Woodstock 1969: Memories, Mud, and Martha

Ad from Sunday New York Times, 10 August 1969

Ad from Sunday New York Times, 10 August 1969


It was a long time ago.

In the U.S. summer of 1969, less than four weeks after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, my friend Martha and I were in the back seat of a steamed-up Volkswagen Beetle, in the middle of the Woodstock music festival.

We weren’t old enough to drive, but Martha’s friends in the front seat, Mike and Peter, were. They all lived in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where my mother, brother, and I visited once or twice a year.

Old Friends

Martha’s mother and mine were childhood friends, and over the years, Martha and I developed our own strong friendship. We began our lifelong communication by writing letters to each other in elementary school.

Martha loved my late brother Rob, and I felt the same about her older sister Ann and younger siblings Richard and Alice. As often happens with two close families, the children grew up together.

Rob, Alice, me, Martha, Richard, ~ mid-1960's

Rob, Alice, me, Martha, Richard, ~ mid-1960's

Martha’s family rented a professor’s house surrounded by the buildings of Williams College. She introduced me to the Williamstown Summer Theatre, Clark Art Institute, and life on a small New England campus. Her friends were lively and artistic, and one of them told her about a
3-day festival in White Lake, New York.

The Woodstock Music & Art Fair

Ad from Sunday New York Times, 10 August 1969

Ad from Sunday New York Times, 10 August 1969

Martha called me, and after poring over festival ads and getting our mothers’ permission, we ordered tickets. Martha liked Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, and I hoped to see Jefferson Airplane and Santana. We both loved the idea of the crafts bazaar. I pictured us walking in sunny fields, buying dangly earrings and macramé belts while our favourite bands played in the background.

We sent in our money and a few days later I received ticket 00723, bright orange with black print, Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Sunday August 17, 1969, 10:00 a.m. It cost U.S. $7.

My Woodstock ticket

My Woodstock ticket

I’m amazed our mothers let us go to Woodstock, but then again, the ads gave no indication of what was to come. My mother knew Mike and Peter from Williamstown, trusted all of us, and didn’t think we’d be in any danger. All that proved to be true.

Although our tickets were for Sunday, we left Williamstown at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, August 15, hoping an early arrival would allow us to purchase tickets for Friday night and Saturday at the gate. Mike’s father let him drive the family’s black VW Beetle, so all we took were a few toiletries and one change of clothes.

The drive was hot and humid, not helped by a steady drizzle on the New York Thruway. Mike and Peter weren’t happy, and worried about increasingly heavy traffic and the prospect of having to park in a muddy field far away from the music.

We were still hopeful, though, as we approached Max Yasgur’s farm.

An Aquarian Exposition

The Woodstock festival was held outside Bethel, New York, 43 miles from the town of Woodstock itself. It was pouring rain when we exited the Thruway at Harriman, New York, and Route 17 west was becoming gridlocked.

Martha and I rolled our eyes at each other in the back seat, while Mike and Peter grumbled up front. It got dark as we inched along for hours, with thousands of other cars heading to the same place.

Sometime around 9 p.m., we parked in a field, surrounded by cars, people, tents, and mud. There were no sounds of music or indications of a performance stage in any direction. Peter and Mike went off searching for loudspeakers, if nothing else. Martha and I stayed near the car.

Looking at the sea of people around us, I felt uneasy and out of place. Everyone seemed happy and animated in the darkness and drizzle. There were spotlights in some places, and although I had never seen marijuana, let alone anything stronger, I had a feeling most of the crowd was high on something more than just being there.

Cars in the mud (Internet photo), Woodstock 1969

Cars in the mud (Internet photo), Woodstock 1969

Mike and Peter returned to the car and said, “It’s hopeless.” We were miles from the stage and it would be impossible to get much closer. There were no toilets or food kiosks anywhere. We decided to stay the night, and reconsider our options in the morning.

Wikipedia has a detailed list of who played at Woodstock, and in what order. Ravi Shankar sang through the rain that night, but we only heard about it from others in the crowd. Occasionally we joined in chants of, “No more rain! No more rain! No more rain!” At some point the New York Thruway was closed, and thousands behind us never made it as far as our muddy field.

