The Beachcomber

For Hippie at Heart, Woodstock ‘Like a Tape That Plays in My Mind’ Even 50 Years Later

By VICTORIA FORD | May 24, 2019
Photo by: Supplied Photo Laurie Wright of Ship Bottom

Ship Bottom — The Woodstock Aquarian Music and Art Fair was three days of music, joy, peace, love, dancing, counterculture, progress, nudity, camping, innocence, mind-alteration and free expression that left its mark on a generation and, in turn, the world. Woodstock was not only a pivotal point in the nation’s history, but also a defining moment in the lives of the half million hippies in attendance.

As Jerry Garcia himself wrote in the introduction to a 1994 photo commemorative book called Woodstock 1969: The First Festival, “The thing about Woodstock was you could feel the presence of invisible time travelers from the future who had come back to see it. ... There was a kind of swollen historicity – a truly pregnant moment.”

One of those half million hippies, Laurie Wright of Ship Bottom, was 17 in 1969, the summer before her senior year of high school in Fairfield, Conn. She was a product of the postwar baby boom; Dad worked for RCA, and Mom had her hands full raising four girls and one boy.

Wright, the first born, ran with a crowd of kids a few years older than she was, 20, 21 – “those were my people.”

“I was a hippie,” she said. Glancing down at her blue jeans and denim button-front, she said, “This is what I wore, like, exactly. All my friends were longhairs.” (Years later at high school reunions, “people couldn’t believe I went from a hippie to a banker,” she noted.)

Music festivals were increasingly common at that time, but she wasn’t a concert goer until Woodstock came along. When talk of Woodstock started, she told her parents she wanted to go, “just to this one.” Her parents were cool enough, not overly conservative, but they also had a different worldview, spoke a different language. “Most of the parents then didn’t understand.”

Wright and her friends bought their tickets to Woodstock in advance, for about $20, which was a lot. As it turned out, something like 100,000 people had purchased tickets, but almost half a million attended. A total of two million attempted to, but ended up stuck in the miles-long traffic jams and simply never got there, according to Woodstock Festival Remembered, written by event organizers Jean Young and Michael Lang and released on the 10th anniversary. “Those without tickets simply walked through gaps in the fences, and the organizers were eventually forced to make the event free of charge,” according to the History Channel’s “This Day in History.”

Wright’s group was about 10 or 12 people who traveled a few hours to the festival in two Volkswagen vans. “I didn’t even know some of them,” she said.

In the weeks leading up to the event, the more her parents heard about Woodstock, the less they wanted Wright to go. But she was determined.

That summer, she worked at a fishing tackle factory. The day she was scheduled to load into the vans and hit the road for White Lake (a resort community in the town of Bethel, N.Y.), her dad brought her home from work at the normal time. Her parents’ house had a shoes-off-at-the-front-door policy, so she removed her shoes, went upstairs to her room, packed what she needed, came down the stairs and slipped out the back door of the house to cross the yard to her friend Linda’s – without anything on her feet.

“I was barefoot. The whole time.”

Her group had provisions, food and water, which was lucky because food at the festival was hard to come by – a hardship nobly mitigated by Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm commune, with its free kitchen and groovy philosophy that “All food comes from God.” As Wright recalled they showed up in school buses and served rice and lettuce.

Wright and her friends waited in the traffic, along with everybody else; when they got close to Bethel, they realized renting a hotel room was next to impossible. She and a couple others from the group decided to hike up the road and see what they could find, telling the drivers of the vans they would meet up with them farther along.

Eventually they found an old couple sitting on their porch in rocking chairs, watching the spectacle of festival goers parading by. “They had a front row seat,” Wright said. She and her friends struck up conversation with the couple, joining them on the porch while they awaited the vans to catch up. They were there most of the night. The vans finally arrived in the wee hours of the morning.

Wright had noticed not far from the porch a big house that appeared to be abandoned and convinced her friends they should explore it more closely. They discovered it was indeed empty, and all the first-floor windows were broken. Inside, they wandered through the “big, beautiful rooms” of what seemed to have been a bed and breakfast, and sure enough they found a stack of mattresses in one of the rooms.

“So we moved in,” Wright said.

Nearby there was a clean lake where many festival goers bathed and swam.

