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Woodstock at 50

Three from Mountain Empire who attended Woodstock recall experiences

  • 6 min to read

Stephen Conley’s memories can’t shake the lake.

“There were all these naked people,” the 70-year-old retiree recalled. “People were just playing and bathing. A lot of women were washing their hair.”

That lake on the grounds of the 1969 Woodstock festival became an infamous spot for fun and frolics.

“What it was was just a big cattle lake on Yasgur’s Farm,” Conley said. “Pieces of trees had fallen in, and people were jumping off of those and having a good time.”

That was 50 summers ago for Conley — then a student at what is now the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Today, Conley lives in Henrico County, Virginia, on the outskirts of Richmond.

In 1969, Conley read about the upcoming Woodstock festival in Rolling Stone magazine. And he figured it would be a great deal — $18 for three days — to see Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Jefferson Airplane.

Same goes for Mary Clark, a music lover from New Jersey — now 70 and living in Bristol, Virginia.

“It was kind of one of those coming-of-age events,” said Bill Wasserman, 65, a resident of Russell County, Virginia, and only 15 when he took off for several days to attend the Woodstock festival at a time when his family lived in Connecticut.

Woodstock attracted about 400,000 people plus a who’s who of musical performers: Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe and The Fish, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, Mountain, Canned Heat, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Sha Na Na and Ten Years After.

It was also a loud and happy, peace-and-love, hippie-friendly, overcrowded and muddy gathering at Bethel, New York, where it became legendary, even as it was still happening, on Aug. 15-18, 1969.

“Woodstock was a great phenomenon, that coming together,” Clark said. “I thought it was a glimpse of potential for people.”

‘We were young’

For Conley, getting to the show meant putting his thumb in the air: He hitchhiked from Wise to Woodstock.

That took five car rides — just to get to Interstate 81 at Abingdon, Virginia.

Then Conley and a buddy, Mark, got lucky. They met a man at a gas station.

“And we picked up a ride going to White Lake, New York,” Conley said. “He had a great, big Mercedes-Benz, and he had two kids, age 5 and 4.”

Conley and his friend drove that car for hours at a time and even stayed overnight with the man. The next day, the man’s wife drove the pair to the outskirts of the festival. “She drove us as far as she could get us,” Conley said.

That’s when Conley encountered Woodstock’s infamous traffic jams.

And so did Clark, who had traveled from her New Jersey home with her 17-year-old brother, Gordon Clark. Finally, unable to move anymore in the traffic jam, Mary Clark parked her car on the side of a road — and started walking with her brother.

“Some people coming out said it was eight miles to the festival,” Clark recalled. “But we were young. Everybody was just walking along.”

BHC 08112019 Woodstock 11 AP

Woodstock Festival of Arts and Music at Bethel, New York, August 1969.

‘Fell asleep standing up’

By the time Mary Clark got to Woodstock, the concept of selling tickets was gone. This was now a free-admission event.

And, for her, it was all about seeing that incredible cast of musicians, performing one after another.

Conley recalled Joe Cocker’s performance: “That’s when the place just went nuts. Nobody could have topped that.”

About The Band: “That was the most incredible performance for me,” Conley said.

Still, the festival’s schedule went kaput. Acts arrived on stage hours late.

“And nobody knew who was playing next,” Conley said.

Sly and the Family Stone made music during the wee hours of the morning.

The Who performed “Tommy” at daybreak, as the sun rose above the fields on Max Yasgur’s farm.

“I remember staying up,” Wasserman said. “You try to stay up and see all that you can.”

But The Grateful Dead put Wasserman to sleep.

“They were way too mellow to keep me awake,” Wasserman said. “I fell asleep standing up. I probably slept for a little while.”

Conley called Creedence Clearwater Revival’s performance “bizarrely good.”

Yet Joplin’s scratchy vocals drew mixed reviews.

“Janis Joplin sucked,” Conley said. “She was drunk as a dog. She didn’t sing. She just preached to the crowd.”

Wasserman disagrees.

“Janis Joplin, she was a very intense performer, charismatic performer,” Wasserman said. “She was a good entertainer. ... I was definitely impressed.”

BHC 08112019 Woodstock 03 AP

Rock music fans relax during a break in the entertainment at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in Bethel, N.Y., on Aug. 16, 1969. 

‘Open sales of drugs’

Woodstock attendees discovered drugs amid the mud caused by torrential rains.

“People were passing joints,” Conley said.

And there were posters with pushers openly selling LSD and “Kentucky bluegrass,” Conley added. “We had never been around open sales of drugs. … None of us were interested.”

What’s more, Conley said with a laugh, “I was careful not to drink somebody else’s fruit juice.”

Conley did eat what was given to him — “a little Dixie cup of oats and raisins,” he said. “And that’s all we had to eat. We were so tired and hungry.”

So were the Clarks. They didn’t take any food to the festival because they figured they could buy some. But, with more people showing up than anticipated, there were food shortages.

Fortunately, a policeman handed the Clarks a sandwich, and they split it — their ration for the day and night that they would spend at Woodstock.

‘Hungry and filthy and wet and cold’

Everything changed when the rain came.

“It was hard,” Conley said. “And, so soon, I was soaked to the bone. That’s why I got cold. We were so hungry and filthy and wet and cold, because it had rained so hard.”

The grassy fields turned to mud, according to Wasserman, and Woodstock dissolved into “a disaster-type situation.”

Yet strangers huddled together, trying to survive, sheltering themselves beneath pieces of plastic, Conley said.

“People were pretty friendly. You had to kind of take care of your brothers and sisters.”

Clark took note of it all and saw a new era of hope.

“What was happening here was one of the possibilities for human beings — how we could live together without an overload of rules,” she said.

‘So many people left’

Conley missed Jimi Hendrix famously playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the final performer at Woodstock.

“So many people left,” he said. “Less than half of the crowd was there.”

Conley decided to go home Sunday after seeing The Band. So he and another friend, Dwight, started hitchhiking.

Ultimately, they found a long-distance ride with a guy “in a traditional hippie van,” Conley said. “At the time, if you had mud on your jeans, they would pick you up, because they wanted to hear the stories.”

That van got the young men all the way to Washington, D.C.

From there, they found a few more rides and ultimately got to Tacoma, a community just west of Coeburn, Virginia.

In the end, Conley and his buddy had to climb the dark road across a mountain at Tacoma to get back to what was then called Clinch Valley College.

“And we had to hold hands,” Conley said. “It was so black and rainy. We were afraid we would fall off the mountain.”

‘Opened my eyes’

Wasserman did not leave Woodstock so soon.

“I saw it through to the end,” he said. “Jimi Hendrix was the last performer. He actually wasn’t that good. It wasn’t his finest hour as a performer.”

The Clarks did like Conley: They took off before it was all over. Only, they also took some kind of turn that had them walking for four hours — actually longer than it took them to later drive home to New Jersey, Mary Clark remembered.

There, in the Garden State, Mary remained mesmerized by Woodstock.

“I had what might be called a religious or spiritual experience,” she said. “I thought it was a glimpse of the potential for people — for what we could do if we wanted to.”

Conley, in turn, now lives with more than memories of that lake with the bare-naked ladies.

“Every August,” he said, “I’ve thought a lot about it — and what did it do to change my life.”

Conley sighed.

“In Woodstock, my eyes were opened just to the point of being stunned — seeing that many people, close in age, with similar beliefs against the Vietnam War and against injustice to folks who have brown skin,” he said. “Just being around that many people with a similar point of view was pretty overwhelming. It clearly opened my eyes.”

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