Four days and 49 years ago, a festival dropped in on upstate New York.
Depending on who tells the story, somewhere between 400 thousand and half a million people turned up to watch three days of music, get a little high (a little?!) and wallow in the mud in a summer that had seen, just a few weeks earlier, Chappaquiddick and then a man walk on the moon for the very first time. (Later that year—a year in which Richard Nixon was serving his first term as president, the New York Mets would win the World Series. That’s the sort of crazy year it was…)
But what’s a hundred thousand when you’re all there for the same reason?
The venue was moved at the last possible moment to a field outside the town of Bethel—a bit of a distance from Woodstock, far enough away that the farmer’s field where the show was held was pretty much isolated–except for the cows. The land turned into a giant mud pit following steady rains that had plagued the area for days leading up to the event. But those who were there didn’t seem to care, or perhaps they just didn’t notice.
The promoters, who had sold tickets to the event, realized they could either build security fences and ticket booths or a stage in time for the show. Expecting around two hundred thousand people and promising town officials no more than 50-thousand, they went for the stage. They lost a lot of money since no one could control the crowd access.
Cars piled up along the shoulders of the thruway and clogged the streets leading to the concert and people hitched or walked their way into the farm. No toilets, no tents, not much food; one water hole, and a series of concerts that many of those who were there will most likely tell you was one of the best things they ever did in their lives—if they can remember.
I was ten, and no, I wasn’t there.
But I always felt compelled to visit Woodstock, the town—maybe because of what I’d heard about it, or maybe because I’m a ultimately hippie at heart. Anyway, I’ve been there twice now.
The first time, I just passed through on my way back up to Montreal after an early fall visit—left Long Island early enough to make a stop for breakfast before heading up the thruway towards Canada. What I found was a tiny town that looked like it was lost in a time warp, but almost intentionally so. The shops offered tie-dyed clothing and Jamaican flags and trinkets–some adorned with more peace signs that I’d seen in decades and others with a very recognizable five-bladed leaf (and no, I’m not talking about the Maple leaf). I strolled the one main street, found a shop with bagels, downed one with poppy seeds and melted cheddar on top along with a coffee and got back out to the highway and on my way.
The second time, I was more intentional.
It was more intentional.
I’m not sure how I heard about the Rambles, but I knew they existed. Started by The Band’s Levon Helm as a way to offset costs for his cancer treatments, Helm invited musicians to drop in to his farm, to play with him in his “barn”, in which he’d created an amazing stage and studio. He opened up the Rambles and invited people to come to watch—the place maybe holds a hundred people or slightly more, with some space for standing room. I’m pretty sure the seating can be moved to allow for a bigger studio space.
I really wanted to do this. And I dragged my 18 year old along for the trip.
The Woodstock I saw, when I had more time to really look around, was certainly a bit different than that pit-stop Woodstock of a couple of years earlier. Maybe because it was summer and, after growing up in a resort town, I know how different the places look and feel “in season”. Maybe it was because we had a few days in a rented carriage house with a screened porch, a hot tub built into the deck and a creek running through the woods behind the house that it felt
different. Sleeping out on the porch, listening to the rain and the night sounds of the woods was incredibly beautiful and relaxing.
It certainly was a pretty place.
The people were pretty too; not that they weren’t in the off season…maybe the summer people were just a little showier about it. I have a rather vivid memory of coming out of the grocery store as an older guy in jeans and a t-shirt (and wearing both well, I might add) stepped out of his two seater sports car and greeted us with a smile and a hello—he sort of typified that breed of confident, good looking people who were populating the town (it was also at a time when I had started realizing that I wasn’t invisible—it was as much about how I carried myself than it was about how others saw me).
I also clearly remember a decent looking but surly shopkeeper, decked out in what appeared to be the “traditional hippie costume” (you know, tie-dyed t-shirt, one dangly earring, long curly hair, a little slouchy or tired—I’m not sure which) who definitely had that “ugh, tourists” attitude about him. What a difference some direct eye contact and smile makes, huh?
And it also doesn’t hurt when it’s warm and bright instead of steely grey and post autumn-colors mid-fall.
So there we were, carriage-house-hot-tub bound, with a talking GPS that cracked us up every time she said the word “Chestnut” (our place was off that street), and tickets to a Ramble in hand.
