The Lost Woodstocks: How 1979 and 1989 Shaped Music Festival History

Consider these the forgotten chapters of the festival's 50-year-long story

Woodstock 50
Woodstock Music Festival

When it comes to pop-cultural significance, even Woodstock has a shelf life. Fifty years after the original defined a generation (whether they wanted it to or not), the most recognizable festival in the history of rock music will not have the anniversary celebration that everyone figured inevitable. On July 31st, Woodstock 50 died its final death, with promoter Michael Lang finally giving up on the event he first discussed back in 2014 after a festival season that began with a stellar lineup announcement and ended with two lost venues, bailing investors, a move to Maryland (and a reduction from three days to one), and even a cameo by one of Donald Trump’s lawyers.

Instead of Woodstock 50 becoming a defining event for a new generation of fans, Lang’s would-be festival instead drew some unflattering comparisons to Fyre Festival. Now, as we approach this 50th anniversary weekend, the only officially sanctioned Woodstock commemoration will be a series of concerts at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Headliners including Ringo Starr, Santana, and John Fogerty will mark the milestone with evening concerts; the grounds will be closed to non-ticket holders.

(Podcast: Carlos Santana Revisits Woodstock with Kyle Meredith)

This low-key celebration seems unlikely to capture the public’s attention the way that the high-profile anniversary festivals of the ’90s did for good (Woodstock ’94) and ill (Woodstock ’99). That will put it in good company; there have been just as many unknown Woodstocks as there have famous ones. This year doesn’t just mark the 50th anniversary of Woodstock: it also marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock ’79 and the 30th anniversary of Woodstock ’89.

Although these two events never received the acclaim of their more-famous siblings, they’re still packed with lessons about the history of music festivals, Woodstock’s ever-changing legacy, and evolutions in the music industry that still impact listeners today. With that in mind, let’s dive into the forgotten histories of these two Woodstock anniversaries, helped along by reports that appeared in newspapers throughout New York state in 1979 and 1989.

Woodstock 1979 – Woodstock Strikes Back

Woodstock Vintage Poster Original 1969 1979 Anniversary Music Memorabilia The Lost Woodstocks: How 1979 and 1989 Shaped Music Festival History

Much like the 50th anniversary show this year, Woodstock’s 10th anniversary didn’t unfold in its original form. Conceived by organizer John Morris, who worked as the original festival’s stage manager, Woodstock II would’ve recaptured the size and scope of the original; in his pitches to towns across upstate New York, Morris frequently quoted potential attendance figures of 300,000 or more.

Morris spent much of early 1979 scouting out possible hosting sites for Woodstock’s 10th anniversary sequel. The town board of Woodstock turned down a reported multi-million dollar offer to hold a full-scale sequel to the 1969 festival. A UPI report from April 1979 quotes Town Supervisor Valerie Cadden: “It’s taken us 10 years to recover from the first Woodstock Festival.”

Organizers were rebuffed wherever they went; towns that turned down the festival include Lodi, Walton, Richford, and Meredith, where voters defeated the proposed festival by a margin of 593 to 75, even though the fest’s $1 million offer “would have meant no local taxes for three to five years.” When rock is less popular than no taxes, your problems are real.

Morris also ran up against organized legislative pushback. Many of the upstate counties where Morris focused his search had already put laws in place to counter the rise of rock festivals throughout the ’70s; in the case of Tigoa County, that meant a law that “effectively [quashed] such concerts by requiring of the promoter a $10,000 bond for each ticket holder for any gathering of more than 10,000 people.” Other counties, such as Delaware and Seneca, enacted their own versions of these laws as soon as it became apparent that Woodstock II might come calling. In the case of Seneca County, the decision came just one day after a meeting with Morris, when county supervisors “[viewed] slides of refuse piles and traffic caused by the 1973 rock festival at nearby Watkins Glen.”

Eventually, Morris’ initial plans fractured into two separate shows: Woodstock ’79 at Madison Square Garden on August 24th and 25th, and Woodstock Reunion 1979 (organized by original promotor Richard Nadler) at the then-recently shuttered Parr Meadows racetrack near Brookhaven on September 8th.

