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50 Things You Didn’t Know About Woodstock on Its 50th Anniversary

Fifty years ago in upstate New York, a counterculture was born. Here's everything you never knew about the famed music festival.

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Woodstock 1969, Bethel, USAAnonymous/AP/Shutterstock

At the height of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, just a month after Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, and just a week after the Manson murders took place in the Hollywood Hills, a crowd of half a million made their way to a muddy field beside a lake in the Catskill Mountains for what was to be a three-day festival of peace and music. No one could have known it at the time, but the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, which began just after 5 p.m. on August 15, 1969, would become a generation-defining, cultural touchstone that, a half-century later, continues to resonate, fascinate, and inspire imitations.

So, what was it about Woodstock? Read on…

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Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang and Joel RosenmanDave Allocca/Starpix/Shutterstock

It started out as an investment opportunity

Ironically enough, the epic music festival that’s come to be known as “Woodstock” and which is synonymous with the 1960s counterculture, was organized by a group of four young men who pretty much epitomized anything but the counterculture:

  • Capitol Records exec, Artie Kornfeld (left in photo)
  • Florida-based promotor, Michael Lang (middle in photo)
  • John Roberts and Joel Rosenman (right in photo) a couple of Ivy League-educated sons of wealthy families who were looking for an investment opportunity.
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Interior of recording studiolitts/Shutterstock

The original plan had nothing to do with a music festival

Lang and Kornfeld approached Roberts and Rosenman to invest in their dream of building a recording studio. However, the group quickly changed course, abandoning the idea of an indoor studio in favour of an outdoor music festival.

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Woodstock (1970)Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

It didn’t take place in Woodstock

The Woodstock Music and Arts Fair took place in Bethel, New York. Bethel, a town in Sullivan County, New York with a population of under 5,000 people, is around 70 miles southwest of Woodstock, New York.

Here are more history lessons your teacher lied to you about.

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A Place called Woodstock / The field where the Woodstock Music Festival occurred in 1969. Shackleford Photography/Shutterstock

So then why “Woodstock”?

The newly formed investment group originally wished to build their recording studio in the bucolic, quaint, and artsy Ulster County town of Woodstock, New York and therefore named their enterprise, “Woodstock Ventures.” Woodstock was and is a haven for musicians, including Bob Dylan, who was a resident of Woodstock at the time of the festival.

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Bob Dylan concert at the Isle of Wight Pop FestivalPeter Kemp/AP/Shutterstock

Bob Dylan didn’t perform at Woodstock

Despite that Bob Dylan was known for making music in Woodstock (he famously recorded music with The Band there), he declined an invitation to perform at the Woodstock festival in Bethel. He chose instead to perform at a music festival on the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom

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Woodstock - 1970Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Woodstock was never going to be the festival venue

Once the organizers decided to put on a music festival instead of building a recording studio, they stuck with the name “Woodstock Ventures” despite that the town of Woodstock never wanted anything to do with their outdoor music festival.

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View from the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail in the Hudson Valley in Ulster County, New York.Nancy Kennedy/Shutterstock

The original venue was in an industrial park in Wallkill, New York

When neither Woodstock nor nearby Saugerties panned out as a venue, Woodstock Ventures set its sights on Mills Industrial Park in the town of Wallkill. They got as far as securing $10,000 for the space before the Town Board got cold feet and wriggled out of the deal based on a town code technicality.

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Woodstock - 1970Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

The technicality involved a toilet

When Woodstock Ventures told the Wallkill Town Board to expect about 50,000 attendees (as it turned out, a vast understatement), the Board promptly passed a law requiring a permit for any gathering of over 5,000 people. When that wasn’t enough to put a pin in the festival, the Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals officially banned the concert on the basis that the planned portable toilets would not meet town code.

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art rural landscape. field and grass Konstanttin/Shutterstock

“I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm”

This famous lyric from the most famous song ever written about the festival (unsurprisingly, it’s called “Woodstock”) refers to the actual location of the festival, which was a 600-acre farm in the White Lake hamlet of Bethel belonging to 49-year-old Max Yasgur.

