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They Made Woodstock Happen

The festival's organizers


They Made Woodstock Happen

Heat, rain and mud did little to dampen the spirits of those who spent an August weekend at Woodstock in 1969.

Photo by Derek Redmond & Paul Campbell, GNU Free Documentation License
"I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm,
I'm going to join in a rock 'n' roll band,
I'm going to camp out on the land,
I'm going to try and get my soul free"

“Woodstock” ©1969, 1997 Joni Mitchell, published by Crazy Crow Music

During one long, hot, rainy weekend in August of 1969, what happened on a dairy farm in upstate New York changed the course of rock music, and stamped an indelible image on American culture. But it didn’t start out that way.

John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang. A military man, a lounge band guitarist, a record label executive, a rock band manager. The business venture of these unlikely partners became part of the fabric of American history primarily because it was such a huge failure.

Who Was Who

Roberts, in addition to being a commissioned Army officer was heir to a multi-million dollar trust fund. Rosenman, the musician, had a law degree but no specific plans for how to spend the rest of his life. Kornfeld was a successful songwriter and record producer.

Lang and Kornfeld became pals at their first meeting, in which Lang was looking for a record deal for a band he managed. The two began brainstorming plans for a recording studio in the pastoral setting of upstate New York in a little town called Woodstock. To introduce it, they envisioned a small festival that would include a rock concert and an art fair.

Roberts and Rosenman, meanwhile, were brainstorming ideas for a TV sitcom they hoped to produce. In search of money to fund their Woodstock venture, Lang and Kornfeld were introduced by their lawyer to Roberts and Rosenman.

Why Woodstock?

Artists and craftspeople had long considered the quiet, peaceful surroundings of Woodstock to be the ideal place to live and work. By 1969, it was also attracting a growing number of musicians who liked the “back to the earth” life there, but had to travel a long way to the nearest recording studio. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and The Band were among those who were calling Woodstock home.

Thus it was that the proposed recording studio was the centerpiece of the original plan in which a concert and cultural exposition would play only a small role. The more the four men talked, however, the more the plan changed. They emerged from their third meeting with a plan to raise the money to build the studio by staging the largest rock concert ever.

The Way It Was Supposed To Be

The organizers thought they could attract between 50,000 and 100,000 people, which was ambitious by even the most optimistic standards. The Miami Pop Festival in 1968 had been considered a huge success when it attracted a crowd of 40,000.

From the beginning there were problems. There was no place in Woodstock that could accommodate the expected crowds. The organizers secured a site in nearby Walkill, but were denied a permit to stage the concert. Officially, it was because outdoor toilets were illegal there. Unofficially, it was because Walkill residents didn’t want three days of hippies, drugs and loud music in their town.

The organizers were also finding it difficult to attract big name talent, who were skeptical because the group had no track record for pulling off an event of this magnitude. Eventually, they managed to secure 600 acres on a dairy farm near a little town called Bethel, and succeeded in booking major acts by paying them twice what they usually got for a concert appearance. The festival’s original name was retained because it was already being heavily promoted as the Woodstock Music & Art Fair.

What Went Wrong … and Right

The business plan was based on sales of tickets and concessions to 50,000 or so people. When ten times that many people showed up, the meager security contingent couldn’t keep them from climbing fences or simply walking in without paying.

It didn’t take long for food supplies to run out, and for sanitary facilities to become completely overwhelmed. And nobody had counted on rain falling throughout much of the festival, rendering the pasture a muddy mess and delaying or shortening performances.

Largely undaunted, attendees happily shared their food, drugs, booze and sexual partners with those who were without, and frolicked in the mud. The organizers eventually made back the $2.4-million they spent on the festival, but only when they started getting money from record sales and a successful film documenting the event.
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