My most lasting memory of Woodstock is being in that crowd overnight, in the mud, waiting for daylight. I’ve never liked crowds and the size and weird energy of that one made me nervous. I kept my thoughts to myself and did my best to relax with my friends.

My worries were unfounded. Despite drugs, mud, litter, and lack of Porta-loos, Woodstock was by and large a peaceful event. At the end of the weekend, Max Yasgur, the farmer on whose land the festival was held, famously said, “The most important thing that you’ve proven to the world … is that a half million young people can get together to have fun and music … and have nothing but fun and music, and God bless you for it!”

Our little group of four decided not to spend another day or night in the mud. With a mix of disappointment and relief, we drove to my mother’s house in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, where we took hot showers and had dinner at her dining room table.

Remembering the Event

Woodstock NY 1969-2009 Guide

Woodstock NY 1969-2009 Guide

Today a plaque marks the location of the Woodstock stage.

The 1970 film ‘Woodstock’ won an Academy Award for documentary feature, and a Director’s cut was released in 1994.

When we were in New Jersey in May, Clive picked up a guide to Woodstock, New York, at our hotel. A number of events are planned to mark the festival’s 40-year anniversary, including concerts by some of the 1969 performers at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

Even here, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, the Dee Why RSL (Returned and Services League) Club is having a 40th anniversary show on Saturday, August 15. We’re seriously considering going. Clive says I’ll then have tickets 40 years apart.

“I Was at Woodstock”

In the years following Woodstock, especially in the 1970’s when I was at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I noticed varying reactions when I said, “I was at Woodstock …”

My Hippie-oriented friends approved, while the more traditional ones were surprised someone relatively conservative had attended such a radical event.

I particularly felt the need to qualify my experience, always adding,
“… but we didn’t get near the stage.” It felt less than authentic, almost fake, to have been there but not seen any performances.

Now that nearly 40 years have passed, I can look back and believe it was, after all, pretty cool to have been at Woodstock. My experience was what it was, as valid as that of the tens of thousands around us, who were also miles from the stage. The magnitude of the event was overwhelming to me then, and remains so now, when I think of it. We were there — part of the crowd, part of the atmosphere, and part of history.

My Woodstock ticket might be worth something on eBay, but I’m going to hold on to it, as I have all these years, as a memento of that remarkable weekend.

The Gift of Friendship

Like our mothers before us, who are both still alive, Martha and I became friends forever. Letters turned to e-mails as technology advanced, and in our single working years, when she lived in New York City and I lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, we often got together at each other’s apartments.

Distance separated us once more after we both got married, but we remained close. She and her husband moved to Atlanta, Georgia and my family and I moved to Sydney, Australia.

My beautiful, brave friend died of lung cancer in June, 2007. How I wish I could see her again, and reminisce about our adventures at Woodstock. A quick Internet search for Mike and Peter came up with nothing, though I could probably find them if I spent some time at it. I’ve decided I’m happy to leave it as is, and cherish my own memories of Woodstock with Martha.

Woodstock was many things to many people. It rightfully claims its place as a defining moment in the history of our time. In the next few weeks, I’ll read anniversary articles and retrospective reports. Mostly I’ll think of friendship, and a girl with a love for life, who rang me on a summer day in 1969 and said, “There’s this cool festival coming up. Let’s get tickets.”

Martha, a few months before her death in 2007

Martha, a few months before her death in 2007

  Wikipedia Woodstock Festival
ethel Woods Center for the Arts
Woodstock NY Guide

13 Responses

  1. What a wonderful memory, and what joy your friend brings when you think of her. How sad for you that she is no longer with us, but as you said you have your own memories of Woodstock and Martha..

    I loved this story, I couldn’t wait to read the end..how exciting that you got to go to a concert, and stay overnight…I am still waiting..I want to experience the whole music scene, and the mud and camping…

    You were part of history, that is amazing!!

