The Woodstock Chronicles

'They've all come to look for America'

It was on Friday night. And Bert Sommer was playing and he was doing ‘America.’ As he was singing 'America,' a plane buzzed the field  and you could just hear it coming from a distance. *Sound effect of plane.*

And it took off into the night, and as it took off, his voice came out, the plane buzzed off. "They've all come to look for America." *Getting choked up.* I sat up, cause I was you know, doing some things at the time, but it had such an impact on me, I got up and looked around and I go, 'Sh, he just nailed it.'

We've all come to look for America. And we're finding a new one. I still get choked up it. It was just a pivotal moment and I had that on tape to go to tape recorder with me and recorded a lot of Friday. For Ravi Shankar starting at Sweetwater. Burt Sommer's 'America,' with the plane buzzing the field and his voice coming out, 'They've all come to look for America.' As the plane soared off into the night.

I gave the tape to a buddy of mine 10 years later, who promptly lost it. I told him, George, 'You can- don't lose this. It's the only one. I don't have a copy. It's not great. But this is what it was like really being there,'  and you could hear the noise and the confusion of people in the background, news teams off in the back talking about, 'Now this is from White Lake where the lines are endless.'

That tape's out there somewhere. Take care, bye bye. [This is a voicemail from Kurt Beck, whose other story “the familiar hitchhiker” is below.]

  • "They've all come to look for America"

The happy hippie couple

Hi, my name is Pat Keegan, my husband is Jim Keegan, and we live in Northvale, New Jersey.

My story about Woodstock is, in August 1969, my husband and I were dating for more than a year. Of course, we weren't married then. I really wanted to go, or at least attempt to go, to Woodstock. We lived in Bergen County, New Jersey, close to the border of New York and New Jersey. The New York State Thruway was only 15 minutes away. My husband had a muscle car at the time—the hippie scene was not his.

Me? I loved happenings. And this was going to be the grandfather of all happenings.

Well, we did not go and I missed the biggest cultural event of the 20th century. I got over it. We married in 1971. My husband traded his muscle car for a 1968 Volkswagen Westfalia camper. He let his hair grow a little—it was always short and slicked back. I wore peasant dresses and we were now a happy hippie couple. We finally got to the site around 1980 with our two young sons and our now 1971 Volkswagen Westfalia camper. The monument wasn't there yet. Over the years we took rides up to Bethel often. Now empty nesters, we are still that happy hippie couple, taking rides up to Bethel in our now 2002 Volkswagen Westfalia Eurovan. We have been married for 48 years. So I guess everything worked out. We didn't make it to the big one. But we've had so many wonderful and most memorable visits since.

  • The happy hippie couple

The imaginary game of tennis

My name is seen Siim Hanja. I've been coming up to Sullivan County for the last 40 years.

But even before then, I was up there in 1969, because I was going to school in Philadelphia. I was at a summer session there... and a friend of mine and I started hearing about this music festival that was going on up there. We didn't have tickets, but you know, the buzz had gotten so strong that we decided to go. Because he lived in Bucks County, he kind of knew the back roads to the festival, instead of going to New York and coming up 17. So we went over the back road through Pennsylvania—you know, we went by his place in Bucks County. And then we crossed the bridge at Narrowsburg—what a beautiful sight that was. And we were to return to it later. But we kept driving. And we drove all the way- we got within, I don't know, half a mile or so of the of the concert—right off of 17B, where that little two-story cedar-shingled shack is at 17B and whatever that road is that heads down towards Narrowsburg. That house has been there all that time. And my family takes pictures whenever we go by there.

So my friend Tom and I parked the car near there and walked to the festival. It was totally overwhelmed with people walking down the road. Forget about tickets. And we arrived there on a dark night. I guess it was Friday, maybe Saturday, it had to be Friday, I think we got there. And what a scene. I mean, you'll get better descriptions than mine of what that was like, but one of the most unique scenes that was there was this: It's all rainy. It's all mud. We're all up on that top of that bowl that looks down to where the stage was [laughter]. What was there were two guys in the rain and in the mud, playing imaginary tennis with each other. There was no net other than the one they imagined. And the whole crowd that stood back from them and gave them the room of roughly what looked to me like the size of a tennis court. And... they're playing back and forth, obviously stoned out of their minds or something, and they would go running for the ball, dive into the mud, people would cheer, there would be the shots going back and forth; the crowds’ heads sort of swinging back and forth watching the ball—the one that wasn't the ball, just imaginary. That was a standout moment. I'd love to hear if anybody else had witnessed that as well.

Stage was great. I worked my way down there, was able to be down there just a few feet away from the front of the stage when Janis Joplin was singing. And some of the women just went crazy when they saw Janis performing there; throwing off their tops, they're trying to climb up on the stage. Whenever somebody did get high enough—stage wasn't much more than about five, six feet high—a security guy would run out, pull them up on the stage and run them off the stage.

