Tales from the 1969 festival, ahead of its 50th anniversary

Some say if you remember the original Woodstock festival, you weren’t there. It’s a joke implying drug use at the 1969 music fest was so rampant everyone was high.

Joanna Reiver, 72, and Ginger Wall, 70, said they blazed up, yet still remember a lot from that epic August festival 50 years ago. This includes a moment when friendly strangers shared weed with them.

“I certainly didn’t want to be rude by just passing the joint along,” said Wall, formerly of Dover, who now lives in Wilmington. “You couldn’t just look at the joint and pass it on, because you would’ve been shunned.”

Woodstock drew half a million people to a farm in Bethel, New York, despite organizers only expecting about 50,000 people to show up.

Milford man’s ‘five seconds of fame’ 

Jim Abel, 70, of Milford, arrived at the three-day festival with three friends. At the time, Abel was a volunteer for a Boy Scout troop in New Jersey, with access to camping supplies to bring to the fest like the two five-gallon jerrycans he used to drink water from.

Due to a water shortage at Woodstock, Abel found himself playing the role of hero.

“At some point, the stage people ran out of bottled water and they said, ‘Anybody got water?’ So we went up there. I said, ‘Well, I’ve got water here,’” the Milford man explained.

“They used it for about an hour. Then all of a sudden they said, ‘Boy Scouts, we need your help again.’ So I ran up again and we gave them a second jerrycan,” Abel said.

“If you watch the Woodstock DVD, there’s a part where they say, ‘Where’s the Boy Scouts?’ The stage was about seven feet high, and I was down below. So at the time it felt like five seconds of fame.”

Dude, where’s our car? 

Friends Wall and Reiver went to Woodstock after Wall raved about the Atlantic City Pop Festival in New Jersey, held two weeks before with some of the same acts. Those artists included Santana, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Canned Heat and Jefferson Airplane.

Reiver said she didn’t expect Woodstock was going to be historic when she left home. But when they were a few miles away from the festival, she realized it was going to be special.

“There was so much to see, it was like a parade. Some people were hopping on the back of cars to catch a ride. There were so many people, it was just astounding,” she said.

The roads were so clogged that Wall and Reiver couldn’t get any closer when they were about three miles away. So they parked on the side of the road and hoofed it.

Sunday night when they left the festival, their ride was gone.

“The car had been pushed off the side of the road and the window was broken,” Reiver said. “You could see it had been done intentionally to get the cars off the road. It wasn’t vandalism.”

She doesn’t know why the car was moved in the first place.

“I think it was done by the cops or fire department, because I don’t know if it was an emergency or if they were required to do it, or if they were annoyed that there were so many of us parked illegally,” Reiver said with a laugh.

‘We were like siblings’

Inside the festival, Wall said she was astonished with how peaceful the people were. If you were sitting on a blanket in front of the stage and left it there, you could come back and your spot would still be there, she said.

Since organizers didn’t anticipate so many people, food became sparse really quickly.

Making matters worse, it rained. But that didn’t prevent folks from spreading sunny vibes.

“Everybody was looking after each other. We came of age all at once, so we were like siblings,” said Wall, who snapped photos of festival-goers hanging out. “It was sort of like a refugee camp. We knew we had to take care of each other.”

Milford resident Abel agreed. He grew up in Brooklyn and anticipated some fighting, he said.

“When you have over 100,000 people together, sometimes bad things happen,” Abel said. “Despite all the hassles, normally when you can’t get water, you’re irritable and agitated. But the people at Woodstock were just mellow.”

Wilmington resident John Zatwarnytsky said many people were in a sharing mood when it came to food. But that’s not to say that everyone was on the same page.

“People who lived up there were hocking $15 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” he said.

Diverse lineup and crowd 

Abel said the diverse lineup made a strong impression.

“Woodstock was one of the first concerts to have multiracial performers,” he said. “Look at Santana, who’s [Mexican]. Sly and the Family Stone had a black singer. I knew their music, but I’d never seen them. And he was a real big guy. Janis Joplin was white. There was no separation by color there. That was nice.”

