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Peace & love: Remembering iconic festival Woodstock — 40 years later

"I'm a farmer. I don't know how to speak to 20 people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world … a half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music." — Max Yasgur, owner of the farm where the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was held, addressing the audience, Aug. 17, 1969

While it is impossible to determine the number of people who made the trek to Yasgur's farm in Bethel, N.Y., for the original Woodstock Music & Art Fair Aug. 14-17, 1969, there is no question that the event, marking its 40th anniversary Saturday, helped define a generation.

While it's easy to look back and romanticize the events at the festival — thanks mostly to Michael Wadleigh's 1970 film "Woodstock," three official soundtracks and a countless number of books — the crux of the matter lies in the fact that Woodstock happened during a turbulent time in the history of the United States.

Just a few weeks earlier, the Manson Family cult carried out a killing spree that ended with the brutal Tate-LaBianca murders.

Also in 1969, the United States, and the rest of the globe, watched a man walk on the moon.

The Vietnam War was in its 10th year, with U.S. involvement nearing its fifth year.

Draft protests were still going on.

Other riots, demonstrations and unrest around the world were seen regularly on the nightly news.

And the country was still reeling from the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

The younger, long-haired and free-spirited generation was separating itself from the clean-cut, nuclear-family conservatives, many which were parents of the long-haired, free spirits.

Michael Lang, producer of the two-day Miami Pop Festival in May 1969, partnered with musician/producer Artie Kornfeld and businessmen John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, to hold the three-day Woodstock Music & Art Fair.

Farmer Max Yasgur gave the OK for the festival to be held on his dairy farm after other New York sites, notably Saugerties and Wallkill, denied permits, as documented in the film and Lang's book, "The Road to Woodstock."

While originally organized to make money, by the end of the first day, it was clear, with the fences down, that Lang and his partners had created one large free-ride event.

The festival's music lineup included Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and headliner Jimi Hendrix,

Interestingly enough, two groups made their debut — Crosby Stills & Nash and Santana.

While CSN's David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash had joined forces in 1968 and released the album "Crosby Stills & Nash" in June of 1969, the Woodstock set was the trio's second gig. They were joined midway through their set by sometimes bandmate Neil Young.

Santana — comprised of guitarist Carlos Santana, keyboardist Gregg Rolie, drummer Michael Shrieve, bassist David Brown and percussionists Mike Carabello and Jose Chepito — were a local band from San Francisco, Lang said during a recent interview.

The band's debut album hadn't been released when it took the stage after Country Joe McDonald on Aug. 16, 1969.

Santana's set, which included "Evil Ways" and "Soul Sacrifice," kick-started guitarist Carlos Santana's illustrious and Grammy Award-winning career, which is still strong today.

Another singer who can cite Woodstock for helping him reach superstardom was Joe Cocker, who, at the time, was a moderately successful soul singer.

His revamped rendition of the Beatles' "Little Help From My Friends" is one of the "Woodstock" movie's defining moments.

And then there was Sly & the Family Stone. Their set, performed in the late hours of Aug. 16, 1969, has been compared to a spiritual revival celebration.

Two deaths (one from a tractor running over an occupied sleeping bag and one from an overdose), rains, traffic jams, food shortages and brown acid were some of the unfortunate sideshows of the festival.

On the positive side, there were rumors of three births — only one to date has been confirmed — and at least two wedding proposals, as well as a statement that told the world: Peace can happen in a time of turmoil.

Though the original Woodstock was organized to make money, the music and (counter) culture took over and made it into something bigger than anyone expected.

When you think of the '60s, you remember turmoil — and Woodstock.

"It's so groovy to come here and see all you people living in tents. A cloth house is all you need if you got love." — John Sebastian, during his impromptu set at Woodstock, Aug. 16, 1969

e-mail: scott@desnews.com