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  • Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival: The Backstory to Woodstock

    A view of Woodstock, NY, during the seminal music festival in 1960. (Book Cover)

    Brother and sister Weston and Julia Blelock grew up in Woodstock, New York, left town for many years and pursued separate lives and diverse careers. But they both were drawn back to the region and are now business partners in WoodstockArts.

    As the 40th anniversary (2009) of the seminal music festival approaches, they are releasing a book that tells the backstory behind three days of love and music that shook the world.

    The book by Weston and Julia Blelock.

    The book is called “Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival: The Backstory to Woodstock.” TheImproper sat down with them for an exclusive interview before the release of the book, which is an oral and pictorial history of the whole Woodstock festival happening.

    IM: Weston, you were present at the original festival. Can you tell us what that was like?

    Weston: It was an amazing event in my life. Music has been a life-long passion. After attending several Sound-Outs and hearing about a big event planned for August 1969, I was psyched. It was the talk of Woodstock that summer. I remember distinctly leaving work on Friday, Aug. 15, and wondering what Monday would bring. I had a friend visiting from London, so we set out together. After hearing that the New York State Thruway was closed, we drove around to Binghamton and hitchhiked about 15 miles to the site from that direction.

    As we drew closer I was astonished to find cars and campers parked on the left and right of the road as far as the eye could see. Coming to the entrance of Hurd Road, I saw a lone state trooper. As we walked toward the concert area I marveled to see as many people walking away as going in. I thought that with that many people leaving, we could get pretty close to the stage. I was wrong. However, we did find a spot at the top of the hill near the concession stands. I heard the Incredible String Band, Canned Heat and some other acts. In retrospect, being so far from the stage made the event much more of a community experience, about tolerance and helping one another out and sharing. That’s what remains with me to this day.

    IM: What stand out as some of the more memorable moments from the ’69 festival?

    Weston: In that very challenging time, humanity rose to the occasion and a wonderful outcome was achieved. It provided a great example for us, today. If only we could bury our differences and all pull together ­whether it’s with respect to the economy or the environment, great things are possible. For more about that time, I wrote up an account of my experiences in a book called “It Happened in Woodstock” ( It’s the final chapter in the book: “The Woodstock Music Festival of 1969”).

    Julia: I was 16 that summer, and our parents didn’t want me going to the festival. So they promised that I could “go next year.” Wow, what a bummer! It took me a long time to get over that one. When I returned to prep school in Connecticut in September of ’69, my classmates suddenly had a whole new take on my home town. What had seemed to them like a rather weird place was now totally cool.

    IM: Much of the dialogue for the book stems from an event you both held last year. Fill us in on your concept for the book, and tell us about some of the principal behind-the-scenes players.

    Weston: Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival is about the run-up of events leading to the Woodstock festival, from the perspective of Woodstock, New York. Beginning in the early 1900s the place had been an artists’ colony, and it was a magnet for creative people. In those days all kinds of artists and musicians made their homes here. In the 1960s, as the folk and rock music movement grew, a number of musicians like Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin and Van Morrison moved to the area. Gradually a vibrant music center developed, and this in turn attracted to town Michael Lang, the legendary Woodstock ’69 promoter. He crafted his event, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair from the local scene.

    Last August, we organized a panel discussion to determine why the Woodstock festival retained the Woodstock name, and why it was not located in this town. We invited as panelists a number of townspeople familiar with these events, including Lang; Jean Young, co-author with Michael of Woodstock Festival Remembered; Bill West, a town official in the ’60s; Jeremy Wilber, a bartender at the Sled Hill Café, a key rock n’ roll watering hole in the ’60s; and Paul McMahon, a musician and a bona fide hippie. The event was well received, so we decided to turn the transcript into a book. We added a photo essay to help readers put into context personalities andthemes raised during the panel discussion.

    Julia: I’ve done a lot of traveling through the years, and whenever people hear that I’m from Woodstock, they’re fascinated. They want to understand the mystique behind the town and the concert. If I explain that the concert actually occurred in Bethel, they want to know why it kept the Woodstock name, and why the town of Woodstock is so famous. With this book we’ve explored the backstory to the ’69 festival, including the town’s history as a colony of the arts, and its long tradition of music festivals, dating back to the early 1900s.

    IM: How long have each of you been located in Woodstock? What have you seen in all that time? How has the area changed and how has it remained the same? Your PR man told me that when he visited recently, he saw that much appears to have changed, but much also seems to be reminiscent of the ’60s.

    Weston: We have had a presence in the area since 1956. Woodstock undergoes change all the time. New artists are constantly coming in and leaving. During our adolescence the town transitioned from a place of classical music and art to a folk/rock and art destination. However, the core of the town’s spirit remains undiminished. We all honor the creative spark in our works and we continue to be enthralled by the natural beauty that surrounds us.

    Julia: Woodstock was a dynamic place to grow up, with artists and musicians everywhere, a very “happening” locale. I was privileged to take art and music classes from some very talented local artists.

