Peace, love and music —and mud, lots of mud—are among Jeff Smith’s memories of an epic three-day festival in August 1969 in Bethel, New York, known to the world as Woodstock.
No one knows for sure how many people attended Woodstock, but some estimate near the half-million mark.
It was a good time to be a Hippie—a rather broad term for those who rejected mainstream America—and who were notoriously known to wear flamboyant clothing and experiment—and embrace—drugs and sexuality. With hair that stopped at his collar, Smith says he never felt part of the hippie culture. “For me there was no sex and no drugs,” says Smith. “I felt more like Forrest Gump.”
“I just wanted to get out of Washington,” says Smith. The 1969 Clemson graduate went to work that same year as a Patent Examiner for the United States Patent Office. Living in a garden apartment and accustomed to a slower South Carolina lifestyle, it didn’t take long for Smith to tire of the touristy DC scene.
Smith says he’d heard talk of Woodstock, saw posters around DC advertising the all-star musical line-up. Having a longstanding affection for jazz and classical music, the former Clemson radio announcer and engineer says there was only one act he wanted to see. “I was familiar with all the bands, but I wanted to see Blood, Sweat, and Tears. They were a horn-band—that’s why I loved them. They were the least hippie-funky group, but that was my reason for going to Woodstock.”
Months earlier, Smith purchased two Woodstock concert tickets at a nearby record store. Ticket numbers 63262 and 63263.
Smith says on Friday afternoon, he and a friend—who he affectionately likens and refers to as Peggy—because she reminded him of Peggy Lipton from television’s Mod-Squad fame—left DC and took the road less traveled to the 600-acre dairy farm owned by Max Yasgur—home to the Woodstock festival. “I’m usually pretty good at planning trips. I planned my route to go through Pennsylvania—through the Poconos, almost—and there was no traffic at all. I knew there would be a lot of traffic on a Friday afternoon and I later learned how serious travel became for some as they abandoned cars and closed the highway. We were just zooming through the countryside with no problem. And then we get there, and I see people parking in a field.”
Woodstock was Smith’s first musical festival, “I’d been to one or two rock concerts,” says Smith, “but nothing like this. This was astonishing. I’d never seen anything like it. There was a sea of people—who knows how many? But it was unlike anything I expected. I expected music and mountainous weather that would be 15-20 degrees cooler than Washington DC in August.”
Smith parked his 1963 Dodge Dart and began walking. “It was probably around 7 or 7:30 before we were getting anywhere near where the crowd was, where the festival was. We probably walked three—maybe three and a half—miles before seeing a little dot of light, which was the stage. Over the next five hours, and as rain moved in and people began leaving or moving to another spot, I had worked my way down to within 30 to 50 yards of the stage—but the music had ended by this time. The gates were opened, and the fences were down. It basically became a free festival. That’s why I still have my tickets. I didn’t need them.”
Organizers planned 32-musical acts for 200,000 people. When people surpassed tickets in masses, gates were opened and people came and went freely. Food and water was scarce and unsanitary, rains were heavy, and facilities were overrun. People had no means of communication. Musical acts were flown in and out by helicopters, and a small percentage of people required medical assistance. Overall, the event was peaceful and for Smith, mostly uneventful.
Smith says there were encampments and they probably could have slept in a tent, but they opted to sleep outside. “We each have a sleeping bag and people are stepping over me all throughout the night. Saturday, we get up at six or seven in the morning. There were gaps of people and we had seven more hours before (the music) was going to happen. So, we pick up our sleeping bags—which are muddy by this time because it drizzled all night—and we take them with us as we head towards the car—again, walking three-plus miles. We needed food. While I’m trying to get my car out of the field of slush and mud, I managed to break somebody’s tail light—and the person happened to be there—and they said, ‘Don’t worry about it, man, we don’t care, we’re all in this together!”
Smith says he drove approximately 15-miles to Callicoon and Narrowsburg, near the Delaware River. “We found a really nice place to have a nice, big breakfast. That helped a lot. In fact, outside the restaurant is where I found this newspaper.”
Reading the newspaper headlines, Smith says he began to get a real sense that he was experiencing history.
Smith says they drove back to the festival and managed to park within a mile and half of the stage. “I had no intention of leaving again until after the festival. I wasn’t going to lose my parking space. I had to be back at work on Monday at 8 a.m.”
The rains stopped. The day was hot. Food and water remained scarce. But finally, there were bands to be seen and music to be heard. For Smith, the festival was about to begin.
Smith says he saw all of Saturday’s performers—including Santana, The Grateful Dead, The Who, Janis Joplin—but the song and performance he recalls most was Country Joe McDonald’s “Fish Cheer”, which was altered to use the “F” word. “I had never heard that song before at all, but you have to understand, the Clemson culture was still in the 50’s,” he says, “I wasn’t offended, but I couldn’t believe that a couple hundred-thousand people knew that song. That’s what was shocking to me.”
Saturday night, they spent the night in his car. “I slept in the front seat. She (Peggy) slept in the back seat,” says Smith. “We were not a couple, but she kind of made me look cool. She had long hair down to here and she was as skinny as a person could be—and she never complained about anything—not the rain, not the heat, nothing—can you imagine? I mean, conditions were difficult.”
Sunday, a storm came along, and the music came to an end. Not knowing when or if Sunday’s performances would go on as scheduled, Smith—always prompt, punctual and responsible—had to be at work Monday morning at 8 a.m. “There was a six-hour drive ahead of us, at least. So, I didn’t get to see Blood Sweat and Tears. I left after Joe Cocker’s performance, With a Little Help from My Friends.”
Smith’s three-days of peace, love and music—and mud, lots of mud—came to an end.
Unharmed by all the stories surrounding Woodstock—none of which Smith saw—Smith’s 1963 cream colored Dodge Dart—“with push button transmission”—made its way back through the mountainous weather, safely returning the boy who felt like Forrest Gump and the girl who looked like Peggy Lipton, to their respective Washington DC garden apartments.
Woodstock was over. Smith was at work at 8 a.m. Monday morning.
Smith says he never saw his friend, Peggy, again after that year. “I heard she died a couple of years later in a tragic car accident. She’s not faceless in my memory, that’s for sure.”
An attorney specializing in intellectual property, and one of more than 100 attorneys involved in the James Brown Music Estate, Smith is most recognized as the former owner of Smith and Brewington Electronics in Newberry.
Photographs by Ted B. Williams