By Cassandra Harris-Lockwood
Fifty years ago I graduated from high school and promptly moved out of my parent’s house. I was seventeen. It was 1969. It was a time of change. Mary Louise Young was the first Black girl in Utica to wear her hair in an Afro. I was the second, which was shocking for the city of Utica. The Afro was a message of rebellion.
That doesn’t sound like much today with all kinds of wild hair dos and cartoon colors at that. Back then it was a real big deal but, just two years earlier ‘Hair’ the tribal love rock musical took Broadway and the nation by storm.
I had moved in with my long haired, bearded hippie, White boyfriend, Randy Nicholson. We lived on the top floor of 1108 Steuben Street, a three story walk up right around the corner from my office today.
Utica was a different place. The Busy Corner was actually busy. We Hippies hung out in downtown Utica. We wore bell bottoms, beads and bells and yes, we wore flowers in our hair and went around barefoot.
There was the Grace Church Coffeehouse where Randy was the organizer and youth worker. It is probably the first place I ever performed to a live audience other than my family. There were plenty of young musicians who cut their teeth at that coffeehouse.
And there was a Peace Center up on Oneida Square where we Revolutionaries would hang out and meet. Little did we know that Gordon Finch, the Director was actually and FBI informant.
We kids played our guitars on the steps of the church on Genesee and jockeyed for positions to perform on the small stage at the Coffeehouse. We pan handled, ‘cause that was part of being a Hippie, then shared our take with our friends.
There were cops on beats walking around who were friendly and laughed with us and at us. No one got into any real trouble downtown. There were plenty of shops and places to hang out and chat, like the Coffeehouse.
By mid-summer we were hearing noises about this big Hippie Love In to go on in Upstate New York. Well, it was downstate from us but as NY is often measured from NYC, it was featured as an upstate mega concert.
Randy and I decided to go. It was actually the first time that any big deal ‘’Happening’ had ever occurred anywhere near our neck of the woods. It was the first outdoor concert I had ever been to.
Concerts in places like Madison Square garden or the Fillmore East or Love-Ins, or Peace Marches in San Francisco were distant fantastical, flowers in your hair events, that didn’t happen anywhere around here. The best we were accustomed to were the random James Brown or Dick Clark Caravan of Stars coming to the Aud.
We didn’t have a car so we hitched a ride with a friend who was going South. The way there was easy going until we got a few miles from Bethel and things started backing up, so we got out and walked that last segment.
It was exciting. We walked past loads of cars and people walking along in the bright sunshine. There was music everywhere. People were smiling and talking, the spirit of the day was certainly a friendly one. People were freely passing joints and pipes without restraint. There were folks riding on top of cars and trucks and vans. Children were peeking out of tents, groups sat playing guitars and tambourines around their campsite as we made our way to the stage area. We were set to find our spot on the hillside which would be our home for the next three days and nights.
It was the real deal. The energy was exciting as we could all see that the turnout was well beyond that which had been anticipated. There was a chain link fences that had already come down and more that were coming down by the time we got there Friday afternoon. In fact, people were sitting on top of the fence, clinging to it, hanging flowers and posters and beads on it. Kind of celebrating that it was now a free concert.
There were vans and buses converted into houses on wheels. There were children running around campsites blowing bubbles, people dancing. It was awesome. It was, as the used to say, ‘mind blowing.’
Since we hitch hiked there as experienced campers, we had a back pack with the important stuff in it, some food, toothbrushes, a blanket and some clothes. We had a couple of bucks because we had planned on buying our tickets when we got there but since the gates were down by the time we got there we walked in like so many others had done and were doing.
It was incredibly impressive. The humanity, the throngs were settling into this natural earth hewn amphitheater with a massive stage and sprawling superstructure perfectly placed in the bottom center. The sound system and lighting were spot on and ready. We all knew we were about to be a part of an historic event.
There were regular messages coming from the stage and voices from organizers most especially directing us to be kind to each other. They told us that we had already overwhelmed the systems in place and we were going to have to take care of each other. It was real. There was virtually no way in or out. Helicopters had to be chartered to get the acts performers in and out.
I remember the roar from the crowd when they announced that the NYS Thruway coming from the South had been shut down due to the volume of cars heading our way.
There were call outs for children separated from their families, call outs for folks who had been separated from loved ones, or left critical items like medications and where to meet to find them.
Needless to say, there was no texting, Instagram or messaging going back in ’69. We relied upon those voices from the stage to guide and assure us. Wavy Gravy from the Hog Farm and Chip Monck were among those voices.
This is actually the first time I’ve written about my Woodstock experience. Fifty years ago, it was so intense and so exciting I thought I’d never forget a moment. There are things I will never forget but I couldn’t tell you who was on first or the last band to play but, there is plenty I do remember.
