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Book excerpt from "Aquarius Rising" by Robert Santelli

The traffic problem had grown worse. Nothing was moving. Long lines of cars just sat there in the August sun. The police considered shutting down the Thruway and ordering those that were just arriving on the scene to turn around and go home. (Later on they did just that.) All roads leading to the festival were completely void of movement. The more impatient in the crowd drove their cars off to the side of the road and began walking to the site. Others quickly followed suit. And when parking space ran out along the side of the highways, people merely turned their engines off and left their cars in the middle of the road.

According to the New York State police, there were more than a million people on the road in the festival vicinity by late Friday afternoon. Of that number, at least forty percent never even got close to the festival site. Some, realizing the insanity of it all, turned around as soon as they hit the first signs of traffic. Others endured, in some cases spending over fourteen hours in the snarl. The only way to get from one point to another, aside from walking, was by helicopter. All weekend long the sky was dotted with police, Army, and Air Force choppers, plus an assortment of private ones that were hired by the promoters and the media.

Hours before the show was to commence that evening, the promoters declared the festival a free event. They had little choice. The fences that encircled the site had been knocked down and the continuous stream of people made it impossible to collect tickets. Once the fences went down, the promoters gave up all hope of selling tickets at the gate. The only sane thing to do was go with the flow; the flow of people, the flow of traffic, the flow of energy, and the flow of incredibly good vibrations despite all else.


The word had spread fast: The Sullivan County area was expected to be hit with a series of thunderstorms that could start as early as Friday evening. What about the music? Would the performers still take the stage if it rained? Rain or no rain, the promoters had already decided that the festival and the music would go on. Extra precautions were taken to make sure wires and cables were safely in place, and the lighting and sound fixtures on the towers were tightened since there also had been a prediction of high winds.

The warm silhouette of the Catskills sunset was partially blackened by approaching storm clouds, off in the distance. But the threat of rain did not fade the festive spirit just as long as those in the crowd were sure the music would go on as scheduled. There were just too many people present to make a big issue about some rain. Only the promoters and stage people seemed to be aware of what a heavy rainstorm could do to the electrified rock music and the safety of those who performed it. They preferred, however, to think positively. They had done all they could to prepare for it; the only thing left to do was to wait for Mother Nature to strike—and begin the music.

A great roar went up from the crowd. Richie Havens emerged from the wings of the stage, strumming his worn acoustic guitar fast and powerful as always, and moved to the center micro­phone to begin the music. So after all the planning and all the hassles and all the money spent to make the festival a reality, the music began at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

Dressed in an African tunic, Richie Havens did not look like the urban folksinger that he was but rather like a tribal medicine man or soothsayer about to bestow a blessing of good fortune on the gathered masses. The folksinger recalled why he had been chosen to open the festival:
"The fact that those of us with acoustic instruments could be set up quickly was the only reason why we went on first. Actually, I was scheduled to play fifth on the billing, but since no one had made it up there on time, the promoters kept eyein' me up. Some of the rock bands were backstage but their equipment was somewhere else. Other bands' amps and things had arrived, but the actual musicians were stuck in the traffic jam. But it was good that Friday night was acoustic night because it relieved the tensions of the whole scene, ya know, the traffic, the crowds, the threat of rain. It made the festival start out on a mellow note.

"The music was already two and one half hours late, and everybody backstage is beginning to panic. Mike Lang comes up to me and says, 'Richie, please. Ya gotta go on now, man. You gotta open this thing. There's no one else. Richie, I'm beggin' ya, man.'

"So I look at the unbelievable amount of people out there and say, 'You're crazy! What do you want me to do, get killed?' Mike persisted, telling me that I had to do it, I had to do it.

"I turned and looked around and spotted Timmy Hardin standing a ways away, but listening to the whole thing and wondering what was going to come of it all. So I said, There's Hardin! He'll open up for you! He's your man!' I turned back to look at him and the cat split. Vanished just like that into thin air!

"Lang looks at me like the pressure of it all is starting to get the best of me. He was probably thinking, 'Wow, this dude is seeing things!' So he says to me, 'Look Richie, they're gonna go nuts out there if they don't get some music soon. You're the only one ready to go. You can do it, man. Just go out there strumming your ax.'

"I had played festivals before Woodstock so it wasn't like I was afraid of performing in front of so many people. But Woodstock was so much bigger and different from the rest. Anyway, I just walked out on the stage and did it."

Richie Havens ripped at his guitar and featured in his set two of his most popular and persuasive songs, "Handsome Johnny" and "Freedom." Havens drove his music hard and dexterously quick; he closed his eyes often and let the music take hold of his internal energy.

No one knew if the event could go on for three days as originally planned. New problems arose with the passing of each hour, the most serious being the continued arrival of more and more festivalgoers. There surely were not enough basic provisions on hand to accommodate a half-million people. Medical supplies were running dangerously low. People were already waiting in hour-long lines just to use the portable toilets. A two-hour wait was reported by those wishing to use the pay phones. There was even a forty-five-minute wait just to get some water. But a warm, congenial effervescence permeated the air and made it feel like the ordeal was all very worth it.
Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez were two other big-name acts that performed on the first night. Guthrie had been a favorite with rock and folk audiences ever since he stepped out of his father's shadow and recorded his own "Alice's Restaurant," an eighteen-minute song that became a folk-music classic and was eventually made into a movie. His laid-back attitude came to epitomize the stoned-out hippie who let the world slip by without any resistance. At Woodstock Guthrie was flabbergasted by the size of the crowd he was playing to. He made repeated references to the latest estimate of the number of people at the festival and joked that the world never saw so many freaks in one place.

Joan Baez assumed her position at center stage looking pro­foundly solemn. She spoke of her husband, David Harris, who had been in prison for the last three weeks, and dedicated the song "Joe Hill" to him. Harris was an antiwar and antidraft activist who had gone to jail for his political beliefs. He was now in the midst of organizing a hunger strike with a few dozen inmates in protest of America's role in Vietnam and the drafting of young men into the armed forces. The highlight of the singer's set, however, was a chilling a cappella rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The old spiritual emphasized Baez's wide vocal range and symbolized the mood that perme­ated the crowd for three days.

Folksingers Tim Hardin, Bert Sommer, and Melanie also played on Friday night, along with the Incredible String Band, Sweetwater, and Ravi Shankar. Just about everyone who per­formed on Friday night had their set softened with rain. At first it struck as a downpour, like so many August storms in the Catskills do; then it tapered off and almost seemed to stop. But all of a sudden the pattern would resume, heavy at first and then easing off to a steady drizzle. The lightning that had appeared in the distance earlier in the evening came ominously close during Shankar's set and threatened to strike one of the support towers. Luckily it was an empty threat.

The mud that resulted from the rain quickly turned most of the pasture into a sloppy quagmire when people began to trudge back to their tents and campsites. The more people walked in it, the deeper and thicker the mud got. The severity of the problem was not realized until daylight broke on Saturday morning. People with radios passed the word that due to the rain and mud and the shortage of drinking water, the words "disaster area" were creeping into many of the news bulletins.


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Rockfest Archive Robb Strycharz, 1998-2006
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