The Brookhaven event was the larger of the two, but remained dwarfed by the scope of the original and its proposed sequel. According to an Associated Press story from September 1979, part of the agreement with Brookhaven stipulated that ticket sales be capped at 25,000 and that no liquor or walk-up ticket sales take place on the premises. As it turns out, even that number was optimistic; a UPI story from the day after the event clocked the attendance at a mere 15,000 (though varying estimates of up to 40,000 were reported by other outlets). The New York Daily News headline from the day after the concert summed things up glumly: “Woodstock Reunion: Not on par with original.”

Part of the issue stemmed from the lineup. Organizers at both shows opted to draw solely from acts that played the original festival rather than mixing the old guard with newer acts whose work resonated with the festival’s ethos. Thus, when the biggest acts from 1969 were dead (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix), broken up (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane), or uninterested (The Who, The Grateful Dead, Santana, and loads more), Woodstock ’79 was left with a pool of artists that lacked the drawing power of their more famous peers.

No matter how good the music, a lineup anchored by John Sebastian, Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield, Rick Danko (without the Band), Stephen Stills (without Crosby, Nash, or Young), and Country Joe McDonald (without the Fish) was never going to put up eye-popping numbers. The MSG event fared a bit better with appearances by Joe Cocker and Richie Havens, but still treated its booking philosophy as a nostalgia-minded reunion rather than a forward-looking celebration.

The relative failures of Woodstock’s first big anniversary were also blamed on shifting cultural interests. At the time, journalists devoted plenty of columns to determining what Woodstock nostalgia meant and whether another Woodstock (or similar era-defining event) was even possible by the end of the ’70s. UPI reporter Ken Franckling devoted a multi-part series to the festival’s anniversary. The sentiments he found weren’t optimistic.

“Festival veterans said efforts by two different promoters to hold a Woodstock II this summer failed from more than local opposition,” Franckling wrote. “They said times have changed, and the magic ingredients — a war, psychedelic drug popularity, and turbulent times — can’t be duplicated.”

Franckling’s work also nodded to the growing strain of money-minded, me-first conservatism that would come to define American mass culture in the ’80s, and its impact on both the career-aged attendees of the original festival and the new generation of college kids coming up behind them. “The outspoken activists who brought about Woodstock were replaced by a new generation of job seekers,” Franckling said, a sentiment shared by at least one of his interview subjects.

“I worry about generalizations, but there is a sort of narcissism now,” Brown University chaplain Richard Dannenfelser told Franckling. “I just hope that students won’t lose a sense of moral indignation and become self-centered privately and professionally.”

Whether that shift was caused by the quagmire of the Vietnam War, the betrayals of Watergate, the economic anxieties of America’s late-’70s recessions, or some combination of those factors and others, it also had an impact on the types of music that found its way onto the charts. As reporter Philip Pullella noted in his own UPI report, genres like disco had begun to supplant the excess-heavy prog and arena rock scenes spawned by the original Woodstock.

“The industry has gone slick and sexy,” he wrote. “The songs of protest have been supplanted by the songs of profit. Money replaced mellow.”

And as for the site of the legendary festival? In 1979, reporter David Dawson of Gannett noted that the town board of Bethel rejected a motion to put up a sign marking the festival site, concluding that the town had “turned its back on promotion, content to slide into slow economic deterioration along with the rest of Sullivan County.” (The festival site would eventually get its first memorial marker in 1984).

Woodstock 1989 – A New Hippie

Woodstock 1989 in LIFE magazine

Woodstock 1989 Story in LIFE magazine

On August 8, 1989, David Hinkley of The New York Daily News was the bearer of bad news: “To the disappointment of the media, original Woodstock financiers Joel Rosenman and John Roberts and nostalgic rock ‘n; roll fans everywhere, no single major event this month will mark the 20th anniversary of the 400,000-people gathering at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, N.Y., Aug. 15-17, 1969.”

