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What Woodstock and 1969 Were Really Like

Yes, I attended. But I'm not who you think I am.

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Couple embracing at the Woodstock Festival, USA 1960s
United Archives GmbH/Alamy Sto/Alamy
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Woodstock was an event that defined me — not to myself, but to others. For the 50-plus years since that three-day musical romp in the mud with a crowd of some 500,000 people, they have assumed they know me from this one simple admission: I was at Woodstock.

They surmise things about my politics, my lifestyle, my beliefs and the choices I made both then and now. And why? Because when David, my long-haired boyfriend (aka my “old man” in the vernacular of the day), rolled up in his old blue VW that afternoon in August 1969 and told the 19-year-old me to “hop in” because we were “going to Woodstock,” all that Sensible Ann said was “Okay. But isn’t it supposed to rain?”

And rain it certainly did. Torrential rain with wind gusts that blew it sideways — no match for the umbrella I ran back inside the house to get — along with clean underwear, my toothbrush and a roll of toilet paper. This is because, as previously noted, I am nothing but sensible.

We made a quick stop to pick up David’s friend Marty, who rode squished in the back seat next to our provisions of a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. Then, off we went on what I’ve come to think of as my generation’s coming-of-age pilgrimage.

Living in a small suburban New Jersey town, I had no clue how many like-minded brethren we had — some who would travel from across the country to get to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, New York. And while the music may have been the initial lure, it was the city we created that comprises my lasting memories — memories that over the years have conflated with what I read, what films I watched and what photos I saw of the festival that I attended.

The event began for us with the journey to get there. We pulled off the New York Thruway when the traffic came to a standstill and we instead diverted to back roads to get as close as we could to the concert. We were forced to abandon the car about four miles out, and just fell in line with the steady parade of hippies in bell bottoms and tie-dyed shirts that matched my own, all headed to the concert by foot.

Carrying our tent and sleeping bags and what little food we had, the camaraderie was tangible. We flashed everyone the peace sign, waved hello to the locals standing on their porches, and frolicked in the rain. We danced and pranced, and played guitars while we trudged through the mud. We listened in on someone’s transistor radio and it became clear that we had become the top news story. And with the world’s eyes on us, we openly shared joints, booze and bread.

We set up our tent in an impromptu campground and went out to meet our neighbors. Well, David and Marty did that. I stayed behind hoping to find a portable toilet without an hours-long wait. I resorted to just squatting in the least-crowded place I could find, surrounded by a few hundred of my new closest friends.

I’d like to say we were prepared, but we weren’t. And I’d like to say I was a good sport about the lack of toilets, open drug use and Mr. Philadelphia Freedom — the dude who swung naked from the scaffolding above us dropping cakes of mud on our head — but I wasn’t. I’d also like to say that being packed like sardines in a crush of humanity without enough food and water — not to mention announcements from the stage admonishing "don’t take the red pills” — didn’t freak me out, but it did. It all did.

I remember David — who eventually retired his guitar and his rock star dreams to become an industrial real estate agent in New Jersey — cajoling me to “just mellow out,” a phrase that to this day triggers me much the way being told to “calm down” does to most women.

Through the years, as Woodstock has faded in the rearview mirror of my life, my memories of it became fonder. Hearing Janis Joplin sing “Piece of My Heart,” transported me to a place deep in my soul — albeit not far enough out of the mud. I did, however, appreciate it when she asked from the stage how we were all doing. Country Joe McDonald gave Woodstock its anthem with the Vietnam War song, searing it in my brain to be sung loudly and repeatedly on every long car trip I’ve ever made since including both times I drove across the country.

Yes, that was me belting out “One, two, three, what are you fighting for?” And watching the largely unknown gravel-voiced Joe Cocker on the stage left me mesmerized and more than a little concerned about whether his spastic gyrations were part of his act or a reason to summon help.

When an event like Woodstock takes on a larger-than-life persona, it’s almost easy to overlook the fact that only one-third of those who made it to the concert actually stayed all three days; and I was certainly not one of them. I succumbed to its physical discomforts. Perhaps, as much as I wanted this to be a window to my generation’s version of Utopia, I didn’t fully believe the mantra from the stage that “If we all share what we have with those around us, we’ll all have enough.”

But like it or not, my just being there has meant something to others. Just attending the festival spoke to my authenticity as a member of the counterculture. I was the real McCoy, someone who pledged her commitment to change what she didn’t like, who set a higher bar for inclusion and equality, who hoped to erase the status quo, end a war and make the world better.

The irony isn’t lost on me that spending 40 hours at an out-of-control rock concert has somehow made me a more interesting person to those I encounter 50 years later.

And yeah, the music was pretty damn fine too.

This special issue of The Ethel is devoted to music and how it shapes — and strengthens — our memories. For more on this topic from AARP, including videos, events and memory games, visit aarp.org/musicandmemory

Did any of you actually go to Woodstock? If not, would you have enjoyed being there? Let us know in the comments below.

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