By Jim Ignasher
Robert Leach of Greenville recalls exactly where he was between August 15th and 18th, in 1969. He was standing on a stage photographing music legends Jimmie Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, and dozens of other iconic musicians of the 1960s. Like thousands of others of his generation, he attended the famous Woodstock Music Festival, but his experience was different than most, for he had special credentials that gave him full access to the performers – credentials that he made himself!
This month marks the 50th anniversary of “Woodstock”, an event held in upstate New York that was billed as “Three days of peace and music”. Perhaps this means little to those under 50, but Woodstock was an event that helped define the 1960s decade and its youthful counter-culture generation. The ’60s were a tumultuous time in our nation’s history marked by political assassinations, race riots, and the Vietnam War. In many ways the concert was a peaceful protest of what was taking place in our country.
In August of ‘69 Robert was a 20-year-old college student working as a photographer for “Extra Magazine”, a periodical that offered news and political commentary to certain Rhode Island colleges. It was as a press photographer that he was sent to cover Woodstock.
Robert had covered large concert events in the past. “I knew what I was getting into,” he explained in a recent interview, “and I’d learned from my past mistakes. You don’t just show up with nothing.” The supplies he brought included tents, food, water, toilet paper, and other necessities which would prove invaluable over the next three days.
He went on to relate how he and two friends, Charles “Chuck” Sweet, and Edward ‘Eddie” Alarie, arrived more than 24-hours before the concert was to begin. Even then area roads were jammed with traffic. As cars crawled along, Robert sat on the roof of Sweet’s 1963 Ford and was taking photos when Sweet suddenly stopped short and he tumbled onto the hood.
After setting up camp, Robert went to check-in and receive his press credentials, but as he put it, “The place was totally disorganized.” Since nobody seemed to know what was going on, Robert, returned to his tent and “created” his own press-pass, complete with Woodstock logo. He then pinned it to his vest, donned his camera equipment, and went about his business. Nobody ever noticed his pass was homemade.
The pass gave him complete access to the stage where all the acts were to perform, and although he didn’t know it at the time, it also afforded a front row view to a concert that would go down in history, and one still talked about half-a-century later.
“The stage had enormous speakers,” Robert stated, “but I’d brought chewing gum.” He explained how gum-wrappers, or the gum itself, could serve as improvised ear protection. People generally didn’t wear hearing protection in the 1960s, and Robert credits his technique for not needing hearing aids today.
With 32 acts scheduled 24/7 over a period of three days, Robert realized he’d have to choose which ones he wanted to photograph, while he got whatever food and rest he could in-between.
Some moments stand out in his memory, for instance, when Joe Cocker sang “I Get High With A Little Help From My Friends”, the entire audience sang along.
There was also audience participation with Country Joe’s “Fixin’ To Die Rag”, a protest song about the Vietnam War. The song hit close to home, for Robert’s brother John was serving in Vietnam with the U. S. Air Force, and his long-time friend, Marine Second Lieutenant William “Gary” Schanck, Jr., had been killed in Vietnam only two months earlier.
There was Carlos Santana’s guitar solo which he described as “Brilliant – people were mesmerized!” And Janis Joplin’s performance of “Little Piece Of My Heart” as “Very impactful”.
He was a big fan of Crosby-Stills-Nash and Young, and was there when they took the stage at 3:00 a.m.
“We looked to these groups to explain what was going on in society.” Robert added, “They were the poets of the day.”
He also recalled a famous incident when Abbie Hoffman unexpectedly came on stage and took the microphone while Pete Townshend of The Who was performing, and began to make a political statement. Townshend quickly regained control of the situation and Hoffman was sent on his way.
It was initially thought that 50,000 people would attend Woodstock, but nearly ten times that many showed up. (Sources vary on the numbers.) The wave of humanity overwhelmed food, medical, and sanitation resources, and when the rains came the fields became a muddy quagmire. There were drug overdoses, injuries, and two deaths, and one had to be wary of anything they consumed, but Robert also witnessed the good side of people helping each other out.
Rock legend Jimmie Hendrix began his performance at 8:00 a.m. on the last day of the festival, and Robert had the opportunity to talk with him for a few minutes before he began. Fifty years later it occurs to him that he could have had his picture taken with Hendrix, but “selfies” weren’t done in 1969.
“By the time he took the stage most of the people had gone home.” He recalled. “There were probably between 60 to 80,000 people, which is still enough to fill a stadium, but the vast majority had left.” Therefore, most never witnessed Hendrix’s famous electric guitar solo of The Star Spangled Banner.
When Woodstock ended Robert and his friends took their time leaving, partly to avoid traffic, partly to take one last look at something that would likely never happen again.
In 2017 the farm where the Woodstock festival took place became a designated historic site, and there’s also a museum dedicated to preserving Woodstock’s history.
Today the Woodstock Generation is in their 70s, with graying hair and grand-kids who read about the 1960s in their school history books. However the books can’t convey the “feeling” of Woodstock, the youthful enthusiasm, and of course, the thrill of being there. For those who lived it, Woodstock was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.