A Catskill Catalog: Oct. 21, 2009

Alf Evers famously subtitled his 1972 history of the Catskills From Wilderness to Woodstock, thus forever cementing the bond between the 1969 concert and our mountains. Sure, the Bethel site of “Three Days of Peace and Music” was 50 miles southwest of the mountain village that gave the Aquarian Exposition its name. And, certainly, the rolling hills and brushy fields of western Sullivan County don’t seem very Catskill Mountain-y. But who’s going to argue with Alf?
Woodstock was ours, all right, although I guess a case can be made that Woodstock belongs to all of us, that it was a transformative event in American culture. That is exactly the case made at The Museum at Bethel Woods, the new state-of-the-art facility dedicated to telling the story of Woodstock and the ’60s. It’s great!
Last week, a friend and I jumped into the jeep and traveled through the Big Indian–Oliverea mountain pass over the ridge to Claryville, Neversink, Liberty, Swan Lake, White Lake, and West Shore Road. There, hundreds of manicured acres greeted our eyes, sweeping up the great lawn to the handsome natural wood, glass, and copper museum building spire-topped on the crest of the hill. The performance pavilion sits in a natural bowl just beyond the trees.
How different this was from the cow pasture that greeted the first of the 400,000 young people who trekked up Route 17B on Thursday, Aug. 14 and Friday, Aug. 15, 1969 for the three-day festival. Festival organizers had constructed a large, elevated stage at the base of a natural bowl, with an audience-pasture spreading up and out, and a tent city behind. Kids were coming to the country.
The site today is a sophisticated, world-class performance pavilion and museum, a top-notch tourist attraction and concert venue. All because of those three days in August, now so many decades ago.
I remember the hype and build-up to the concert. FM radio was in its influential heyday in 1969, and the organizers of The Woodstock Music & Art Fair promoted their event repeatedly on the stations young people listened to, New York’s WNEW-FM in my case. When I think of Woodstock I still hear Scott Muni’s voice.
That’s because, on Saturday the 16th I listened to radio reports about the thousands of kids who were crowding the site, about the massive backup on the New York State Thruway and Route 17, about the fences coming down and the declaration that it was now a free concert.
I think I imagined myself making a last-minute decision to head upstate (it’s free!) and I know I was glad I didn’t when the rain started pouring down on and around the Saturday morning errand-duty Plymouth Valiant I was driving. The car radio kept me connected. The car roof kept me dry.
The whole story is told beautifully in the museum. While it has an interesting story to tell, the manner in which the museum tells it would make any story interesting. Twenty films and five interactive productions provide immediacy, energy and life. On-command HDTV stations offer the visitor fascinating narratives on every aspect of the story. My friend and I went expecting to spend an hour-and-a-half. We stayed for three.
Tickets are $13; $4 for children 3 to 7; $9 for youth 8 to 17; and $11 for those over 65. Not cheap, but worth it. The museum is open Thursday through Sunday.
Many young people today are fascinated with the ’60s, a time of profound social change. The entry section of the museum tells the story of the ’60s through time-line displays, informational panels, displayed artifacts of the period, TV and film. One can feel the social dislocation. In fact, reliving 1968, I found a little painful. And we think the country’s divided today.
While the obvious social bias of the museum favors the cultural and social changes symbolized and hastened by the concert, they try to tell a balanced story. The exit section of the museum (that’s the one right before the gift shop) offers a variety of views on the significance of the ’60s. I was struck by Ed Meese, former U.S. Attorney General and one of President Reagan’s right-hand-men, saying, “The ’60s were when everything bad started in America.”
But I’ll bet his kids liked the music! And the music takes center stage in a 25-minute film shown every half-hour in the large museum theater. We not only get to hear some of the legendary performances – Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix, The Who – but get to hear some pretty intelligent commentary from contemporary musicians.
We also learn how the event evolved. It began with Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld’s idea to organize a concert to support and promote the construction of a recording studio in Woodstock. It got financial muscle when John Roberts and Joel Rosenman agreed to invest. It developed a mystique when “the establishment” bounced it out of Wallkill and it landed on Max Yasgur’s farm.
It became mythic over time as its nonviolent spirit contrasted with an increasingly violent world.
The museum is great. Go.