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Peace, music and memories: As the 1960s fade, historians scramble to capture Woodstock’s voices

Peace, music and memories: As the 1960s fade, historians scramble to capture Woodstock’s voices

BETHEL, N.Y. — Woodstock didn’t even happen in Woodstock.

The fabled music festival, seen as one of the seminal cultural events of the 1960s, took place 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) away in Bethel, New York, an even smaller village than Woodstock. It’s a fitting misnomer for an event that has become as much legend as reality — and has less to do with location than the memories it evokes about a society’s state of mind at the close of a jumbled decade.

An estimated 450,000 people converged on a swath of land owned by dairy farmer Max Yasgur to attend an “Aquarian Exposition” promising “three days of peace, love and music” from Aug. 15 to 17, 1969. Most were teenagers or young adults — people now approaching the twilight of their lives in an era where only a small portion of the population has living memories of the 1960s.

That ticking clock is why the Museum at Bethel Woods, located on the site of the festival, is immersed in a five-year project to sift facts from the legends and collect firsthand Woodstock memories before they fade away. It’s a quest that has taken museum curators on a cross-country pilgrimage to record and preserve the recollections of those who were there.

“You need to capture the history from the mouths of the people who had the direct experience,” says music journalist Rona Elliot, 77, who has been working as one of the museum’s “community connectors.” Elliot has her own stories about the festival; she was there, working with organizers like Michael Lang, who entrusted her with his archives before his death in 2022.

Woodstock, says Elliot, is “like a jigsaw puzzle — a panoply of everything that happened in the ’60s.”

Woodstock attendees have done hundreds of interviews through the decades, particularly on major festival anniversaries. But the Bethel Woods museum is plunging deeper with a project that began in 2020, relying on techniques similar to those of the late historian Studs Terkel, who produced hundreds of oral histories about what it was like to live through the Great Depression and World War II.

“There is a difference between someone being interviewed for a paper or a documentary and having an oral history catalogued and preserved in a museum,” says Neal Hitch, senior curator and director of the Museum At Bethel Woods. “We had to go to people where they are. If you just call someone on the phone, they aren’t quite sure what to say when we ask you to tell us about these personal, private memories from a festival when they may have been 18 or 19.”

To find and meet people willing to tell their Woodstock tales, the museum received grants totaling more than $235,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services — enough money to pay for curators and community connectors such as Elliot to travel the country and record the stories.

The odyssey began in Santa Fe, New Mexico — home to the Hog Farm that provided hippie volunteers such as Hugh “Wavy Gravy” Romney and Lisa Law to help feed the Woodstock crowd. Museum curators have traveled to Florida, hopped on a “Flower Power” cruise ship and visited Columbus, Ohio, before making a California swing earlier this year that included a San Francisco community center located near the former homes of festival performers Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

Richard Schoellhorn, now 77, made the trip from his Sebastopol, California, home to San Francisco to discuss his experience at Woodstock. He was initially hired to be a security guard at the ticketing booth when the festival was supposed to occur in Wallkill, New York, before a community backlash prompted a late switch to the Bethel site.

Schoellhorn still reported for work in Bethel, only to promptly discover his services weren’t going to be needed because the festival became so overwhelmed that organizers stopped selling tickets.

“I was walking around at Woodstock and Hugh Romney comes up to me and says, ‘Are you working?’” Schoellhorn recalled to The Associated Press before sitting down to have his oral history recorded. ”And I go, ‘No, I just got fired!’ He goes, ’Well, would you like to volunteer?’”

Schoellhorn wound up working in a tent set up to assist people having bad experiences on hallucinogenic drugs they had taken. He wound up getting stoned himself while reveling in the first concert he’d ever attended.

“It felt like everyone was in the same freaking boat,” Schoellhorn said. “There wasn’t like one section where people were rich. Nobody was special there, right from the get-go.”

Before attending Woodstock, Schoellhorn said he was a loner intent on pursuing a career in marketing. After Woodstock, he became so extroverted that he wound up living in a Colorado commune for several years before spending 35 years as a dialysis technician.

Another Woodstock attendee, Akinyele Sadiq, also came to see the curators in San Francisco to excavate his memories of watching the festival from 25 feet (7.6 meters) away from the stage.

Although the festival wasn’t supposed to begin until a Friday, Sadiq departed on a Bethel-bound bus on a Wednesday. When the bus broke down, he hitched a ride that delivered him to the festival site by noon Thursday, allowing him to claim a spot so near the stage that he is visible in photos taken during the performances.

By the time he left Bethel a few days later, in a hearse that a fellow festival-goer had converted into a van, Sadiq had changed.

“Before Woodstock, I didn’t have real direction. I basically didn’t have a lot of friends, but I knew I was looking for peace and justice and wanted to be with creative people who were looking to make the world a better place,” Sadiq, now 72, told the AP before having his oral history recorded. “Before Woodstock, if you were living in a little town, you thought there might be a dozen people out there you might be able to get along with. But then you realized there was at least a half a million of us. It just gave me hope.”

Hitch says curators have heard many life-changing experiences while collecting more than 500 oral histories so far and are convinced they will amass even more during the next year. Community connectors hit Florida last month and are heading to Boston in March and New York City in early April. That will be followed by return trips to New Mexico and Southern California.

The museum intends to focus on finding and interviewing festival attendees scattered across New York state, where Hitch estimates roughly half the Woodstock crowd still lives.

The museum will spend 2025 combing through the oral histories before turning to special projects such as reuniting friends who attended the festival together but now live in different parts of the country.

Elliot is convinced — “both karmically and cosmically” — that the oral history project is something she was meant to do.

“I want this to be a teaching tool,” she says. “I don’t want historians telling the story of a spiritual event that just appeared to be a musical event.”

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