Pennsylvania Artist and Writer Recalls Time at Woodstock

Photos Provided C.R. Nelson poses with the original program for Woodstock.

Woodstock summons up a gazillion images, mostly muddy, capturing a monumental moment in time that still echoes with the great music of the 1960s. Movies have been made, books have been written. But something is missing from those stories, and I should know because that missing piece is the reason I went to Woodstock. I went because I thought it was an art show.

I kid you not.

The ad in the Village Voice in the early summer of 1969 was a siren call to me: “Woodstock Music and Art Fair – an Aquarian Exposition in Wallkill, N.Y.”

The brochure that came in the mail along with my ticket spelled it out – “Paintings and sculptures on trees, on grass, surrounded by the Hudson Valley.” It informed me, in lovely violet letters, that “Accomplished artists, ‘Ghetto’ artists and would-be artists will be glad to discuss their work.” There would be a craft bazaar of “imaginative leather, Zodiac charts, camp clothes and worn out shoes,” guitar and ceramic workshops and “curious food and fruit combinations to experiment with.” Plus, there would be “hundreds of acres to roam on. Fly a kite, sun yourself. Cook your own food. Water and rest rooms will be supplied.”

Far out, man!

I had just graduated from Ivy School of Art in Pittsburgh, turned 21 in July, sold a painting at Three Rivers Festival, had money in my pocket and was ready for that show! The music sounded pretty darned good, too – Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, the Who, Crosby Stills and Nash, Jimi Hendrix and bunches more – music my friends and I had been listening to for months now, cranked up on late-night stereos, echoing through the walls of dorm rooms and apartments all over Oakland and Shadyside. The ticket I received in the mail for the weekend of Aug. 15-17 cost $18; as an exhibitor I was charged an extra $2 for a pass that would take my art to the staging area to be unloaded and hung. People I knew were going – Woodstock Productions made good advertising use of college and underground radio stations nationwide – and that pass was my ticket to ride, stuffed into a Volkswagen Beetle with my hippie friends, my paintings tied to the roof.

Big Time was driving – it was his dad’s car, you know – and we were prudently on the road by Thursday because heavy traffic was reported heading out of New York City. The festival had been moved to the Catskills resort town of White Lake, near Bethel, N.Y., on a dairy farm or something like that. Big Time pulled out the Rand McNally and we headed north, then took to the back roads to find this dot on the map that would become Woodstock Nation to the world.

Everything you’ve ever heard about the miles of traffic jams surrounding Max Yasgur’s farm is true. There were hundreds of vehicles already parked on the berm by Thursday afternoon and a stream of long-haired, beautiful people walking, laughing, passing joints, carrying gear and making music as traffic ground to a halt. A policeman approached, saw the stage pass, looked at the roof and flagged us through. A cheer for the power of art could be heard from the cramped interior of our intrepid Beetle. Best two bucks you ever spent, Cole!

Getting there a day early was a chance to see a reality the brochure could only dream of. An army of stagehands, Hanley Sound engineers, construction workers, hippie volunteers and the Hog Farm commune from California had been on the land for weeks making Yasgur’s farm look like a 1969 set design for the Garden of Eden. This Eden had a massive stage and huge speaker towers that reached up to heaven to sing praises to the power of electricity, psychedelics and good old rock and roll to bring us together. Right now! Camps were set up in the woods surrounding the meadow that would soon be home to 400,000. Christmas tree lights marked the way. My paintings got hung in trees – that much of the brochure was true! – and I set off to explore this amazing new universe, to delight in the teepees and painted buses where the Hog Farm camped, offering those who wandered in helpings from big pots of oatmeal with raisins and nuts, brown rice with vegetables and soy sauce, water from jury-rigged hoses, a trip tent or three if needed. I met my first tie-dyed doctor, saw my first pair of blue jeans cut at the inseams to make a skirt. I got with the program and pitched in to help so I could have some of what was in those pots. Wow! Cool!

Like a few hundred thousand others, I was up all night riding a wave of energy that just kept growing into the biggest tailgate party on Earth.

Friday sounded like Walter Cronkite’s Vietnam on the evening news as helicopter blades shattered the air and the performers dropped down from the sky. I was suddenly aware of the contrast between us college-age kids and the heavy hitters of the adult world – the 30- and 40-somethings with watches on their thick wrists, sweating in their short-sleeved dress shirts as they clustered with their microphones and cameras by the only true fence on the farm – the one that surrounded the staging area – and tried to fathom the ocean of long-haired flower children dancing, singing, hugging, having the time of their lives.

At some point I made it back to the art show and found a big yellow Honorable Mention ribbon hanging on one of my paintings.

Like, wow, man!

I pinned it to my shirt and headed back to the stage. I pointed to my ribbon and told the guy in the uniform at the gate “I’m with the art show” and he let me in. And for the next two days I had the best seat in the house.

The music was like nothing I’d ever experienced – soaring from the bustle of the stage, threaded together with miles of electric cable and me doing the dance that roadies do when setting up and tearing down, fitting in and hanging out as even more beautiful people emerged, on their way to microphones, guitars and drum kits facing out over that sea of human beings stretching to the horizon, moving like sea grass seen through water.

Which fell from the sky on Ravi Shankar and made me glad I was high and mostly dry with the equipment and the performers that night.

When the sea of candles lit for Melanie, it took my breath away.

When Arlo Guthrie showed up behind my wall of amplifiers and gathered his wits together to go onstage and do “Alice’s Restaurant,” I was mightily impressed.

Records don’t do justice to live moments like this.

Folk singer around the campfire that I was back home, I was bummed that Dylan wasn’t here – I knew all the words to “Desolation Row” and had read them aloud to my senior English class in high school – but Dylan was a reluctant hero. So Joan Baez was a nice stand-in for our collective thirst for an end to the deaths in Vietnam when she appeared, five months pregnant at 1 a.m. Saturday, and dedicated her set to her incarcerated husband, David Harris, who had burnt his draft card and was paying the price.

In between those days of wonderful music that followed me everywhere – awesome sound system! – were naps caught on the fly and oatmeal and brown rice with those people who were part of Wavy Gravy’s merry prankster band. We were kind to each other because it felt right. I felt that I was learning a lesson that I already knew.

And it rained some more, but measured against the harvest heat of mid-August it was an even draw. Country girl that I was, I knew mud wouldn’t kill you and the dance we all did was ancient tribal stuff that tested our intelligence, our humanity and our resolve in a way that Darwin could have written about.

Big Time and his dad’s Beetle were heading for the East Coast, so I was tasked with finding a ride back to Pittsburgh with my paintings.

I walked into the tent city ringing the outer reaches of the meadow and found a big white van with Kansas plates. The longhairs who had set up camp there were easygoing and open-faced. I said, “If you give me and my paintings a ride to Pittsburgh, I’ll give you a place to crash.”

We left Monday morning as Jimi Hendrix, shining in his fringed white leather jacket, played the “Star-Spangled Banner” like it had never been played before.

A few months later, I received a check in the mail for $25 – my honorable mention prize money. I was five bucks to the good.

What a great art show, man!

C.R. Nelson is an artist and freelance writer living in Greene County, Pa.

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