Last Word: Former News-Sentinel reporter shares his Woodstock story
Fifty years ago Sunday, the Woodstock music festival came to a close in upstate New York. Billed as a three-day event, “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” it was scheduled for Aug. 15-18, 1969, at the 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., owned by Max Yasgur.
Whatever you may think of the activities that went on there, the event is considered a defining moment in popular music history and a cultural touchstone for that generation. While the organizers expected no more than 50,000 people to attend, the crowd peaked at more than 400,000. But only about 30,000 were still around to hear the closing act, Jimi Hendrix.
Rain delays on Sunday pushed his performance to 8:30 Monday morning, moving the festival into a fourth day. And of the remaining fans, some reportedly just wanted to get a look at the performer before leaving during his set.
One fan who stuck it out for the duration was one of my former News-Sentinel colleagues, David Allen. At the time, he was a 21-year-old Navy veteran, who decided to make the trip to New York for the weekend festival, he told Indianapolis TV station WTHR in a story last week, thinking it would be “a fun campout, something like a Central Park Love In. I was wrong. It was the most bizarre weekend of my life.”
Allen, who had been a police reporter for the newspaper, is now retired and living in Chesterfield, near Anderson, where he writes poetry. He is vice-president of the Poetry Society of Indiana and has published three books of poetry.
Besides his interview in the WTHR story, Allen wrote his own account of his Woodstock experience for the Anderson Herald-Bulletin last week. “We drove to the event in my friend Jim’s beat-up old white-and-black Blatz beer van, which he sneaked onto the festival grounds,” he wrote. “With us were my younger siblings, Kathy, 19, who called herself ‘Sunshine’ back then, and Chuck, 17, known back on Long Island as ‘Little Brother Charlton,’ lead singer of a garage band called the Psychedelic Freight Train. Jim and I camped out in the beer truck; we didn’t see the others again until Monday.
“My memories of the weekend are a haze of music mixed with adventuring to the far corners of Max Yasgur’s farm, listening to tunes at the Hog Farm’s free stage, skinny-dipping in the lake, hearing the freaked-out rants of the brown-acid victims, tripping over the bodies of lovers in mud-caked sleeping bags, wandering down a woodsy path lined with makeshift booths where hippie trinkets and drugs were sold, and piling into a semitrailer to get out of the rain.”
Allen writes that he had a brush with fame while he and his friends were in that trailer. They all broke into the now-famous “Rain Chant,” he recalls, and a sound crew in the trailer put it on tape.
“It was used for the soundtrack for the scene of mud-caked people under a cloudy sky sliding through the muck in the documentary film of the event,” Allen said. And he was playing the kazoo.
Toward the end, he says, “the kazoo is clearer and louder and leads straight into Santana’s ‘Soul Sacrifice’ in the documentary.” But his moment of fame is only recognized by him and his friends.
His sister, Kathy, however, was actually shown in the documentary and became an iconic image. During one of the film’s rain sequences, Allen explains, “the screen splits. One half shows the stage crew scampering to protect equipment; the other half shows the soaking-wet crowd hunkering down to keep dry.
“All except for one dancing blond flower child, her arms raised, welcoming the cooling shower. That’s my sister” Allen wrote. “That scene riled me for years. Her picture became an icon for the event; my kazoo virtuoso went unaccredited.”
Kerry Hubartt is a former editor of The News-Sentinel.