Woodstock Memories: Back to the Garden

Bob McHugh, who has a 35-year career as a news reporter and press secretary, recounts his experiences with Woodstock in 1969.

“Throw the peace sign up, it’ll do you no harm.” – Sly Stone, White Lake, NY, about 4 a.m., Sunday, Aug. 17, 1969.

By the time we got to Woodstock, it hadn’t happened yet. 

We were 17-year-olds, early Thursday morning, Aug. 14, 1969, aboard two station wagons and a pop-up camper borrowed from our parents. We had no idea we were about to join in the greatest cultural gathering of our generation. 

Touted as “3 Days of Peace & Music” and “An Aquarian Exposition the legendary rock festival almost never took place. Originally planned for WoodstockN.Y., it was banned by town officials at nearly the last minute. Organizers scrambled to find another site, and finally leased land near Bethel, N.Y., about 60 miles from the actual Woodstock, from now legendary dairy farmer Max Yasgur. 

My friends and I found out about it via cardboard posters in our local record shops and ads on “underground” radio stations like WNEW-FM in New York. We bought tickets for the three days for $18. Prep school kids, we had never smoked pot, let alone tried anything more exotic, but the list of promised performers including The Who, The Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Still and Nash and Jimi Hendrix made our attendance mandatory. 

So, we set out from Short Hills on the 2½-hour trip. Miraculously, we decided to go a day early, Thursday, Aug. 15, and cruised in easily before the infamous Woodstock traffic and found a campsite a short walk from the stage. We even had time for ride back into nearby Bethel, hoping to repair a leaky radiator. 

By Thursday evening, 24 hours before the official entertainment started, the magic was already beginning. We walked the dirt roads by our trailer taking in the sights and sounds preserved by the famous movie – pot everywhere, music jams and hordes of “Beautiful People,” as singer “Melanie” Safka of Long Branch N.J. called us the next night.  

For the record, I never saw a naked body … any time! 

We had food, for a while. We cooked on our camper stove until supplies ran out. On Saturday, I walked up the hill to the food stands and got a tiny container of ice-cold milk, the most refreshing beverage I’ve had to this dayLater, we’d dine on Chef Boyardee ravioli out of the can. 

But the music made us quickly forget about creature comforts. Gravel-throated Ritchie Havens started the show just after 5 p.m. on Friday. When promoters asked him to keep playing until other acts showed up, he improvised his signature, “Freedom. An obligatory squeaky voiced swami in saffron then gave an “invocation.” 

Friday was folk night – Havens, Tim Hardin and Beatle sitar guru Ravi Shanker. Stoned Arlo Guthrie famously told us, “The New York State Thruway is closed, man.” And counter-culture heroine Joan Baez ended at 2 a.m. with “We Shall Overcome.” 

The show resumed just over 10 hours later. For over 12 hours, we sat on a bed of soggy blankets and ate our canned cuisine. We saw a stellar and unexpected performance by the mostly unknown Santana, followed by off nights for Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Around 3:30 a.m., the crowd jumped to their feet when Sly of Sly and the Family Stone exhorted them to “Throw the peace sign up. It’ll do you no harm” and shout, “Higher.” Everybody did.  

The Who followed with their rock opera, “Tommy,” at the peak of its popularity, and guitarist Pete Townsend broke a few of Abby Hoffman’s ribs with a guitar butt when the Yippie activist grabbed a microphone for a political rant. The Jefferson Airplane ended the day with singer Grace Slick memorably shouting, “Good morning, people,” as the sun rose. 

After few hours sleep, dirty, tired and hungry, we decided to go home. Yes, we missed Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joe Cocker and Hendrix’s “National Anthem.” But for three days and nights, we were “back to the garden,” as Joni Mitchell put it. (My son has instructions to scatter my ashes [not for a while] on Yasgur’s Farm.) 

In August 1969, Bob McHugh was about to begin his senior year at Delbarton School in Morristown N.J. He went on to have a 35-year career as a news reporter and press secretary. 

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