    Forty years later the town still has more artists per capita than almost anywhere else in the country. As in the ’60s, Woodstock these days is about the natural beauty of the Catskills and the lively art and music scene. A new component is the region’s commitment to wellness, with a great many spiritual and healing centers. And a
    particularly exciting development is the town’s 2007 Zero-Carbon Initiative ­ a pledge that as a community we will have a neutral carbon footprint by the year 2017. To Weston and me, the Woodstock of today represents, in many ways, the promise of the ’69 festival fulfilled.

    IM: There are so many points in the book that completely captivated me. First and foremost, the concept and execution of the “Sound-Outs.” Tell me a bit more about them and how they factored into the original design for the festival.

    Julia: The Sound-Outs were a series of very hip concerts that took place at Pan Copeland’s farm on the outskirts of Woodstock from 1967 through 1970. As Michael Lang made clear during the Roots of ’69 Woodstock Festival panel discussion last year, he and his partners were guided by the model of the Sound-Outs in developing the concept of their 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

    Weston: During the panel discussion Michael Lang said that the Sound-Outs sparked his thinking about holding his event in the countryside. Lang said these concerts had all the ingredients he wanted to employ in his event. The Sound-Outs were initially produced by John “Jocko” Moffitt, a strapping Californian, who came to
    Woodstock in 1966. He created an outdoor stage, booked more than 20 bands, and held his first Sound-Out over Labor Day weekend in 1967. Performers like Richie Havens and Tim Hardin participated. People parked their cars in the field and could camp out on the grounds.

    IM: Also, the story of the just-married couple, driving around Woodstock, trying to find the exact location of the show, was priceless. But, I imagine that happened more often than not.

    Weston: This still happens a lot. It’s a question that is constantly raised at the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce & Arts information booth. The festival was incubated in Woodstock, and like so many other ventures, had to move elsewhere due to space constraints.

    Julia: Yes, people are constantly arriving in Woodstock and asking to be pointed to Max Yasgur’s farm. They’re incredulous when they hear that it’s located more than sixty miles away! But most people hang around and seem to find plenty of the flower-power spirit here. There are numerous shops and other venues in Woodstock that pay tribute to the ’60s.

    IM: I am told that you both will be producing an anniversary concert in August. Tell us some more about that.

    Julia: It’s a 40th anniversary event scheduled on Aug. 15 at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock. That’s a great space, an intimate, 250-seat venue. It’s part of the complex built by Albert Grossman back in the ’70s. The challenge is how to evoke a ’60s feel with the concert, but at the same time make it very relevant to today’s audience; and how to share it with the world in an environmentally responsible way. So we’re in discussion with a cable TV partner to capture the events leading up to the concert and the performances themselves.

    Weston: The concert will help raise money for the town’s Zero-Carbon Initiative. As Julia mentioned earlier, this was passed in 2007 and with it local citizenry pledged to neutralize the town’s carbon imprint via solar-, wind- and hydro-power installations.

    IM: We heard that Steve Walter, from The Cutting Room, will be involved as well.

    Weston: We’re very pleased to have Steve Walter involved. During his years at The Cutting Room he developed impeccable music industry contacts.

    Julia: Yes, we’re thrilled. Steve is a really creative guy, with a great vision for the concert. We feel as though we’re totally in synch with him.

    IM: Tell us about WoodstockArts.

    Julia: WoodstockArts is a publishing and production company based in Woodstock. It’s a business that Weston and I launched when we returned to Woodstock after absences of many years. Our tagline is “All the Arts of Woodstock Including the Art of Living.” What we mean by art of living is environmentally sustainable lifestyles.

    Weston: We publish high-quality regional art books. These books support the environment by using recycled paper in the stock make-up. I’ve driven a Prius since 2003 and we have a 7.2 kilowatt solar-array installation.

    IM: What is the enduring lesson of Woodstock? It certainly transcended being just a location . . . it’s also an experience.

    Weston: Woodstock is a state of mind. We dedicated the “Roots” book to all the people throughout the world who support a peaceful,
    loving, music-filled and artful way of life.

    Julia: To us the Woodstock State of Mind represents the counterculture, an alternative channel that one can choose to tune into. I think the lesson of Woodstock is that idealism and dreams and flower power aren’t faddish, they matter. The Woodstock of today is not a perfect place by any means. But I think that its commitment to art, music, wellness, diversity, environmental sustainability and respectful dialogue offers a hopeful approach for the 21st century.

    IM: What are you hoping to accomplish with the book and the concert?

    Julia: We’re hoping to share the Woodstock story and to showcase the Woodstock of today.

    Weston: The Woodstock festival of 1969 grew out of 1960s Woodstock. The Roots book speaks to this. The Roots concert shows that this spirit is very much alive and well in Woodstock. We want to demonstrate that the promise of the 1960s lives on in the 2000s. That’s why part of the proceeds from the concert will be donated to Woodstock’s Zero-Carbon Initiative. We want to deliver on the commitment suggested by the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s.

    IM: I understand from Steve that the show will feature a variety of acts. Can you talk about that?

    Julia: We’re looking for a mix of ’60s musicians and more contemporary acts. Stay tuned for more on that soon!

    IM: Thank you.

    (Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in 2009 before it was lost inadvertently through a tech upgrade. It was recently rediscovered in a Google archive, so it’s being reprinted here.)