40 years ago today, a crowd estimated at half a million people gathered on an upstate New York dairy farm to enjoy the music world’s top acts. What happened made history. Rain, food shortages and refugee camp conditions did not dampen the resolve to, in the words of farm owner Max Yasgur, “have nothing but fun and music.”
Among the throng were three Upper Valley residents, who still have a few vivid memories of the event.
Now in his 50s, Jim Petrillo runs a Norwich construction company and spends his free time mountain biking in the wilds of Vermont, a place he’s called home since 1972. But in 1969, he was living in Tuckahoe, New York when somebody told him about a “festival in Woodstock” – on the Sunday before the show.
“Of course, it wasn’t there,” laughs Jim. “They started naming the groups that were going to be there and I went, ‘you gotta be kidding me’. We made plans and headed out. We got there on Wednesday.”
Upon arriving in White Lake, he says, “I guess we had a mile or two to walk. We ended up sleeping in somebody’s barn, and woke up to all kinds of hippie people walking around the next day.”
Richard Camp works with Jim at the Simpson Companies, where he’s the CFO, though they didn’t know each other in 1969. Richard heard about the show on New York’s WNEW-FM, and bought his ticket weeks in advance.
Camp arrived early. A PATH shuttle bus from Grand Central Station dropped him at the end of Yasgur’s road. He wandered through the woods, sharing food and libations with other fans.
“Wednesday night I went up where the pond was, and there were some guys who pitched tents,” he recalls. “ I was wandering around, and some guy was playing guitar. He said, my tent’s pretty big – you can crash here if you want.”
The communal spirit shaped his experience. “It gave me a different perspective,” says Camp. “You shared everything, there was never a question that you were going to try and hoard anything you had … you just couldn’t survive any other way.”
Camp spent Thursday at the Hog Farm, an art-strewn field where lesser-known performers played on a second stage. He left late in the day to get closer to the show site. “I decided to sleep by the gates, and when I woke up Friday morning, we all lined up on the up side of the farm road while they were trying to get the stage set up.”
He remembers a chaotic scene when the festival finally opened.
“By the time we were on the field, they said they wanted to collect tickets. We said ‘come and get ‘em’ – but they never did. I was right between the speaker towers. We were so close that when they threw beer to the crowd, we caught one.”
Barbara Blaisdell of South Strafford caught the music bug early, learning piano and writing a musical in high school. These days, she performs with husband Tim Utt in Sensible Shoes, a popular Upper Valley rock/soul band.
Blaisdell still has her three-day Woodstock ducat, purchased for $18.00 at the Syracuse pizzeria where she worked while attending college. After trying unsuccessfully to recruit several of her friends to join her, she rode to the festival with a girlfriend, and promptly lost her in the crowd.
She then met two young Englishmen on their way to Niagara Falls; instead, the pair had run into the mass pilgrimage. “They were hitchhiking up the Thruway and knew nothing about Woodstock, they had just gotten into the airport. They found themselves in this traffic snarl.”
“We had the weekend,” smiles Barbara.
Does she recall the music? “I remember all of it. I was on the right. I was pretty close. I’m early to everything. I saw everything,” she says, with a NYC borough accent adding emphasis to every word.
“Sly and the Family Stone was one my most exciting moments of going to shows ever – the energy, and all those people doing their little part. That’s what I’m still trying to do in my music,” concludes Blaisdell.
Here’s Richard Camp’s favorite memory, which he shared in a WNEW radio interview a few years back: “Imagine waking up at like 5 in the morning with the sun coming up, and Roger Daltrey on the stage in that fringe jacket, singing ‘My Generation.’
“My most vivid recollection was Joe Cocker and the storm rolling in,” says Jim Petrillo. “I was right at the stage, and the sky was just turning absolute black and the wind was blowing, and Joe Cocker is singing, and it was just very dramatic.”
Petrillo, Camp and Blaisdell each shared a common goal, something no amount rain, mud or near starvation would keep them from.
“I was gonna see Hendrix, come hell or high water,” says Camp.
Blaisdelll’s ride left early, forcing a nervous decision to hitchhike home. “It was just unthinkable – but that’s what I did, because I had to see Hendrix.”
“The guys I went with, I don’t know if they got bummed out, but they just decided they were gonna leave,” says Petrillo. “I knew I’d run into people I knew, and I did, and fortunately they had dry clothes they lent me and I got a ride home on Monday.”
40 years have passed since those momentous days of endless music and communal partying, punctuated by epic storms (“It seemed like it rained all the time,” says Jim). An iconic documentary film, just re-released with reams of bonus footage, brings up things they never knew happened at Woodstock (“Creedence and the Dead played?”).
For Jim Petrillo, some of it will always be a blur.
“I’ve heard the Jimi Hendrix ‘Star Spangled Banner’ a zillion times. Did I hear it live? I don’t know. That’s part of the problem.”