What else what else? All that rain, all that mud the next day, and just the whole hillside covered with people. And just a wonderful, just massive- just this spontaneous thing. All that great music. You know, Jefferson Airplane, Richie Havens singing—all of that. But with everybody there and this just working out so, so darn well, all together.

Next day, we decided—did we sleep in the car? I don't remember. But the next day because we were all just all covered with mud and everything, we drive down to Narrowsburg right by the bridge and there was a rope underneath the bridge. There were, not that many, but there was enough people there enjoying that wonderful spot on the river where they could swing out on the rope and then go flying out into the nice cool, deep, clean water. Sun ourselves on the rocks, be in that wonderful little town, where you guys are [referring to The River Reporter].

Hanja added, after the recording ended, that he and his wife later found an old bungalow colony in the area in 1979, which he and his friends [including TRR’s columnist Cass Collins] in Tribeca and Soho bought into as a co-op and still enjoy to this day.

  • The imaginary game of tennis

The cure for the flu

Hi, this is Jonathan Rose. I'm an old Narrowsburg resident... And I'm a veteran of Woodstock '69.

My initial memory is, I'm just back from my first trip out to California, which was kind of the declining years of all what was happening there. I took the bus up to Max's farm from Port Authority Bus Terminal the first day of the festival, and I had strep throat, and 103 temperature, and I was on all kinds of medications, and I said, if the worst happens, they'll bury me in the alfalfa fields. But I got up there, got off the bus, and I will swear to you, then as now, within an hour or so, I was cured.

If there's anything to the power of the vibrational healing energy of upwards of half a billion people, I experienced it.

I came away... seeing it all and wondering what was happening, and so encrusted in mud—as were most of the others there—that you couldn't tell whether I was wearing any clothes or not. In fact, my mother, when I got home, made me take everything off in front of our apartment so she could throw it in the laundry and me in the shower. So, others will have musical experiences and events and so forth—these are the openings and closings of my memory of Woodstock. A splendid time was had by all and memory and the vibrations endure and feed and guide us from that day to this.

  • The cure for the flu

The music is what mattered

I was at Woodstock '69. I was very young, I was 17. And you just wanted us to give you feedback on what remember. I mean, I remember the rain. I remember people—very, very friendly, and the traffic, the backed up traffic.

We went as conservatives. I went with a math major. We didn't do drugs, but we all went for the music, and the music is what brought us all together.

  • The music is what mattered

The back road in

Hi, my name is Hank Schneider, and I was at the Woodstock Festival.

The events were that Susan, a friend of mine, called me up and said, 'Hey, why don't you come with us?’—which was her brother and two of his friends—'up to the Woodstock Festival.' So we went, we got stuck in traffic 17B, somebody in front of us said, 'Hey, follow us. We have a back way in,' and we followed them. We ended up in a parking lot off of 17B and walked in on Herd Road. The first thing that I recall was seeing this mass of people. It was just an incredible sight. Then, of course, the music was fantastic. The performers that struck me were Richie Havens and of course, Jimi Hendrix closed it.

We spent the night, Sunday night, there and left Monday morning—came down Route 97. It was my first glimpse at the beautiful Delaware River. That was my recollection of the Woodstock Festival in 1969. It was an experience I will never forget.

  • The back road in

The familiar hitchhiker

Here's a memory from Woodstock. Talk about a coincidence or synchronicity.

Saturday morning, walking around with a buddy of mine. We got up, we ran into a couple of other people, they were packing it in. It had rained during the night, and they'd been there since Thursday. So they said they were going to take off. They gave me a bottle of wine and a can of tuna fish, said, 'Look, you guys are staying. And you could probably use this, cause we're leaving now, we've had enough.' 

So... it was much appreciated at the time and even more appreciated two years later, driving in Connecticut down Route 84 heading towards Hartford, and seeing a hitchhiker on the side of the road. So you probably already know where this is going. We pull over. We used to give people rides back then. Asked him where he's headed, he's going to Hartford. I said, 'Oh, I'm only going as far as Newtown, but hop in, I can take you that far.' So we start talking and you know, the subject of Woodstock came up and I kept glancing over—he just seemed familiar somehow. Before I got to where I was getting off to, I said, 'Yeah, so you were there and you left on Saturday you said, huh?' He goes,' Yeah,  I didn't say so, but I left Saturday. How do you know? Why do you say?' I said, 'Because when you left, did you give somebody some food and something to drink, like a can of tuna and some wine?' He goes, 'Yeah, I did, how did you know?' I said, 'Cause you gave that can of tuna and wine to me.'

Out of all the people—half a million people that were there—and I run into the same guy who gave us that food and wine two years earlier. That's something that was just meant to be. Like Woodstock was meant to be. I ended up taking him all the way to Hartford. 

My name if you need it was Kurt Beck, if you need it, and I was there with my buddy George Englert. Hey, have a good one. Bye. 

  • The familiar hitchhiker