Wall said she loved Sly and the Family Stone’s performance, too, and it was cool seeing how diverse that band was. She appreciated how the festival attracted a multicultural crowd, with folks coming from cities places like Patterson, New Jersey and metropolitan New York.

Reiver, who lives in Greenville, said some of the acts that stood out to her include Santana and Joe Cocker.

She enjoyed Cocker’s music, but it was tough trying to understand his vocals when he sang a cover of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends,” since he sang it blue-eyed soul style and he wasn’t articulating, she said.

Her buddy Wall said Santana and Cocker were good, and so was Janis Joplin and The Who.

“I remember The Who, which you could even see from half a mile away. They had on white leather jumpsuits with long fringes,” Wall said. “Almost all the bands at Woodstock were really at their best then.”

25th anniversary a letdown

Reiver and Wall returned to upstate New York for the 25th anniversary of Woodstock in 1994. But it wasn’t the same.

“It was pretty crappy,” Wall said. “I thought they were trying too hard. They were trying to recreate Woodstock and they did the opposite.”

For instance, the original Woodstock only had one stage, which made it convenient for guests to see all the acts.

But Woodstock ‘94 had competing stages. The second festival also felt more commercialized and policed, and the feeling of camaraderie among festival-goers was lacking, Wall said.

“It was like going to the Olympics or a big sporting event,” she said. “It was well organized and there was an awful lot of security, and a huge rope around the stage so people couldn’t get on it. But at the first Woodstock, there were people climbing on the stage.”

Reiver said one good thing at the second Woodstock was they made some new friends.

“Remember those young guys we kept running into?” Reiver said to Wall. “After we left, we stopped at a rest stop a couple hours away and they were in front of us in line. One guy turns around and says, ‘Mom.’”

“They were younger than us,” Wall said with a laugh, “and we were passing joints with them and they thought we were on some middle-age spree or something.”

Inspiring Firefly

Wilmington’s own Zatwarnytsky said Woodstock has influenced other popular festivals like Coachella and Firefly.

“They’re all based on the same thing: you get a bunch of people and bands and try to have a great time with it,” he said. “Obviously the music has changed drastically. But I think everyone secretly wants to emulate Woodstock because it started something.”

Members of the Dover-based rap trio Cypher Clique agree.

In 2015, Cypher Clique became the first rap act from the state to play Firefly. The group is Jamal “Relay” James and Daryl “D-Major” James, along with friend Mike “Mic Anthony” Thomas.

“All American festivals are the offspring of Woodstock,” Mic said. “You have to think, just when it comes to partying alone, the camaraderie from the camping and everything is an idea from Woodstock.”

Relay, who now lives in Townsend, said it was an honor to play Firefly, which attracted 90,000 people that weekend.

“We’d been working for years to finally get our talents recognized and on a major level with a concert with over 90,000 people,” he said.

Woodstock 50 canceled 

Woodstock 50 was planned to be one of the top festivals on the East Coast this summer, with an eclectic lineup featuring Jay-Z, Santana, The Killers, Miley Cyrus, Dead & Company, Imagine Dragons, Halsey and many more.

But July 31, it was announced the festival was canceled after organizers attempted to relocate it to Maryland to be held Aug. 16-18, close to the original festival dates.

In recent months, anniversary organizers attempted to have it in Watkins Glen or Vernon, New York. Organizers never received permits in either location, according to RollingStone.com.

With less than a month, they attempted to move Woodstock to the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland – despite the fact that the Smashing Pumpkins were booked that for that weekend.

But it turned out that the it was too late in the game to make the festival happen there, so the plug was pulled, reported RollingStone.com.

“It’s sad,” said Abel, of Milford. “But it’s sort of like Punkin Chunkin. It’s hard to put events together because there’s so many regulations.”

“That’s crazy,” D-Major said about the drama surrounding Woodstock 50.

Fellow rapper Mic Anthony said the festival shouldn’t go out like this.

“A lot of events don’t even get a chance to have a 50th anniversary. So the fact that is Woodstock’s 50th anniversary is real disappointing,” he said.

Mic is keeping hope alive that the organizers will be able to pull something off in the future.

“Hopefully they could make it up by having Woodstock next year for the 51st anniversary,” he said. “It’d be better late than never.”