At that time, on occasion, the performers at the Rambles were not announced until show time; now, I believe if you check the website (and you should), you’ll find that headliners are announced. For example, Jackson Browne played two sold out shows last night and the night before. That would have been great to see.
In our case, it wouldn’t have mattered who the guests were because this was the only night we were open to go. So when the web page said “special guests”, we figured we’d just take our chances.
On this night, we didn’t know who the guest musician(s) would be, and we also didn’t know that it was appropriate to bring something to share before the concert; that’s the main reason we were at the grocery store—buying a tub of pre-made chocolate chip cookie mix (little did we know, but should have figured, those cookies would be the hit of the food table that night).
It’s a pretty simple process, once you have a ticket: you drive to the farm, which is just a short hop north of the village, check in and park in a field. Everyone is invited to wander around a bit—there’s a large pond just down from the field and buildings, and we watched a young golden retriever jump into the water time and again to fetch a stick thrown by some boys, the geese and ducks a safe distance off shore, keeping half an eye on the action while going butt-up to the bottom to grab the grass growing just under the surface. If you turn your back and just focus on the pond and the woods around it, you could be a million miles away from everyone.
The Barn, we would soon see, is this beautiful wood structure that has a recording studio attached to the house where Helm lived. The inside was all light timber and beams and it felt rustic and contemporary at the same time; there was seating on the floor and also in the balcony, where you could look down onto the performers. Intimate yet spacious at the same time and acoustically excellent for a show. I understand that the current structure is actually a rebuilt barn, after the first one burned down in a fire a decade or so earlier, but this is the one that stands today.
(At this point, I want you to know that I observed the “no photos” policy of my hosts and have no interiors of the Barn; I also cannot find my photos of the outside that I took as we waited to go in. I have asked quite a few people on-line for permission to use their photos, some more than once–but as of now, I don’t have them. If/when I get them, I will remove this paragraph and add the to the story; in the meantime, go to Google Images and look up “Levon Helm Barn” and you will see both interior and exterior pix. Thanks!)
So, just before show time, everyone queues up to head inside, and there’s an interesting range of chatter (my then 18 year old will probably never forget the stoned 30-somethings behind us discussing a “pizza monster”, and I guarantee you, if he’s reading this, he’s laughing out loud right now); there was talk of classic cars and city things and a couple of locals chatting about the farm stand that didn’t open this year and what-happened-to-Harry…it was fun to listen.
The talk turned to who the headliner might be and there was all sorts of speculation. Some people said Willie Nelson was in the area, while others suggested Sting or maybe a Stone or two might be around. Someone else said they had heard it was Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead. Andy googled them all to see where they were, whether they were possibilities, while we were waiting.
Holy shit. The dude at the grocery store… was Phil Lesh. I was pretty sure.
And it was. He and his sons played the first set. They were later joined by Levon (I should have mentioned that this was a few years before Helm died from the cancer he had battled—we were some of the lucky ones who got to see him there, live and alive), his daughter Amy and a whole slew of people (including Donald Fagen from Steely Dan, who was/is a regular at the Rambles). And in a super weird twist, at one point during Lesh’s set with his sons, we looked down and saw Jane Fonda, all dressed in white carrying a little white dog (turned out she was in Woodstock filming a movie and had done a film years earlier with Helm and so dropped by to say hi).
Kind of a surreal night.
The next few days were spent exploring and absorbing the area—from watering holes filled with cool (ok, cold) clear running streams to a race down the Thruway to Woodbury to the massive outlet mall and a leisurely drive back up route 9, through Poughkeepsie and past Hyde Park and the CIA (that’s the Culinary Institute of America in case you were thinking it was the other) and on through perfect little towns and hamlets and a stop at Del’s for an ice cream before heading back across the Hudson to Woodstock.
We looked for Max Yasgur’s farm (It turns out the farm is closest to Bethel, NY—which is about 60 miles away from Woodstock) and we looked for other concerts or evening events we could attend but didn’t find either (by then it was Sunday and Monday night); besides I’m not sure much would have topped our visit to the Barn, and the Ramble.
Would I go to Woodstock again? Yep, for sure. I have a feeling it’s one of those places that just draws the words or notes or colors out of a creative person. I can see myself in that carriage house for a month, watching the leaves change, relaxing in the hot tub on a cold night with a colder glass of white wine in my hand, the bubbling of the creek in the background…..the sounds of the woods.
And maybe another trip up the road to the Barn.