I remember how we helped each other. I remember how we shared what we had. I remember when walking the long trek through the sea of seated audience to get food or water or use the bathroom, people would give you their hands to steady you on your way. There were these kind of pathways formed, roadways for passage up to the top where the tents and facilities were.
And anyone who was there will tell you about the Hog Farmers. They were the backbone of the overwhelmed pop up city called Woodstock. They gave out free food, water and provided medical services to the throngs.
The Hog Farm was a traveling commune that began in California and was a regular feature at large scale rock concerts of the day. They were called by organizers in to build fire pits and trails. The Hog Farmers wisely asked to include a free kitchen in their list of things to do. Highly organized, experienced and intentional these ‘Peaceniks’ were on their game all the way around. Woodstock was an intentional community and the Hog Farm was social services
Wavy Gravy, their spokesman addressed the crowd when Chip Monck wasn’t at it.
Everyone knows about Woodstock about the warnings to stay away from the blue acid, or was it the brown acid. In any case, there were plenty who didn’t heed the warning and ended up in the “Trip Tent.” The Hog Farm administered care and comfort to the many who were deleteriously spaced out.
There was one man I recall who was standing shirtless in the rain on the roadway at the top where all of the services were. Obviously distraught, the young man was screaming, “Get out of here. All of you, get out of here” which obviously was not going to happen. I’m sure he ended up there as well.
I worked in the trip tents for several hours a couple of times. I learned about ‘talking people down’ which is one of the many skill sets the Hog Farmers provided for Woodstock.
As a matter of fact, it was the example of the Hog Farm that I brought to Kirkland and Hamilton College when I matriculated there three weeks later on my 18th birthday. 1969 was smack dab in the middle of Upstate New York’s entry into the world of ‘drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll and there were many, many of us at that time experimenting with drugs, doing drugs and sometimes more than we could handle.
Once I started Kirkland College about three weeks after Woodstock, I remember sharing my Hog Farm experience with other students on the Hill. We decided to set up a discrete room upstairs above the health center to monitor our fellow classmates if they got into trouble, drug trouble. They would come or be dropped off if they were having a bad trip or had more than they could handle. I believe that today that was the nascent EMT program currently in place at Hamilton College.
Anyway, the grand Woodstock movie that came out in 1970, not long after the event, portrayed an everlasting worldwide impression of Woodstock; the naked hippies sliding in the mud. I didn’t see any of that. It must have been going on in some remote area because I didn’t talk to anyone who saw it and yelled, “hey let’s take off our clothes and slid in the mud.”
Most of us had only a few items the clothes on our backs. We got rained on and alternated stuff drying with what we had on. Intermittent bare breasts were not unseen but large scale nudity simply wasn’t part of the scene.
As an aside, I also attended Woodstock ’99 in Rome. I was on the Medical Team as a Holistic Healer. We were recruited to work the crew, staff and entertainers as needed. It became apparent to me how much of an impression the Woodstock movie had on people as I saw many of the attendees walking around nude like they were looking for mud on the sweltering tarmac.
Back to 1969 and the music. Richie Havens started us off, I remember being awakened one morning by Grace Slick, “Good morning people!!” I remember being blown away by Santana. I had never heard that fusion of Latin, Afro and Rock music. None of us on the East Coast had. Crosby Stills and Nash tuned us up. Janis Joplin was frenzied. Jimi Hendricks about knocked us all out., Joan Baez, Canned Heat, The Who, Joe Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone, Country Joe and the Fish and Arlo Guthrie. Who could ask for more?
The announcers would let us know that so-in-so had heard about all of us there at Woodstock and were trying to get to us to perform. I was among the many who wondered if the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were going to make it their business to drop in.
There were telling us how news agencies all over the world were covering us and that we were the largest rock concert that had ever happened. We roared with delight and congratulated each other.
I have to say that having attended Woodstock ’99 and knowing how it ended with fires and rapes and brawling, if any man at Woodstock ‘69 had put his hand on a woman without her wanting his hands to be there, the other men there, and probably some women, would have handled that situation.
Woodstock ’69 was the culmination of an era and the signature event for a generation of youth and music creating at that time the largest gathering of human beings in one place in history. Woodstock 1969 defined the aspirations of my generation and its effects on music and American culture can still be felt today.
Today there is an expectation of violence with any large gathering, Woodstock 50 is no exception. This is very sad. The first Woodstock was a remarkable testament to the aspirations of a generation. Give Peace a Chance. It is possible the live in Peace. To gather in Peace.
Hopes are that the collective community will prevail for a successful remembrance of a phenomenal event. Let’s replace the bad memories of Woodstock ’99 with a peaceful successful Jubilee celebration in 2019.