  2. Hi Carolyn,
    Oh my God, I’m really trembling with some emotion at the end.
    That those were beautiful memories for everything as it happened. Even if you were not up front & hearing the music, you were THERE and a part of it ! I myself would nevr sell that tickets either..

    You are blessed to have known Martha and her family, and I’m sorry to hear of her passing.

    Bless the young years and how they rejuvinate us also, many years down the line.

    Hugs X

  3. Hi Carol,

    Great story! I feel I must have heard some of it before, but I was glad to read it all the way through. I often heard you talk about Martha, and I am so sorry to hear that she died.

    I was visiting my grandmother who lived outside of Allentown, PA during those days of Woodstock. I mentioned that I thought it would be great to be there, and, of course, she was suitably horrified! I wonder if I would really gone if I had the chance. You did though.

  4. How cool is that to be part of history? Great story.

  5. Hi Carol,

    I forgot to say in my first response how much I like the graphics that you provided as part of your post.

    One of Rebecca’s friends suggested that she had not taken the pictures on her blog, but had downloaded them from the internet. Rebecca said that of course she took all the pictures as she would have cited any photograph or other graphic that was not her work, which she did in the first couple of posts. What is your thinking on this? I noticed that you said one of the graphics you used was from the New York Times.

  6. Eleanor, unless otherwise noted, all graphics and photos on this blog are done by me or Clive (or I own them, as in the case of childhood photos). I stated this in my opening post, and may add it to my homepage as well.

    The yellowed NY Times ad from 1969 is in my possession, as is my Woodstock ticket. I sometimes scan other items I own to create an image for the blog.

    I rarely use Internet photos, but when I do I note it, as in the cars in the mud photo above.

    I feel strongly about copyright and use of personal material, and that all bloggers and writers should always, always give credit when using anything that’s not their own.

    All credit to Clive for his original graphics. I’m glad you like them!

    Cheers and thanks.

  7. I so enjoyed reading your story and it brought back lots of memories from those days for me…though I was nowhere near Woodstock! But I remember those times, that was the summer I turned 19. The music, the fashions, etc, etc. Thank you for sharing this with us. I’m impressed that you had the foresight to hang on to the memorabilia too!

  8. That is a supercool story about Woodstock, and having been there, and more importantly, a lovely way to connect with the remembrance of your friend Martha.

    I would have been with you — a little wary of the crowds and the potential mess.

    I wonder if you knew that day, as you sat steaming in the car, that it would be something you’d remember so vividly 40 years later.

    I’m very sorry you lost your friend Martha. She sounds like she was a real treasure.

    And all the accompanying illustrations — including your ticket! — fantastic!

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Carolyn, this was your most wonderful post yet. I was in tears by the end. What beautiful memories. And boy, you have not changed in the least! What a great experience to have been there and how great that you kept all the momentos. Loved this so. Thank you.

    I need to catch up on your blog!!!

  10. Thanks, everyone! Anne, I hope you get to an overnight music concert/adventure someday! Barb, so true about the ‘young years’ – wonderful expression, and they do bring us comfort. Linda, yes it was cool to be part of history 🙂

    Sara, thanks so much and those times really were full of memories, weren’t they!? Kim, definitely had no idea I’d remember it as I did. Lilly, it was a great experience (more in hindsight!) and I appreciate your kind comment.

    Cheers all..

  11. Carolyn,
    My wife and I are just back today, July 4 2010, from the Bethel site(our first visit since we shared the experience in 1969) and it was very emotional. Lots of google jumping followed and I ran across this which may be history but I wanted to post a hello just to say thanks for sharing your beautiful story of adventure and sorrow.

  12. Brian, hello and thanks so much for your comment.

    How great you and your wife shared that amazing Woodstock experience! I can understand how it would be very emotional to visit the Bethel site again. It’s fantastic you did that.

    I really appreciate your kind words – thanks again for taking the time to comment.

    Cheers and all the best – and happy memories 🙂

  13. sounds like you didn’t enjoy woodstock or you would have stayed on. short trip. but not suprising if you dont like crowds. but yeah, cool to say I WAS THERE even if you were only waiting for the sun to come up and go home.

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