Woodstock, the concert held on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in New York state in mid-August 1969, has become the stuff of legend. It’s memorable for the sheer number of major rock stars who shared the bill, the rain that plagued the event for three days, and most of all, for being a cultural touchstone. With comparatively little advertising, it drew half a million young people to a 600-acre plot where they endured miserable conditions with little food, less water, too few toilets and too much mud. Still, everything turned out OK.
The crowd didn’t riot. The crowd didn’t stampede. Many who were there claimed they saw no incidents of violence. Only two people died, one from an overdose and the other as the result of an accident, which is absolutely astonishing, given the potential for danger and mayhem. If you support the hippie ethos of the era and are willing to believe the stories of a woman who gave birth while stuck in concert traffic and another who went into labor on-site and was airlifted out, you might regard the two new lives who entered the world at Woodstock as having balanced the cosmic ledger. (Neither of those babies, now eligible for AARP membership, have ever been definitively identified.)
Woodstock was a phenomenon – the godfather of all outdoor music festivals. Demand for genuine Woodstock memorabilia has shown no signs of fading.
The most commonly encountered Woodstock items that appear at auction are promotional posters, paper tickets and festival programs. By far, the most visually appealing is the classic Woodstock poster, which pictures a white catbird sitting on the head of an acoustic guitar against an orange background. It was created by graphic artist Arnold Skolnick, who was paid $15 (about $120 today) for his work. “I used a catbird instead of a dove,” Skolnick said in a 2019 interview for National Public Radio, “because a catbird is fat, and a dove is like a pigeon. It has no shape whatsoever.”
The original Skolnick poster was printed in two sizes: 18 by 24in and 24.5 by 34.5in. Each had a thin white border with the name of Rapport Press, the printing company, on the reverse instead of on the bottom of the poster’s obverse, or front. The poster has been reproduced many, many, many times, starting less than a year after the concert itself with the 1970 release of the Woodstock documentary.
A legitimate variant poster exists as well. The music festival was initially to have been held in Wallkill, New York, until town leaders made it unlawful to book an event for a group larger than 5,000. A more detailed and more psychedelic-style poster by David Byrd, indicating Wallkill as the event site, was never formally released. It is unclear how many copies of the poster were printed before the show venue was changed, but it emerges at auction on occasion.
Tickets for the 1969 festival were priced at $6 per day (later printed editions raised the per-day price to $7, then $8) with the full three days costing $18 in advance or $24 at the gate. The only way to purchase them was through local record stores or via a post office box in New York City. Nonetheless, a total of 186,000 tickets were sold with the expectation that only 50,000 concert attendees would actually make it to the event.
The concert organizers were off by a factor of 10. Some 500,000 young people showed up and simply crashed the gate, walking in for free. Unsurprisingly, any surviving Woodstock tickets – especially a complete, original set numbered in chronological order – commands strong collector interest. Beware of crisp-looking orange and green Woodstock tickets; those are usually reproductions.
A 52-page festival program was given away with each ticket purchase. It features all 32 artists and bands on the Woodstock roster, including Creedence Clearwater Revival (the first band to be signed up for the show), Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, a very pregnant Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead (who overloaded the amps, thus cutting their set short), The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Sha Na Na. Ordinarily, original programs make ideal keepsakes, but at Woodstock, attendees repurposed them as rain shields or burned stacks of them to keep warm at night. First-edition Woodstock programs that have survived without water stains are few and prized.
As with the Woodstock poster, the festival program has been reproduced several times in the decades following the concert. On a true original, the front cover image of yellow wildflowers on green grass has the letter “f” in the word “of” from “3 days of peace and music” printed directly on a blossom. 1969 programs were printed on glossy, heavy paper stock, with the first and last pages printed on an opaque onionskin-like paper. Also, pages printed in black ink will show some white dots, which was the norm for the contemporary offset printing process of the era.
Other Woodstock artifacts that were not created as potential keepsakes have found favor at auction. The documentary film of the concert, released in March 1970 with the minimalist title of Woodstock, earned critical acclaim and an Academy Award for Best Editing. The audio master tapes used to produce the concert albums and the 16mm print film reels from the documentary were offered in two separate sales at GWS Auctions in California, the former realizing $120,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020, and the latter earning $47,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Security jackets, badges, t-shirts, stage instructions, program notes, order forms, brochures, lighting instructions, musician lineups and other festival memorabilia are highly coveted, as well, in any condition.
The passion for Woodstock and what it has come to represent extends to things associated with Max Yasgur’s farm, which was a working dairy at the time it served as the venue for the three-day event. Signage, crates, packaging, advertisements, invoices and milk bottles from Yasgur’s dairy are all treasured. However, Yasgur was not as popular as the mementos of his farm. He was ostracized by the community for allowing the festival to take place on his land. He finally sold the property in 1971, moved to Florida and died not long afterward from a persistent heart ailment. Addressing the crowd on the last day, he said, “ … the important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids … can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music.”
The Woodstock festival was unique. No one, including experienced concert promoters who won the right to stage shows under the Woodstock name, has ever managed to recreate the magic of the 1969 original.
After Woodstock was recognized as an iconic event, the community that had shunned Yasgur eventually embraced the concert’s historic and cultural significance by creating the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on the very site of the former farm in 2006. Eleven years later, the field where the concert was held was added to the National Register of Historical Places.
Relics from the decades-old show carry more than just historical importance; they remind us that the impossible happened at least once. Maybe a future generation of peaceful, loving young people can make the impossible happen again.