Joni Mitchell

50 facts about Woodstock at 50: Myths and legends

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, we’ve collected 50 facts about the iconic festival and the myths and legends it has spawned. This article covers births, deaths, Jagger’s and Joni’s no-shows, and who was originally meant to close the festival instead of Hendrix.

Two – number of deaths

Woodstock was remarkably crime-free given that the number of people there was not far short of half of a million. There were, however two deaths that marred the atmosphere.

Richard Bieler, an 18-year-old Marine due to leave for active service, was found dead of a suspected heroin overdose. However, a volunteer doctor who treated Bieler at the festival said his death was from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. That could have come from an adverse reaction to a dose of LSD, or from a dose of thorazine, which was commonly used to treat the effects of LSD in the 1960s.

Seventeen-year-old Raymond Misza, meanwhile, died after a tractor pulling a wagon ran over him while he was sleeping under hay. Police called for a helicopter to airlift him to hospital, but he died before it arrived.

Two – the number of births reported

Woodstock was widely regarded as the festival of free love, but some had clearly started early.

At least two babies are reported to have been born at the festival – one in a car stuck in traffic to the site, and another born in hospital after its mother was airlifted from the site. But, despite the newspaper reports, no-one has come forward to admit they were one of the Woodstock Babies.

20 miles – how long the traffic jam stretched for

The sheer weight of people trying to get to the festival meant the roads leading to the site were quickly swamped. The journey time from New York stretched from two hours to eight; thousands of people abandoned their cars to trudge miles to the action.

Thousands never made it because there was no way through the clogged traffic. Some were caught up in the traffic and could find no way to get out of it other than to continue to the festival site – reportedly including one local teenager who had borrowed his parents’ brand new car, and one well-known band…

Iron Butterfly – demanded a helicopter that never came

Iron Butterfly were a proto-heavy metal rock band best known for the song In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (later pilloried by The Simpsons). Woodstock saw them at the peak of their powers, but their no-show at the festival fuelled one of the most enduring and amusing of Woodstock’s myths.

The story goes that Iron Butterfly agreed to play the festival and planned to fly to La Guardia Airport in New York. They couldn’t drive to Woodstock because the traffic jam had closed the roads. Woodstock’s production coordinator John Morris related the tale in the book Back To The Garden. “They sent me a telegram saying: ‘We will fly to LaGuardia. You will have helicopters pick us up. We will fly straight to the show. We will perform immediately, and then we will be flown out’.”

Morris then sent back a telegram, which when arranged as an acrostic, spelled out a fairly unambiguous reply:  “For reasons I can’t go into/Until you are here/Clarifying your situation/Knowing you are having problems/You will have to find/Other transportation/Unless you plan not to come.”

Iron Butterfly did not play Woodstock.

The Moody Blues – on the poster, but never played

Double booking is always best avoided, but especially so when you’re supposed to be playing the biggest rock festival of the 1960s.

The Moody Blues appeared on the Woodstock poster, but in fact never played. They were mistakenly also booked to play Paris the same night. France, as history showed us, trumped upstate New York.

We Shall Overcome – Joan Baez’s song as the rains started

Joan Baez was one of the 60s folk movement’s biggest stars, and a major draw at Woodstock. Her set on the first day of the festival came as the rainclouds started threatening; the deluge began, gently at first, but rose as Baez played. As the rain began to settle, Baez played the folk/civil rights standard We Shall Overcome to the sodden crowd.

Perhaps riled by the defiance, a massive thunderstorm on Sunday turned the entire site into a mudpool. “I had a view of the field and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” festivalgoer Carl Porter told in a recent article. “Waves and waves of torrential water hitting hundreds of thousands of people who had nowhere to go. It was pathetic. ‘Drowned rats’ doesn’t even come close to describing it.”

Wavy Gravy – the festival’s clownish head of security

If Wavy Gravy had not existed, someone attending the festival would have imagined him. Hugh Nanton Romney – as he was called at birth and is still with us at the age of 83 – had already become well known as a political activist by the time Woodstock rolled around (he got his name, incidentally, from blues legend BB King). A member of the California hippie community Hog Farm, Gravy was drafted in with many of members of the collective to help the festival run as smoothly as possible.

Gravy’s tactic against would-be troublemakers was straight out of the clown’s arsenal – seltzer bottles and custard pies. He also took time out from security to make several announcements from the stage.

If you have a nagging feeling you’ve heard of his name before, ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s had a “Wavy Gravy” flavour until 2003.

Ned Kelly – the film Mick Jagger was filing which ensured a Rolling Stones no show

Some of the biggest acts of the Sixties that you may assume played at Woodstock – The Doors, The Byrds, Frank Zappa – in fact stayed away. Add to that list The Rolling Stones, though for a reason more cinematic than musical.

Frontman Mick Jagger has always indulged his thespian tendencies – from Performance to Freejack. One of his most high-profile roles was in Ned Kelly (1970), where he played the titular tin-plated Aussie bankrobber. Filming took place in Australia during the (northern) summer of 69 – meaning the Stones were unable to play.

The film bombed, incidentally.

Joni Mitchell – cried when she realised what she was missing

Folk star Joni Mitchell had a hit with the song Woodstock, which appeared on her 1970 album Ladies Of The Canyon, and eulogised the festival for posterity. Just one thing – she never actually made it to the festival.

Mitchell had been told by one of her managers that it was far more important for her career that she appear on the Dick Cavett Show, an ABC channel talk show. What has become known as “the Woodstock show” brought Mitchell together with festival attendees Jefferson Airplane, David Crosby and Stephen Stills the day after the festival ended. Jefferson Airplane’s performance was the first time the f-word was uttered on live TV in the US. Jimi Hendrix was scheduled to appear too, but he couldn’t make it after only finishing his set a few hours before. Mitchell’s manager, fearing the same could happen to her, insisted that she did not play Woodstock.

Mitchell ended up composing the song from her hotel in room in New York after realising just how important the festival was. "The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock," she later said.

Roy Rogers – the act supposed to be the last on the bill

Jimi Hendrix’s closing Woodstock set – one of the most iconic in rock music history – helped make the festival famous. But Hendrix wasn’t the intended festival closer. That honour was to have been singing cowboy Roy Rogers.

“Roy Rogers had turned me down," co-organiser Michael Lang said in 2009 when launching the book The Road To Woodstock. "I wanted 'Happy Trails' to close the festival. We all grew up with Roy Rogers."

Quite what Rogers would have made of it is unknown, however. “He was a Republican, he was pro-Vietnam War, he was the antithesis of everything we stood for,” Lang said.


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