Ten years after Woodstock’s first attempt at an big-time anniversary commemorative ended with more of a whimper than a bang, it seemed like the second try was destined for the same kind of deflation. As usual, it wasn’t for lack of trying; Rosenman and Roberts had designs to do a 20th anniversary show, but couldn’t work out the particulars with Warner Bros. (who’d owned the rights to the festival’s name, an iconography since 1969). The list of unrealized offers looks as strange and tantalizing now as it probably did then:

In the last year, the pair has been approached by dozens wanting a piece of the action, including both of their former partners, Michael Lang (who lives in Woodstock) and Artie Kornfeld, now a California-based record promoter. Lang’s idea was to stage a concert near the Berlin Wall. John Morris, stage manager for the original festival, suggested a concert on an Indian reservation. […] Woodstock residents proposed a series of shows on barges in the New York harbor. The rock promoter John Scher and Steve Leber, promoter of the Moscow Circus and Beatlemania, teamed up with the owner of the festival site on a proposition to stage a 300,000-ticket concert. So far all have been shot down.

For their part, towns around the area also issued another preemptive rejection of anyone else with plans for a 20th anniversary festival.

“No festival,” Sullivan County Supervisor Allen Scott told The New York Times that June, before taking a not-so-subtle dig at the folks who still might feel drawn to the site later that August.

”They’ll come by in BMWs and Mercedeses,” Scott told The Times. ”They’ll point and say to the kids: ‘This is where mom and dad were 20 years ago. This is the Woodstock you’ve heard us talk about.”’

There were at least two attempts to fill the void left by the lack of organized events in Bethel. In New York City, Woodstock veteran Richie Havens planned an August 16th concert near Times Square timed to coincide with that evening’s lunar eclipse. Closer to Bethel, new events promoter Bruce Taylor opted to stage a last-minute Woodstock revival at the Imperial Resort Hotel in nearby Swan Lake just one month into his time on the job.

Titled Remember Woodstock, Taylor’s event boasted bookings of festival musicians including John Sebastian, Melanie, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Leon Russell, and Roger McGuinn, as well as what Knight-Ridder reporter Maria Gallagher described as “indoor and outdoor tennis courts, golf, a health spa, nightclub acts, Borscht Belt food” and more. A three-day pass to the festival cost $75 (a relatively reasonable $156 in 2019 dollars), and no camping was permitted.

The chi-chi digs of the Imperial Resort were just a small sign of Woodstock’s commercial power in 1989. Throughout the year, coverage highlighted the ways in which Woodstock fans were cashing in. The New York Times profiled Gladys Glass and her Woodstock Trading Company memorabilia store, and Gannett reported on a man who’d even set up an 800 number selling original Woodstock tickets, programs, and posters, the most expensive of which reached $400 ($833 in 2019 dollars). All of this nostalgia wasn’t necessarily coming from the original attendees.

”Nobody I know who was in the audience is taking the occasion to celebrate in any significant way,” author Joel Makower told The New York Times. ”I get the sense that all the celebrating is being done for them, by media, by musicians and producers and, for better and for worse, by all the marketers of boxer shorts and air fresheners with the Woodstock logo on them.”

As these conversations continued and mid-August approached, it wasn’t clear whether or not any of these commemorations would translate into a big crowd near Bethel. On the eve of the anniversary, The New York Times reported that an early-bird retrospective celebration in the town of Woodstock proper drew just 200 attendees.

And then, a funny thing happened.

In what The New York Times later described as “a sort of spontaneous happening that many said was as groovy as the original,” people started showing up at the old Yasgur farm in Bethel Woods, despite the lack of any organized event or even a musical lineup. Growing from a small concert organized by guitarist Rich Pell, the gathering soon blossomed into a sprawling grassroots hangout that had more in common with a campsite tailgate than it did with a big-money rock festival. Many of them were first-timers, young adults who grew up with Woodstock not as a fun weekend in the mud or a controversial countercultural moment but a near-mythical rock and roll happening whose outsized legend far outstripped the realities of event.

By the end of the weekend, anywhere from 150,000-250,000 visitors stopped by to reminisce, reunite, or simply soak in the aura.

Instead of the crowds coming to the music, the music made its way to them. In addition to local acts with names like Ice Nine and The Psychedelic Kitchen who showed up for impromptu sets, Bethel Woods also welcomed bigger names, including English blues rock band Savoy Brown, as well as Melanie, who was already scheduled to perform at the sanctioned Remember Woodstock event.

