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Woodstock 1969: High Times

Woodstock 1969: High Times

Friday, August 15

Woodstock got underway Friday evening with a mix of famous and lesserknown folk artists. Among the former were folksinger/guitarist Joan Baez, Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist/singer John Sebastian, blues folk artist Tim Hardin, and Arlo Guthrie, son of American folksinger Woody Guthrie. But many of the day’s performers, including Country Joe McDonald, folk-pop flower child Melanie, Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, and traditional folk artist Richie Havens, would find fame via their Woodstock appearances.

First up was Havens, who took the stage to play for the gathering throng. Much of the audience was late in assembling, largely due to the immense amount of traffic that clogged the surrounding roads and led to the eventual closing of the New York State Thruway. Havens was originally scheduled to perform late on the bill, on Friday night, but since he had the least equipment and could get onstage the fastest, he was pressed into service. Performing his own songs as well as a medley of Beatles hits, Havens played well past his allotted 20 minutes. Though he tried to leave the stage, festival organizers insisted he continue performing until another act could be found that was ready to play. Havens was back onstage when, he says, “I really had an inspiration.” It resulted in a spontaneous improvisation from which came his classic song “Freedom.”

RICHIE HAVENS I looked out over the audience and I said, you know, “Freedom isn’t what they’ve made us even think it is. We already have it. All we have to do is exercise it. And that’s what we’re doing right here.” So I just started playing, you know, notes, trying to decide what am I gonna sing, and the word “Freedom” came out. And that led into [the traditional black spiritual] “Motherless Child.” And then there was another part of a hymn that I used to sing back when I was about 15 that came out in the middle of it. And that’s how it all came together.


By the time Havens finished, festival artist coordinator John Morris had persuaded Country Joe McDonald to take the stage. McDonald and his band, Country Joe and the Fish, were slated to play Woodstock on Sunday, the 17th. For now, however, Morris needed a performer, and Joe, hanging around backstage, was pressed into service. Playing as a solo act for the first time, Joe was inexperienced at holding a crowd’s attention without a band behind him.

The audience roundly ignored him, until he got a radical idea that would produce one of Woodstock’s defining moments. At Fish shows, the band would get the crowd going with the “FISH Cheer,” an audience-participation chant performed in the style of cheerleaders at sports events. At Woodstock, Joe decided to rouse his indifferent audience with an inflammatory variation on the cheer just before launching into his jangly anti-war tune “I-Feel-Like-I’m- Fixin’-to-Die Rag.”

JOE McDONALD At our earlier shows, we’d shout, “Gimme an F, gimme an I,” and so on. “What’s that spell? FISH!” When we played the Schaefer Music Festival in New York City, our drummer got the idea to change “FISH” to “FUCK,” and we did it for the first time there.

I did it again at Woodstock: “Gimme an F, gimme a U, gimme a C, gimme a K. What’s that spell?” It established a mood, a political and social credibility for the Woodstock generation. Prior to that the attitude of protest music was “Try and be polite about it, try not to be offensive.” But the “FISH Cheer” at Woodstock was an energizing moment. I kicked into my folksong singer mode and segued into “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” and the crowd was mesmerized.


Saturday, August 16

In a weekend of few expressly political moments, Country Joe’s performance stood out as something special. And it was just the beginning of the revolution that Woodstock would give birth to.

While Friday night had been designed to induce good vibes and a peaceful mood, Saturday was calculated to ramp up the festival to a new level of excitement. A remarkable host of hot rock, blues and soul acts were scheduled for the day, including Santana, Canned Heat, Mountain, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who and Jefferson Airplane. These were among the most anticipated acts of the entire festival, as the large influx of new attendees demonstrated. Roughly 200,000 people had been expected to attend Woodstock, but by Saturday that number had clearly been exceeded. When the surging crowds overwhelmed the ticket collectors, the organizers announced that admission was now free. A chain-link fence was cut open, and the masses poured into the field.


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