These popular song lyrics don’t mean what you think they do.

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JONI MITCHELLBrian Moody/Shutterstock

The song, “Woodstock” was written by someone who didn’t attend Woodstock

Woodstock” was written by musician Joni Mitchell, who wasn’t even there (for reasons we’ll delve into later). But her boyfriend at the time was Graham Nash, and he was there and told her all about it. The song became one of Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s most recognizable classics.

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Woodstock, Bethel, USAAnonymous/AP/Shutterstock

Who was Max Yasgur?

Raised on a farm in 1919, Yasgur studied real estate law at NYU and then returned to farming in the 1940s. A married father of two, he became the largest milk producer in Sullivan County and was known across the county as a hard-working, pipe-smoking, man of his word. When he heard about the troubles the young men were having in securing a venue for their festival, he offered his 600-acre farm. Despite the hefty price tag of $75,000, Woodstock Ventures jumped at the chance. It was just one month before the festival was to begin.

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A notice has been posted in front of a building ordering the premises to stop work immediately.Eric Buermeyer/Shutterstock

The moment Woodstock became “countercultural”

With Yasgur on board and permits promised by the Bethel Town Attorney and Building Inspector, the Town of Bethel nevertheless refused to issue the permit. A Stop-Work order was issued for Yasgur’s premises. This is the moment things became “countercultural” as Yasgur stood firm against the town and encouraged the young men involved to ignore the order.

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Woodstock - 1970Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

How “countercultural” became “chaotic”

With less than a month to go before the festival was to begin, Woodstock Ventures began constructing a stage, concession stands, bathroom facilities, gates, fences, and all other infrastructure needed to host a music festival. Originally, they planned for 50,000 attendees, but by August 13, 1969, two days before the concert was set to start, at least that number had already arrived and were camped out waiting for the festival to begin, and at least another 100,000 tickets had been pre-sold. Nearly half a million people showed up in total, so to say the organizers were ill-prepared was an understatement.

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Woodstock (1970)Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Only some people paid admission

As many as 186,000 $6 tickets were sold. But with the gates and fence incomplete when the crowds began arriving, the organizers realized there was no way they could check tickets or charge on-site admissions. So they stopped trying and opened the festival up to the public for free.

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WoodstockMoviestore Collection/Shutterstock

The traffic wasn’t exactly “tripping”

The roads surrounding Bethel couldn’t possibly accommodate all the traffic, and traffic was at a near standstill for 20 miles outside the farm. That meant not only that the people of Bethel were extraordinarily inconvenienced, but also that the performers had trouble getting to the venue. Impatient concert-goers abandoned their cars on the roads leading to the venue, effectively turning the roads surrounding Bethel into a parking lot.

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WOODSTOCK 1969, BETHEL, USAAP/Shutterstock

The hippie haven had blue blood in its veins

Woodstock turned out to be as chaotic as it was iconic, and by the second night, the organizers needed a very large infusion of cash just to keep it going. That infusion came from an emergency bank loan, secured by Roberts’s trust fund.

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Woodstock, Bethel, USAAnonymous/AP/Shutterstock

How the “bomber death planes” turned into “butterflies”

Mitchell’s “Woodstock” lyrics included the following line: “And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation.” While this was, no doubt, a reference to Woodstock’s transformative vibe of peace and love, it may also have been a reference to the assistance provided by the U.S. military, which kept the festival going amid the chaos by deploying army helicopters to deliver performers and much-needed medical supplies and food.

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2318833aStock Connection/Shutterstock

Another source of food

When the Monticello Jewish Community Centre heard about the food shortages at Woodstock, they sprang into action, supplying thousands of sandwiches that were eventually flown into the area from a nearby air force base. Hungry yet? Try one of these weird but awesome food festivals.

