Fifty years ago on Aug. 15, an estimated 400,000 young people flocked to the fields of a dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y. Most had no idea they were making history just by watching their favorite bands at the Woodstock Music Festival that weekend.
Those teens and 20-somethings are now in their 60s and 70s. They have grandkids who ask them to share memories of the event conceived as “three days of peace and music” for class history projects.
Two of those festival goers were Irene Ferris and Bari Tobias Keith, both 69, of Rockville Centre, and originally from Valley Stream, although they do not know each other and attended separately. Like many of the thousands who went, they remember three things: the weather, the people and the music.
The historic weekend in upstate New York brought a mix of sweltering heat and pouring rain, both women recalled. This resulted in a sweaty, muddy stay at the farm. “It was so hot there — what was I doing wearing bell bottom hip huggers?” Ferris said, and then laughed. “I wish I kept those pants. They probably could’ve ended up in a museum.”
Ferris, 19 at the time, trekked up to Bethel from Valley Stream with her friend, Kathy, and cousin, Ginny, in Kathy’s Volkswagen Beetle. Before Kathy’s boyfriend left for Vietnam, he “painted the car psychedelic” colors and designs, Ferris recalled.
The three girls parked about a mile away and walked to the festival grounds in the rain. When they arrived, there was no need to show tickets — crowds had made it past the fences, turning the concert into a free-for-all. Yet, despite being in such close proximity to thousands of strangers, there were no problems. People shared water, food, blankets and drugs. Ferris camped out at the festival “because that’s what you did!” she recalled.
“You couldn’t really move or go anywhere,” Ferris said. “But no one had an agenda. There was never a weapon; there was no paranoia.
“We were young, and we had kids coming back in body bags from Vietnam,” she continued. “So we all just wanted to be together. We were with each other, we had each other.”
Meanwhile, Keith had driven up in a convertible with several friends. They parked at a hotel they had booked and walked a few miles until they made it up the hill and joined everyone sitting in the rain.
As their feet sloshed in the mud, Keith recalls hearing Richie Havens, the festival’s first act, playing onstage. “Looking at all the ads, how could you not [go to Woodstock]?” she said. “We went for the music, the experience, but none of us knew what it was going to be [like].”
Ferris agreed, and she remembers a pregnant friend of hers who refused to stay home. She attended the festival, but slept in a hotel. “You just had to be there,” Ferris said. “It was herd mentality.”
The crowd trickled out late Sunday, Aug. 17, when the concert was scheduled to end. Keith and her friends left a day early, she remembers. “It was so muddy and miserable …” she said. “Our parents heard on the radio how many people were there, that the gates were stormed, there wasn’t enough food or water, no tickets … and they went into a panic.”
Keith and her friends originally had three hotel rooms, which an adult had booked for them. But after the first night, she and about a dozen others bunked together in a single room. “The white bathtub was coated in red clay mud,” she mused. “To this day, I still feel guilty about how dirty the bathtub was. It’s a picture in my mind I’ll never forget.”
Ferris was one of the roughly 35,000 to stay until Monday morning for the legendary final act. “I remember Jimi Hendrix,” she said. “That guitar goes right through you.” She also remembers the rambling, raspy voice of Janis Joplin’s performance earlier that weekend.
“Kids were naked in puddles … and then we all just grew up,” Ferris reflected, who described her younger self as a “weekend hippie”– minus the drugs, which she never liked. Now, she and Keith both have adult children, who they raised in Rockville Centre.
Keith has lived in the village for 37 years and has two sons in their 30s. She’ll sometimes reminisce with a friend she went to Woodstock with, “We say, ‘What were our parents thinking that they actually let us go?’”
Ferris has lived in Rockville Centre for the past 45 years. She has two daughters, three granddaughters, and “life is excellent,” she said. She also noted that she once had a photo of herself at Woodstock, but her daughters brought it to college to show their friends, and she hasn’t seen it since.
Ferris still keeps in touch with her Woodstock buddies, Kathy and Ginny, who now live in California and Delaware, respectively. And she still remembers her mother’s reaction when she walked out of the Volkswagen Beetle in the same jean bell bottoms she departed in, ready to take that first shower since she left home.
“She wouldn’t let me go in the house!” Ferris said. “She came out and took a butter knife to scrape the mud and cow poop [off my body].
“It was an experience,” Ferris concluded, “and it was a good one.”