Peace, music and 400,000 people: Workers recall Woodstock experience

  • Chris Langhart, technical director of Woodstock, and his brother Nick Langhart, who also worked at the festival, spoke at the Erving Senior/Community Center on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/9/2019 10:43:27 PM

ERVING — Woodstock, 50 years ago next weekend, is one of the key events in the history of pop music, and one of the great stories of the late 1960s, possibly having lived up to its ambitious billing: “3 Days of Peace & Music.”

But almost nothing went according to plan. Construction of the stage was incomplete by the time the festival started, the crowd was at least twice as big as the festival organizers had expected, the idea of making a profit had to be scrapped because tickets couldn’t be counted and, most famously, rain on Sunday turned the field into a swamp and could have caused mass electrocution.

Yet, amazingly, nothing went really wrong, said Chris Langhart, the technical director of the festival, who visited the Erving Community/Senior Center Tuesday night with his brother Nick Langhart, who also worked at Woodstock.

“We were lucky in a lot of places where things could have gone awry but didn’t,” Chris said.

Chris now works as a visual arts teacher at Solebury School in New Hope, Pa. He was hired for Woodstock because of his expertise in theater management and design, which is what most of his career has been. Nick is the library director in Westminster.

Woodstock’s promoters expected to sell about 200,000 tickets, and the site was designed proportionally. But time and money ran out before the stage and the fence could be finished, making it difficult to charge for tickets. When attendance proved much higher than expected, festival organizers gave up and called it a free event. Attendance is estimated to have been about 400,000.

Things were just as disorderly from there on out. The schedule of shows was planned to be organized by style, Nick said: day one would be folk music, day two British rock, day three American rock. But the roads were so clogged on the first day that the musicians had trouble getting to the festival, and the plan was thrown out. Chris coordinated a helicopter pad to bring performers in and out.

Communication at the festival was done via PA announcements between shows — another improvisation to accommodate for the overwhelming crowd. It worked, but it was inefficient and took too much time, Nick said.

When the festival ended, it took two weeks to clean up the temporary constructions and hundreds of acres of muddy sleeping bags, Chris said. Festival organizers had promised Max Yasgur, the owner of the farmland that was used for the festival, that they would leave the land in the same condition they found it.

“He was patient,” Chris said.

Even the simple act of bringing together 400,000 people for a party that was by all accounts genuinely peaceful and good-natured may have been at least partly permitted only through the failure of a plan, Chris said. To coordinate security, festival organizers had hired one of the local police chiefs. The chief arranged for officers at departments around the area to check in on the festival periodically. But, Chris said, one of the other chiefs disliked the premise of the festival so much that, somehow, there ended up being no police presence at all.

“The kind of opposition that can get you bristling when you see a uniformed police officer just wasn’t there,” Chris said.

The mystery now is, could it ever happen again? Why hasn’t it?

After Woodstock, towns and states started passing laws about mass gatherings, fearing something similar in their territory, Chris said. Woodstock also had the effect of inflating the price that musicians expected to charge for playing a festival, he said.

Already the musical culture and larger counterculture were changing, Nick said. Four months after Woodstock, there was the Altamont Free Concert in northern California. It was informally billed as “Woodstock West,” but it’s best remembered for its violent atmosphere. Local Hells Angels were hired for security, and three accidental deaths and one murder were reported. It was so bad that the Grateful Dead, who had helped organize the festival, didn’t play.

“There’s no museum to Altamont. That is a very dark and sinister affair,” Nick said.

Likewise, potentially lethal drugs were on the rise among young people — another harbinger of the end of the ‘60s counterculture, Nick said.

“There were drugs (at Woodstock) but it was not drugged out,” Nick said. “People didn’t go there to get stoned, by and large. They went there for music. Two years later it would’ve been seen as a drug event. I think that’s huge.”

So in comparison to what came later, Woodstock appears idyllic. At least, people who were there remember it that way, according to the interviews used in a new PBS documentary, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation,” which Erving Public Library Director Barbara Friedman showed Tuesday.

Yet, the facts of the Woodstock story may fall short under scrutiny of modern values. Men and women were represented about equally in attendance at the festival, Nick said; but in age, ethnicity and class, the crowd was mostly homogenous: they were people who listened to rock ‘n’ roll and who could leave a job for three days at a time — so mostly young, white, suburban.

“We have to be careful not to judge Woodstock by the expectations and sense of rightness of 2019,” Nick said. “We have to see it through the eyes of 1969. It keeps it in perspective. It’s still a magical thing.”

Do you have a Woodstock story that you’d like to share? Send it to Andy Castillo, features editor, at acastillo@recorder.com for publication in next Thursday’s arts and culture section.


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