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Woodstock 1969, Bethel, USAAnonymous/AP/Shutterstock

The rain didn’t help

Woodstock is synonymous not only with 1960s counterculture but also with hippies covered in mud. It rained almost continuously during the festival, and while Accuweather can’t confirm the precise amount of rainfall, these quotes the site collected on Facebook should paint a picture:

  • “Muddy roads and fields.”
  • “Violent thunderstorms wreaked havoc.”
  • “[It was] raining toads.”
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Woodstock (1970)Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

The three-day festival ended up lasting four days

Woodstock was billed as a three-day festival. But the chaotic conditions, including crowding, inclement weather, and rampant drug use, led to delays, and the festival ended up stretching to a fourth day.

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RLO GUTHRIE "WOODSTOCK" 1969Shutterstock

The set list was determined by traffic conditions

The first performer was supposed to have been Sweetwater, but they were stuck in traffic, so to get things going, the organizers asked folk musician Richie Havens to step up and perform the first set. Many acts had to be helicoptered in, including Arlo Guthrie and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

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Woodstock - 1970Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

The first set lasted three hours

Once Havens began, “Every time he tried to leave the stage, organizers convinced him to keep playing, as they still hadn’t rounded up the next act,” according to History. At some point, Havens ran out of music of his own and was left to improvise. He played Beatles tunes.

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Italy Music - Sep 2004Francesco Cufari/EPA/Shutterstock

A helicopter ended the first set

It wasn’t until one of those aforementioned U.S. Army helicopters landed with more performers, some say onstage, that Havens was finally “allowed” to leave the stage.

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Woodstock - 1970Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Jimi Hendrix had the last word

Jimi Hendrix’s contract with the organizers stipulated no act could perform after him. Despite the chaos that had thrown the schedule off track, the organizers honoured Hendrix’s contract. At 9 a.m. Monday morning, after most of the crowd had already begun to head home—because the festival had been scheduled to end on Sunday night—Hendrix performed the festival finale, including his epic version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

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Creedence Clearwater Revival Pop Group Here At Heathrow Airport 1970.Howard/Associated Newspapers/Shutterstock

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s debacle

Creedence Clearwater Revival had been the first big act invited to play at Woodstock. Originally scheduled to go on in the prime spot of just-after-midnight on Saturday night, Creedence had to wait until after 1 a.m. due to delays, including technical difficulties during the Grateful Dead’s performance. Most of the audience was asleep. Lead singer John Fogerty described the scene to Culture Sonar as “bodies from hell, all intertwined and asleep, covered with mud.”

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Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, USAAnonymous/AP/Shutterstock

Jerry Garcia had a “great weekend” but a “terrible set”

“The weekend was great, but our set was terrible. We were all pretty smashed, and it was at night,” he’s quoted by Biography as having said in 1971. Not only was he terrified the stage was going to collapse, the rain was causing the band’s guitars to spark. “Every time we touched our guitars, we’d get these electrical shocks. Blue sparks were flying out of our guitars.”

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Woodstock - 1970Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll

An abundance of psychedelic drugs was freely available during the festival. In addition, as History tells it, “more than a few couples at Woodstock…made love whenever and wherever the mood hit.”

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Psychedelic drugs posed problems for the performers

It wasn’t just the audience members who were “tripping” but also the performers. Sometimes it was by choice. Sometimes not. The Who’s Roger Daltrey noted in his memoir, Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite, that it was almost impossible to find food backstage that wasn’t laced with LSD.

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Woodstock, Roger DaltreyMoviestore Collection/Shutterstock

Roger Daltrey ended up getting dosed

“I was fine right up until the moment I decided to have a cup of tea,” observed Daltrey, who was not, at the time, a drug user. Turned out that tea was laced with psychedelics, and he wasn’t happy about it at all, according to Vulture. “It was billed as an Aquarian exposition—three days of peace and music. But it was chaos,” he’s quoted as having said.

