By Ed Lowe • Post-Crescent staff writer
August 16, 2009
New York state troopers were "big and mean," as part of the job
requirement back on Aug. 15, 1969.
Tom Truesdell, then 17, knew that as he neared the two burly officers
studying the swelling river of youth washing past the highway
crossing at Hurd Road in the town of Bethel early that Friday
afternoon. The march was friendly but determined as it progressed to
Max Yasgur's 600-acre dairy farm.
The huge outdoor concert there was yet to begin.
Truesdell and five friends all "country boys" from little Walton,
about 40 miles north hiked some six miles to this point, taking
turns carrying cases of their favored Genessee 12 Horse Ale against
their chests. The two daily passes to the Woodstock Music and Art
Fair in jeans pocket warned no alcohol would be tolerated on the grounds.
It wasn't their only concern.
"Back then, a New York state trooper kind of struck fear into guys
our age," recalled Truesdell, now 57, of Appleton. "Also, this was a
period of pretty wide-scale paranoia."
The officers wore grim gray uniforms with thick black stripes down
their woolen pants legs. Yet, when the soon-to-be high school senior
got close enough, he saw the troopers each sported a single daisy
tucked in the bands of their wide-brim campaign hats. The officers
didn't smile, but seemed mildly amused at their view of the colorful parade.
"I think that's when we knew it was going to be a different type of
weekend," Truesdell said.
Unlike most of the thousands of young people walking along the sides
of the highway, Truesdell's hair was cut small-town short. He was set
to start football workouts the following Monday morning.
"It might have been first time I saw people from the counterculture,"
he said. "I found it kind of intriguing, actually."
Americans later watching the news from Woodstock, a logistical
disaster that somehow emerged as the celebrated high point of the
Sixties' counter-culture era, would be amazed at what they saw.
And also by what they didn't see.
The Associated Press estimated more than 450,000 people, most of them
wearing long hair and the bohemian garb of that socially rebellious
era, would make it to the festival. There's no telling how many
others tried to get there, but never arrived. Fewer than half of
those in attendance had tickets for the event.
Most that did, like Truesdell, wouldn't need them.
The fences blocking entry were removed before the first band struck a
note. Concert organizers declared it a free concert, but it was
essentially a declaration of surrender to the massive turnout, for
which they were wholly unprepared. Remnants of hired security
vanished as the crowd poured over the grounds like a steadily
expanding quilt of humanity.
"Whatever structure there was in place was totally overwhelmed,"
Virtually nothing at Woodstock came off as planned, and, despite the
lack of security, sanitation facilities, shelter, food and water, the
event would prove that the peace-love-and-harmony mantra just might
be enough order to carry a long weekend through what seemed to be mayhem.
Truesdell and his friends took a spot about 100 yards from the stage
before the opening act, folksinger Richie Havens, took the stage.
The crowd was mostly young, mostly white, mostly hippies. Yet there
were no limits on attendance that Truesdell could see. All races were
represented in the mix. The Hell's Angels were there, but they didn't
raise hell. The Hog Farm commune set up feeding stations for the
hungry, which no doubt would include members of biker gangs.
It was hot and humid, to start out, but thunderstorms arrived,
melting the fields into mud.
"The physical conditions were pretty unpleasant, but I think the
music helped," said Truesdell.
"And this will sound corny 40 years later, but people were really
nice to each other. They shared what they had. If you had a bottle of
soda, you'd share it with someone you didn't know because people were
"I didn't see a fist fight. I didn't hear angry words. That's just
what I observed, and I couldn't believe it. It was crowded, it was
hot, you were thirsty, and you had to walk a mile to go to the
bathroom. You'd think people's tempers would be short. But I think
the music helped. That's what you would focus on so you didn't feel
"I'd say that was really the life-changing part of the experience for me."
He went to the concert because it was close to home, and because he
was a big fan of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful
Dead. He was introduced to the music of Santana at Woodstock, and
became a fan that day. He arrived with plans on taking the entrance
exam for West Point after graduation, but Woodstock altered his course.
Now he's an adjunct professor at Ripon College and Marian University.
He teaches a course on the Sixties.
Woodstock is on the syllabus.
Not everyone sees Woodstock as a cultural triumph.
Stephen Leahy, 45, a senior lecturer of history at the University of
Wisconsin-Fox Valley in Menasha, argues that the event was sanitized
by history, and overrated in its impact. Its music was outstanding,
he said, but the event was as flawed as the counterculture movement aims.
Leahy noted Woodstock attendees torched a hamburger stand, for
example, because it opposed its operator's intent to make a profit at
"I don't see it as a societal shift," Leahy said of Woodstock. "You
hear these stories of people throwing open their houses and this was
the only way of preventing the violence.
"Certainly, in that respect, it was a success. But the idea that this
was somehow some type of triumph and a vision for the future is,
quite frankly, ridiculous."
Rather, Leahy argues, "It's Baby Boomers doing what they have always
done, and that's take credit for everything good that's happened on
this planet. I wish there was a broader cultural understanding of
this event and we stop romanticizing it."
Jerald Podair, an associate professor of history and American studies
at Lawrence University in Appleton, was 15 and living in New York
City 85 miles south of the concert site when Woodstock took
place. His wife's best friend from high school set out to attend but
never made it. She and countless thousands other would-be Woodstock
attendees ran into a miles-long roadblock of cars either stalled or
abandoned on the New York State Thruway. All were forced to turn back.
"If you want to look for a moment when the counterculture of 1960s
America started to become the mainstream culture, it was probably at
Woodstock," Podair said. "I always tell my students, the
counterculture of the 1960s eventually became the mainstream culture
of the 21st century."
Woodstock's acclaim as a victory by the youth-led social revolution
of the Sixties is largely justified, Podair argued, even if most of
those in attendance "sold out" most of their youthful ideals long ago.
"Until Woodstock, the counterculture was very scary to mainstream
America," Podair said. "It was sinister. It had overtones of violence
and illegality. That's not to say there wasn't illegality at
Woodstock, because obviously there were people doing a lot of drugs.
But after 1969, the music stopped being viewed as a political
statement. It started being music that you listen to because you like it.
"To the people on the stage, and the people in the crowd, (it was a)
battle over American culture. They won that battle, and we can see
that today. Wearing your hair long in 1969 was a major political
statement, just like listening to rock music. My students are young,
so they don't know a time when those things were actual issues."
In retrospect, the event could have been far worse, and it seemed to
make the statement its organizers intended to make.
"It ended up being an affirmation of the values of the
counterculture: peacefulness, pacifism, if you will, mutuality,
communality, sharing," Podair said. "It ended up being a situation
where people had to work together, people had to cooperate, people
had to help each other, and that's really what the counterculture of
the 1960s said it was all about."
The naked truth
Truesdell said the magic of Woodstock was the simple accumulation of
countless helpful acts. There was just enough goodwill to carry the
masses through a long weekend.
"I never did find that pond where everyone was skinny dipping,"
Truesdell admitted. "I didn't even knew it was there (until) I saw
the movie a couple years later.
"It wasn't like there was there was people running around without
clothes on, but you didn't wear very much because it was 85 degrees.
There were people around being very friendly with each other, but
there were so many people there and it was so crowded there was a
consensus to just live and let live."
The drugs flowed freely. But, strangely, the inevitable carnage never occurred.
Two people died during the three-day event. One overdosed. The other
was crushed by a tractor while asleep in an adjacent farmer's field.
Two babies were born at Woodstock, so the population didn't change.
Not in number, anyway.
Ed Lowe: 920-993-1000, ext. 293, or firstname.lastname@example.org