santana. Santana is one of the artists from the original Woodstock I dearly loved and who really opened me to the powers of guitar music, as did Jimi Hendrix. Santana’s soulful playing shown in the varied styles of music he performed, practically supernaturally. We returned to our much more intimate venue at Yasgur’s Farm to the sounds of Pink Talking Fish covering, you guessed it, Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, and Phish. It was the perfect before-sleep treat!
Sunday morning the festival attendees sleepily stirred into warm awakening. Bands began playing at 10:30, and around 12:30 I was lucky to catch the set of a band called Quill. A family band that played Woodstock ’69, today Quill features the stunning lead vocals of Amanda Cole, singing alongside her father, Jon Cole. After Quill finished their set, I went off into the deep woods for a jam with a couple members from one of my other favorite bands from this event called Sister Monk. Time slipped by and I had to get going on the bike if I was going to make the Sunday finale at Bethel Woods.
Arriving at the pedestrian entrance just before the security checkpoint, I overheard some police mentioning they needed to get together to make a weather decision. Noticing me standing around looking at the sky, one of the helpful Bethel Woods volunteers who guided me Friday suggested I get in the gate quickly as they were getting ready to start turning people away since a storm was coming in fast. I got in and found some cover under one of the building’s roof overhangs with dozens of other people doing the same thing. The sky was an explosion of lightning bolts and thunder coming from dark-tone, mammatus-like storm clouds. It started to rain sideways and everyone got soaked. But it blew over quickly and the-voice-of-god came over the speakers telling us that the severe weather had passed. They started letting people back in and after a bit of a delay, the concert began.
The opening act was Grace Potter and as she started singing, a double rainbow arched providentially over the pavilion to enthrall those who noticed (most were looking toward the stage or under the cover of the pavilion). The highlight for me this night was the Tedeschi Trucks Band. I especially love Derek Trucks transcendental guitar sound! He studied The classical Indian playing style of the uber-fluid Ali Akbar Khan, the Sarod master who played with Ravi Shankar at Woodstock ’69. You can hear the Indian influence when Derek plays slide guitar, coupled with his soulful blues connections to the Allman Brothers, it informs the culmination of his unique musical mastership. His bandmate and wife, Susan Tedeschi, one of the great female vocalists of our time, connected with the heart of the audience. Closing the night out, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival opened with a historical video and played familiar tunes that got everyone who had weathered the storm on their feet. Sunday evening ended with a fireworks display and I headed back to my tent through misty air. Safely back at Yasgur’s I folded up Jetson for our last ride of the weekend and walked into the woods where a handful of people were doing impromptu sing-alongs at the drum circle. With the percussive sounds of the Bethel Woods fireworks booming in the background, it was a comical and fun, yet, tender way to enjoy my final musical treat of the Woodstock 2019 Golden Anniversary weekend.
Overall, it seemed that most of the attendees and musicians at both venues were sincerely fueled by the spirit of Woodstock and radiated that love and joy. For others, it was back to business as usual, which isn’t what it takes to change the world. Was it magical and everything I hoped for? Mostly, yes. And in some ways, it exceeded my expectations. The Woodstock 50th anniversary weekend had a shot at opening eyes and spreading peace. For a few brief days, lots of us there did have our focus on peace and we will hold to that thread of consciousness as best we can, as best do all peaceful-minded people. In stormy skies and rainbows, excuse me while I kiss the sky.