Woodstock rocks 40 years on

Fans return to N.Y. for weekend of reminiscing about the first gathering

BETHEL, N.Y. – Forty years ago, they came here to a stretch of farmland in the middle of nowhere, to tune in and turn on. Nearly a half-million people gathered for four days of music and mud, camaraderie and chemicals, at the festival known as Woodstock.

And this weekend some have come back, old Woodstockers to try to relive the experience through the retelling.

At least one other, Duke, never left. In 1969 he hitchhiked here from Texas, stayed on to help with the cleanup, landed a job on a dairy farm and now works as the “site interpreter” at the museum and arts center erected at the location of the original event, helping explain what it was all about.

“Something took place here, and it’s still happening,” said Duke Devlin, 66. “The sense of community we had was really overwhelming. I’ve never really experienced a weekend like that again.”

This weekend is probably as close as he’ll get. While there have been other youth-centred Woodstock concerts over the decades, the 2009 jamboree is designed as a kind of old-timers game.

Gary Rupp, known as Teach because he is a high school teacher, comes up from Carbondale, Pennsylvania, toting Woodstock memorabilia he has collected.

Asked what Woodstock means today, Rupp paused and said, “You’re looking at a generation of music that people all over the world still follow.”

“You have kids that still follow this music, even though they call us old hippies,” Rupp said. “We understand what peace, love and music is all about. We understand how to live in harmony, not like today’s world.”

“None of this stuff was here,” said Groovy, now 61, who also asked that his last name not be used.

He came from close by in 1969 and worked as a stagehand, building the giant stage and helping the musicians. “Jimi Hendrix was the best,” Groovy recalled. “He was just like normal people.” Others speak wistfully about Sly and the Family Stone or the Who or the Grateful Dead.

The Woodstock site, originally Max Yasgur’s farmland, is now a place of manicured green lawns surrounded by wooden fences, with a performing arts center and a museum dedicated to the 1960s and to Woodstock.

What made Woodstock special, these veterans insist, is that it happened almost accidentally, spontaneously — far more people showed up than planned, the traffic came to a standstill miles away, the rain turned the hills into mud, the limited toilets soon overflowed, and there was little food. But it was that shared experience that formed a common bond among those who were there.

“You could feel that this was something special,” said Duke Devlin. “We had issues – the war in Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights. … Our main thing was to show everybody how we could live in harmony.”

And live in harmony they did, sharing what food (and other substances) there was. According to informal reports, at least two babies were born at the festival. “There were a lot more conceived,” Devlin added.

Woodstock veterans are convinced that the 1969 festival’s ending up here was no accident, that this is a holy place, recognized as such by the earliest Native American tribes. This area of central New York in the Catskill Mountains still has a large number of Hasidic Jewish communities, ashrams, a cloistered community of French nuns and, since Woodstock, a number of drug rehabilitation centres.

And now it has the museum and arts centre, which continues to draw the old-timers looking to relive that one magical part of their youth.

“This is a monument to what we did in 1969,” said Devlin. “I call it a time machine. It’s very emotional, too.”

He added: “I’m proud of what we did in 1969. … The ingredients were perfect. Perfect. If you try to duplicate it, it’s not perfect.”