Speaking of Remember Woodstock: if anyone was caught off guard by the masses of people at Bethel Woods, it was likely the organizers of the Imperial Resort’s event, which struggled mightily by comparison. According to a New York Times report from August 20th, organizers eventually resorted to handing out free tickets to the crowds gathered in the fields. Reports on the ground in Swan Lake were even more dispiriting.

“On Friday night, the folk singer Melanie, who performed at Woodstock 20 years ago, sang at the sanctioned concert to 100 people, many of them hotel employees,” The Times report said. “After the show, she returned to Bethel at 1:30 this morning.”

For once, community seemed to have won out over commercialism. Even though his own event flopped, Taylor understood why, telling The Times: ”The concert belonged in Bethel at that farm, but because of the bureaucracy it didn’t happen. Many government officials didn’t see the big picture. If the city fathers at Mount Rushmore felt the same way some feel in Sullivan County, they would have chiseled Mount Rushmore to dust. Woodstock is a national monument.”

Return of the Festival

woodstock 94 The Lost Woodstocks: How 1979 and 1989 Shaped Music Festival History

It’s not hard to draw a line between the throngs of pilgrims at Woodstock ’89 and the crowds of paying ticket holders at Woodstock ’94 five years later. For all of its feel-good free-spiritedness and total lack of commercial support, Woodstock ’89 proved what Woodstock ’79 didn’t: there was still life left in (and potential money to be made from) the Woodstock brand.

In some ways, the commemoration of Woodstock was happening every time anyone turned on a radio or attended a concert. Whether they were conscious of it or not, every music fan in 1989 was already living in a world created by the festival. Outside of its status as a cultural event, Woodstock changed the music world forever. “Twenty years later, bigness is Woodstock’s most enduring legacy,” said New York Times music critic Jon Pareles. “Not the music, which was often ragged and windblown, but the fact that the festival irrevocably changed the way the rock audience saw itself.”

Pareles linked the festival to developments like increasingly expensive and elaborate touring setups, arena-sized venues, and music designed to minimize nuance and maximize butts in the seats. Though the novelty of that spectacle was brief, its impact seemed to carry on forever.

“The image of a large stage amid a sea of people, which had been so startling in the late 1960s, was a cliche by 1974 – and by then, the stage held the likes of Grand Funk Railroad. Bloatedness had set in.”

Writing for Rolling Stone, critic David Fricke was even more blunt about Woodstock’s impact on the then-current music scene. “The Eighties pariahs of corporate sponsorship and Madison Avenue’s appropriation of pop songs to peddle cars, beer and toilet paper, not to mention the arthritic conservatism of the music business in general, can be directly traced to the genuine rapture with which the audience greeted the music, and the musicians, at Woodstock,” Fricke said. He continues:

Woodstock 2019

Still, the actual social impact of Woodstock has been unfairly minimized. No matter what else can be said for or against the event, the festival represented an ideal. It was a demonstration, however brief, of unity and cooperation that suggested there was another, better way to take care of business out there. And at a time when the principal energies of youth and rock seemed to be concentrated along a London-New York-San Francisco axis, it provided many of the gathered delegates from other isolated freak communities — not to mention the hopeful, confused, unaligned teens who came to get their first taste of the groove — with a sense of purpose, focus, and familial warmth for at least 72 hours, under rather trying conditions.

Many of those same developments that critics identified about 30 years ago still ring true in 2019, but our world is also a very different time than 1969, or even 1989. Now, music festivals are yearly occurrences rather than years-in-the-making mega-events, and the internet brings together the latest generation of freak communities (including ones organized by their favorite music festival). The youngest attendees of the first Woodstock are now in their 60s and unlikely to attend another muddy festival any time soon.

Had it occurred, Woodstock 50 wouldn’t have been for them, but for the generations they raised, just another festival in a sea of festivals, with little but its name to differentiate it from the Coachellas and Lollapaloozas and Bonnaroos of the world. Maybe that’s as it should be. By the 50th anniversary of the most pivotal music festival of all time, we haven’t forgotten the original. Quite the opposite; we’ve organized our entire musical ecosystem around its lessons.

Woodstock’s work is finished.