In the light of day, Wright and her friends started the trek up the hill – the famous hill – and got their first view of that iconic landscape: Max Yasgur’s 660-acre dairy farm.

The ground was already soaked, as the rain had already started coming down. Wright remembers the sensation of dragging her long skirt, which was heavy with mud. The less-than-ideal conditions only bonded festival goers more intensely, she said. “It was like sunshine even in the rain,” she said. The people radiated their own light.

As they crested the hill the sun was shining, but what they saw looked like a war zone, she said, bodies strewn about in sleeping bags at makeshift campsites. She recalls airplanes flying over, dropping food and supplies.

Once the festival really got started, “You could hear the music from everywhere,” Wright said. “The joyfulness was pervasive. The music just took you away.”

Throughout the event, Wright played it safe, she said, mostly keeping to the perimeters. Looking for a friend in the crowd was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Plus, “a lot of people looked alike,” she added: skinny, dirty, long-haired kids.

A sign indicating “The Groovy Way” marked a path into and through the woods, where Wright recalled people sitting on rocks, selling drugs such as mescaline and LSD. She remembers the warnings – “Don’t take the brown acid.” But she just stuck to a little harmless grass.

“I didn’t want to be in an altered state,” she said. “I wanted to experience it.”

She remembers emerging from the woods upon a field where groupings of tents had been set up, like a market, for various purposes, meditation, the Baja people, artists, young families.

Even while it was happening, the people at Woodstock knew they were becoming a part of history. She remembers hearing authorities had called for a first-ever emergency closure of the New York State Thruway.

Police were everywhere, but they weren’t trying to bust people for drugs; at any rate such efforts would have been futile. As Wright described the scene where she and her friends had bunked, “smoke was pouring out of the house, and the cops were right outside” – it was a non-issue.

Wright’s strongest impressions of the festival as a whole were “the incredibleness of it,” the overwhelming positivity and warmth everyone conveyed to each other; the sense that “we’re all in this together.” The Hog Farm doubled as wellness center and polite security force, dubbed the “Please Force” on account of the pacifist methods of maintaining order. Hog Farm leader Wavy Gravy, a professional clown, famously told the press his peacekeeping tools would be “cream pies and seltzer bottles.” Not one act of violence took place. Volunteers with red arm bands assisted people who were dehydrated, sick or in need of a safe place to come down from a trip.

As far as the music went, Joe Cocker was one of Wright’s favorites, plus Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Sly and the Family Stone (“If he wasn’t so dysfunctional, I wish he would come back,” she remarked as she flipped through pages of a retrospective coffee table book).

One of the nights she walked back to the house with a young guy wearing his military uniform. By that time in her young life, Wright had already participated in war protests – there was a feeling growing among her peers that the world was in need of improvement. It was that great spirit of change, of revolution, that embodied the ’60s movement, which started simultaneously on both coasts, in San Francisco and New York City’s East Village.

The time period was marked by space exploration (Apollo 11 launched July 16 and landed on the moon four days later), women’s liberation, political unrest and civil rights demonstrations. But for that infamous weekend, no one was thinking about Vietnam, or anything beyond Yasgur’s farm, which had become for all intents and purposes the center of the universe. “This was a moment in time,” Wright said. “The ultimate ‘living in the now,’” a celebration of all things beautiful.

“I’ve been telling this story for 50 years,” she said, incredulously. “It’s like a tape that plays in my mind.”

Wright has attended lots of other music festivals, including the annual Newport Folk Festival and the anniversary Woodstock events, and will most likely go to the 50th anniversary in August. But none of them can really compare.

At the 2009 Woodstock anniversary festival, a film crew was wandering around. When the camera was on Wright, she said to them, “The only thing I can tell you is: Nothing in my life is of any interest to anyone. The minute they find out you went to Woodstock, that’s all they want to talk to you about.”

 

 

Woodstock lineup

Friday: Richie Havens, Joan Baez, John Sebastian, Arlo Guthrie, Tim Hardin, Melanie, The Incredible String Band, Sweetwater, Ravi Shankar.

Saturday and Sunday: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Santana, Mountain, The Band, Paul Butterfield, Blood Sweat and Tears, CSNY, Jeff Beck, Joe Cocker, The Moody Blues, The Who, Johnny Winter, and Jimi Hendrix, whose iconic rendition of “America the Beautiful” closed the festival.

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