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Melanie in concert at the Rainbow Theatre, London, Britain - 1971 Ilpo Musto/Shutterstock

Performer Melanie hallucinated, but not because of drugs

Melanie Safka, who performs under the name Melanie, was only 22 when she performed at Woodstock. Relatively unknown at the time, her performance made her a star. But she was so terrified during her performance that she recalls an “out-of-body experience,” though without taking any drugs. “I was completely alone, and so terrified. I was certain this was my doom and I left my body.”

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Woodstock (1970)Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Woodstock launched Martin Scorsese’s career

The 1970 documentary film, Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh, was Martin Scorsese’s launching pad as a filmmaker. Having been hired as an assistant director, he was given the opportunity to do some editing work on the 120 hours of footage that had been taken. “I went to Woodstock as a schlep, and I came back as a schlep, but now I’m an assistant editor,” he’s quoted as having said in the aftermath.

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Creedence Clearwater RevivalAlan Messer/Shutterstock

Creedence is notably missing from the doc

“Since 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s performance…has been glaringly absent from all documents about the festival—including the Academy Award-winning documentary the following year,” wrote Billboard magazine. “We weren’t in the movie on purpose,” Fogerty tells Billboard, because they didn’t like the music clip the documentarians had chosen to represent their performance.

Here’s every Oscar best picture winner—ranked.

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Woodstock (1970)Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

There were only 12 police officers on hand

That’s not a typo. There were “no more than a dozen police officers to keep an eye on 500,000 people,” notes History.

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Saint Misbehavin' - The Wavy Gravy Movie - 2009Argot/Kobal/Shutterstock

Basically, security consisted of the “Please Force”

Political activist, “hippie icon, flower geezer, temple of accumulated error,” and founder of California’s Hog Farm commune, Wavy Gravy (born Hugh Romney) was flown in by Woodstock’s organizers to provide security, which consisted of unorthodox but largely amusing tactics like saying “please” and threatening to throw cream pies at unruly audience members.

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Woodstock (1970)Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

The Please Force provided daycare

Not only did Wavy Gravy’s Please Force provide (some semblance of) security, they also set up a playground for children. Yes, there were children at Woodstock, and it’s possible that overall, they were better behaved than most of the adults.

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Who played at Woodstock?

A total of 32 acts performed, according to Biography, which lists all and names the top acts as:

  • Havens
  • Guthrie
  • Joan Baez
  • Santana
  • Grateful Dead
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Janis Joplin
  • The Who
  • Jefferson Airplane
  • Joe Cocker
  • Blood, Sweat and Tears,
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
  • Hendrix
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Led Zeppelin - Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and John BonhamAdc/Shutterstock

Who didn’t play Woodstock, and why

In addition to Bob Dylan, the following acts were among those notably absent:

  • Jethro Tull
  • The Doors
  • Joni Mitchell, because her then-manager, David Geffen, had her booked on The Dick Cavett Show for Tuesday, August 19 and was afraid the traffic would keep her from getting back in time.
  • John Lennon, who reportedly had immigration issues
  • Led Zeppelin
  • The Moody Blues as they were performing in Paris that weekend
  • Chicago
  • The Byrds
  • Iron Butterfly was scheduled to appear but experienced airport delays
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Various PopAndre Csillag/Shutterstock

The highest-paid performer was Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix was paid $18,000 for appearing at Woodstock, making him the highest-paid performer there. The next in line were:

  • Blood, Sweat and Tears at $15,000
  • Joan Baez at $10,000
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival at $10,000
  • The Band, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane, at $7,500 each
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Woodstock - 1970Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

The lowest-paid performers

Quill was paid $375 for performing. Others at the bottom of the Woodstock pay scale include:

  • Santana at $750
  • Sha Na Na at $700
  • Keef Hartley at $500
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Woodstock - 1970 Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

The youngest performer at Woodstock

At 19 years old, Santana’s drummer Michael Shrieve was the youngest band-member to perform at Woodstock.

