In Back to the Garden, Pete Fornatale reconstructs the story of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, August 15-18, 1969 (known to most people simply as “Woodstock” or the “Woodstock Music Festival”). He assembles hundreds of eyewitness statements from participant observers into a roughly chronological account of the festival’s legendary three days of “peace and music.” While Fornatale’s roster of witnesses includes a handful of ordinary spectators, it is heavily weighted toward Woodstock’s movers and shakers. These include such luminaries as John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, the neophyte entrepreneurs who financed the Woodstock festival; Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, who put the festival together; John Morris, the beleaguered (and by all accounts heroic) production manager of the festival; Sam Yasgur, son of Max and Miriam Yasgur, on whose farm the festival took place; and Michael Wadleigh, the filmmaker who made the Academy Award-winning documentary that has immortalized Woodstock for many millions of viewers in the United States and around the world.
Fornatale, who was not present at the event, also provides testimony from numerous artists who performed at the festival, some triumphantly, others far less so. He strings together these eyewitness accounts (based on interviews conducted for the book, as well as published sources) with his own somewhat modest narrative. The accounts and the story combine to create a picture of an event that was conceived as a profit-making venture, narrowly averted disaster, and became one of the major cultural events of the mid-twentieth century.
Just how this seemingly miraculous outcome came about is one of the themes of Woodstock, as it exists both in the American public consciousness and in Fornatale’s book. Woodstock was planned as a three-day music festival to be held in rural upstate New York, originally in the town of Wallkill. The audience was projected to number between 50,000 and 200,000 people. Upon learning the crowd would be so large, officials at Wallkill pulled out of their agreement just a few weeks before the festival was scheduled. This left the organizers with tens of thousands of tickets sold and no place to hold the event.
This first stage of near disaster was averted when Max Yasgur offered to rent part of his farm in Bethel for the festival. Nevertheless, the change of venue had its costs, putting preparations for the festival permanently behind schedule. In addition, the festival organizers far underestimated the throngs of music fans that would attend the festival. While no precise estimate of the festival’s peak audience has been made, it is generally agreed that the number of attendees climbed into the range of one-half million people. This throng led to the second and far more serious stage of near disaster: a severe shortage of the food, water, medical supplies, and sanitation facilities needed to service a crowd the size of a decent-sized city’s population. In fact, the Bethel area was declared a disaster area by Sullivan County, though casualties were ultimately kept to a minimum.
As Fornatale details, the flood of people arriving for the festival also led to three additional problems. Attempting to sell tickets at the gate or separate ticketed from unticketed attendees became a logistical nightmare. Potential conflicts arose between the invading hippie horde and the local residents, who were anything but hippies. Similarly, potential conflicts arose among audience members, who were forced to stay in cramped quarters without ample supplies. The organizers dealt quickly with the ticket issue, reading the situation accurately and declaring the proceedings to be a “free concert.” The problem of culture clash between concertgoers and townsfolk was resolved by the principals involved: Both groups found the graciousness to make the best of the situation, with hippies displaying respect for their hosts and townsfolk showing great generosity toward their bedraggled interlopers. Meanwhile, little violence broke out among the audience members, because the...
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