45 years ago this month the youth of America jumped in their cars and drove to upstate New York to be part of what became the most influential music festival ever: Woodstock.
A new photographic book of Rolling Stone photographer Baron Wolman’s work, simply titled Woodstock, presents never before seen images of the audience. And the wheels they got there in.
Here in conversation with the book editor Dagon James are Michael Lang, the promoter of Woodstock, and Baron Wolman, whose images are considered the definitive portrayal of the spectacle.
Dagon James: Baron. Since this is a book of your photos, let’s start with how you got to Woodstock?
Baron Wolman: In 1969 my friend, photographer Jim Marshall, and I had a contract to shoot photos for a book about American music festivals. The idea was for us to go around the country and photograph every type of music festival that was happening at the time. In those days rock wasn’t that big yet and most of the festivals were centered on country, jazz, and bluegrass. Plus, of course, the already famous Newport Folk Festival which was starting to add a bit more rock. (As it turned out, at Newport we were shooting the very night that Neil Armstrong became the first man ever to walk on the moon!) Anyhow, Jim and I tried to photograph everything and everywhere we could.
DJ: Did you go to the festivals together or split them up?
BW: We worked out an itinerary that started in late spring. We each chose the festivals we wanted to shoot; some we shot together, some alone. When we started out, Woodstock wasn’t even on our list yet. I think we first heard about it sometime in June and decided to add it to our journey. At the time we figured it would be just another music festival among the many we were photographing. Man, were we in for a surprise!
DJ: What was it like actually getting out to the site through all the stalled traffic and caravans of people?
BW: I flew in to New York, rented a car at the airport and headed out to Bethel with my press pass. I was still miles from the site when I hit the traffic jam. I couldn’t believe how many cars there were on Highway 17B, the road to Bethel; the traffic was moving maybe 3 mph at best. I pulled out my trusty AAA road map, found the concert site and then worked out an alternative route by taking country back roads so I could get around the hippie parade. On the way I even found a back road motel that had rooms and booked one for the weekend. I think everyone else who was shooting at Woodstock stayed at the site taking pictures all night in the dark while I came and went since I had a place to crash.
DJ: A luxury famously afforded to few that weekend. What was your initial reaction when you arrived at the site?
BW: I was blown away, excited, and try as I might, I couldn’t get my head around what was happening. There was already a huge crowd there by the time I arrived. I had imagined a whole lot of people were probably going to attend but they just kept coming, and coming, and coming, there was no end to that stream of people filling up the place; even the people who put it on had no idea how big it would eventually be. I had no clue, I was stunned!
Michael Lang: Every act, every musician, had the same reaction when they arrived on the scene.
DJ: It’s pretty amazing to think of someone at such a young age (25) putting on a festival the scale of Woodstock.
BW: Wasn’t it the previous year that you had backed up some flatbed trucks and put on a concert in Florida?
ML: Well it was a bit more involved but the flatbeds was the staging plan. I was 24 when I put on the Miami Pop Festival in May of ’68 and, like Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix headlined.
BW: What gave you the idea to go from that to such a huge event at Woodstock?
ML: It just seemed like the time to bring everybody together. We publicly announced 50,000 but planned and built everything for 200,000 which was unheard of. It felt like it was in the air, things were getting uptight and all the assassinations in ‘68 and all the political violence, and it seemed that we lost the plot. It was the right time to bring everyone together and live the dream for a minute and remind ourselves of what was possible.
DJ: At what point did you decide to go out and document the attendees?
BW: I went back and forth but I ended up spending most of my time out in the wild with the crowd because what was happening ‘out there’ was just too interesting not to explore.
DJ: Did you have friends explore with you or did you go it alone?
BW: I had a few hippie friends there and I ran into Jan Hodenfield who was assigned to cover Woodstock for Rolling Stone. We hung out some but I mostly wandered around by myself.
DJ: What was it about the people, the “inhabitants,” that you found so attractive?
BW: The thing to remember about the ’60s, even near the end in ’69 was that everything was so totally different, the behavior was new and unexpected. Plus, the ’60s were simply wildly photogenic in every way imaginable, the clothes, the dancing in the streets, the general attitude of the people … the changes that were taking place in the heads of the people were visually manifested. I mean, how could you not take pictures? As I began to examine the photos in detail I was surprised to discover that in the summer of ’69 virtually nobody was wearing sneakers, there were no branded t-shirts, nothing to read or be seen on the clothes. It was all just very simple and pure.
DJ: What are some moments that really stand out in your memories?
BW: There are so many memories, like Max Yasgur’s cows that wandered around freely among the people. That farm was their home and they weren’t going to be run off. I got some pictures of the cows hanging out with the people and walking around the cars and tents. There’s one great shot I got of some kids with canteens trying to milk one of the cows. It was so funny watching them try for 30 minutes but that cow wasn’t giving up a drop.
DJ: Some other shots of yours that stand out are the cars along the highway, miles of cars as far as the eye can see, abandoned and empty. It’s like everyone turned off the engines and walked away.
BW: Oh man that was really something to see. In a way it was like watching refugees on the move only everyone was happy. My cousin who drove to Woodstock left her car along the Interstate and even after the show she never picked it up, she just took a bus back to New York City and that was that. The locals came out, sat in their front yards and watched everyone parading by peacefully, they had no idea what was happening and were awestruck. A lot of them even gave out sandwiches and water to the kids. One of my favorite shots is the woman flashing me the peace sign as I walked past. The locals seemed to be pretty much total squares but in a way were unafraid and even welcoming.
ML: The locals were taken with the kids; there was panic when everyone showed up at first but then they could feel it was benign and everyone ended up being really friendly.
BW: Getting back to the cars, there’s one shot I find especially touching of a guy and girl on the trunk of a car, he’s playing a guitar and she was so young and sweet, they both were. A few years later her parents contacted me because she had passed away; they had seen her picture in Rolling Stone and asked me for a copy, so I sent them a print of that captured moment.
A discussion with Baron Wolman and Jimi Hendrix’s iconic reworking of the Star Spangled Banner