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Great Britain Ravi Shankar, London, Gbr XenAnne Purkiss/AP/Shutterstock

The oldest performer at Woodstock

The oldest performer was sitar player Ravi Shankar, who was 49 at the time. He actually found hippies distasteful, and Woodstock was the last music festival he ever played. He died in 2012 at the age of 92.

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Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young - Neil Young, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen StillsRay Stevenson/Shutterstock

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was a brand new group

When Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performed at Woodstock, it was only their second gig together, and according to drummer Dallas Taylor, they were “not well-rehearsed,” according to Biography. David Crosby judged his performance with Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young as “stoned and funny and fine.” Neil Young wasn’t quite as happy with the performance. “Woodstock was a bullshit gig, a piece of shit,” he told biographer Jimmy McDonough. “We played [expletive] awful. No one was into the music.”

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Woodstock - 1970Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

The costly cleanup

Cleaning up the venue was a mammoth task and required several days, many bulldozers, and tens of thousands of dollars.

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Simon And Garfunkel Fans 1981, New York, USADavid Handschuh/AP/Shutterstock

The financial cost

All told, the four organizers spent nearly $3.1 million ($15 million in today’s money) on Woodstock—and took in just $1.8 million. Roberts’ wealthy family agreed to temporarily cover the enormous costs, but required repayment. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Rosenman and Roberts were finally able to pay off the last of their debt.

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Woodstock 1969, Bethel, USA Anonymous/AP/Shutterstock

The medical cases

When the festival was finally over, the New York State Department of Health recorded 5,162 medical cases over the nearly four days, 800 of which were drug-related.

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Woodstock 1969, Bethel, USAAnonymous/AP/Shutterstock

Not everyone survived Woodstock

Sadly, one attendee died after being run over by a tractor. Another two died due to overdoses. In addition, eight women reportedly experienced miscarriages during the festival. Joan Baez, who was six months pregnant at the time, was not one of them.

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Peace prevailed, mostly

Woodstock remained true to its “peaceful” billing except for one act of violence that happened when social agitator, Abbie Hoffman, jumped on stage during The Who’s performance to commandeer a microphone. “Many remember Abbie Hoffman being whacked in the head by the guitar-wielding Pete Townshend,” the Globe and Mail reports, but in Lang’s Woodstock memoir, he defends both Townshend and Hoffman.

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Sony, Tokyo, Japan - 22 May 2018Eugene Hoshiko/AP/Shutterstock

Woodstock, the bird

Snoopy’s loveable yellow bird best friend in the Peanuts comics was named “Woodstock” after the festival because, like the festival, the little bird character “almost didn’t come to be.”

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Woodstock 25th Anniversary, Saugerties, New York, USA - 12 Aug 1994Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock

Woodstock, 1994

Twenty-five years after turning down the first Woodstock festival, Saugerties hosted Woodstock II, the 25th-anniversary celebration of Woodstock. This time, Bob Dylan showed up. So did some of the original Woodstock performers. They were joined by newer groups such as Nine Inch Nails and Green Day, and about 300,000 audience members. Like the original Woodstock, the weekend was muddy and rainy.

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Woodstock 50 Lineup Announcement, New York, USA - 19 Mar 2019Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Woodstock, 2019

Since late last year, one of the original organizers, Michael Lang, had been planning to commemorate the original festival’s 50th anniversary with an upstate New York outdoor music festival featuring around 80 major music acts, including some of the original performers. But plans went awry, and on August 1 the New York Times announced that Woodstock 50 is officially dead. Of course, that’s pretty much where the organizers were on August 1, 1969…so who knows? However, Anniversary Weekend is a big deal for the site of the original festival, Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts—performers set to take the stage that weekend include some original Woodstock performers like Arlo Guthrie (performing before a showing of Woodstock: The Director’s Cut), Santana, and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Now that you know all about this legendary music festival, read on to find out the greatest Canadian albums of all time.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest