Back to the garden: Festival’s legacy lives in Woodstock

By Mark Guarino

BETHEL, N.Y. — A sitting president was mocked, an unpopular war ridiculed, and the “Star-Spangled Banner” was performed with an electric guitar. If the ruckus raised earlier this month by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young struck a familiar tone to concertgoers, there was a good reason. It took place on this very spot, almost 37 years to the day, that the band played the 1969 Woodstock festival, a four-day event that launched the counterculture movement, mud and all.

These days, fans are more likely to show solidarity by holding up their BlackBerrys instead of lighters and, if you tilt your head, an inverted peace symbol tops every Mercedes Benz. But the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a copper-sheathed concert pavilion that opened its doors this summer on land that was once Max Yasgur’s farm, is giving baby boomers a place to return home to that feels more tangible than a cheap Tie-Die shirt. It is returning music to Sullivan County under wide-open skies amid 2,000 acres of rolling farmland.

It didn’t come a minute too soon. Now with baby boomers hovering around retirement age (Paul McCartney turned 64 this year), the event that defined their generation lives largely in the popular culture as caricature — hippies in mud, on acid. They are images that continue to anchor tourism in the actual town of Woodstock, 60 miles from the concert site. The downtown Tinker Street strip bares its share of trinket shops, psychics and opportunities to deck yourself in Tie-Die, but it tells only half the story. Woodstock is a town both burdened and bolstered by Woodstock the concert. Its mountainous back roads continue to provide creative renewal for a revolving door of musicians and artists, adding to its rich mythology.

“This is one of our most musical towns in America,” said Levon Helm, drummer and singer for The Band, the group that, alongside Dylan, put the town on the map. “The ones of us that get to live here, we enjoy a wonderful and comfortable community. It doesn’t look like or feel like everywhere else.”
Byrdcliffe to Dylan

Woodstock is a town of a few thousand people tucked in a valley between the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains. Two miles north of New York City, it has long been a refuge for artisans, from furniture makers in the turn of the century to rock stars a half a century later.

Bob Dylan made Woodstock a household name when he moved here, along with The Band, in 1966. It was a both physical and aesthetic retreat from the psychedelic era where long guitar solos, electronic mischief and LSD were becoming essential ingredients for the next phase of rock. He came to recover from excessive drug and alcohol use, escape the spotlight of fame and to raise a family and he found in the area’s gentle climate and natural beauty conducive to making music that was simpler, more introspective and with rural sounds.

Dylan, who releases his 32nd studio album “Modern Times” (Columbia) today, struck a chord among other musicians who likewise felt compelled to get back to acoustic instruments, hole up in the mountains and make music without any reverence for current trends. It can be heard on albums that were written here, like Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” (Columbia), The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” (Capitol) and Van Morrison’s “Moondance” (Warner Bros.).

It was not by chance that Dylan and many others rambled into Woodstock opposed to the other small farming communities located throughout Ulster County. The reason for Woodstock’s artistic draw was Byrdcliffe, an arts and crafts colony hidden high above the town on 1,500 acres where writers, visual artists, musicians and theatre people flocked to work outside the automated rhythms of city life. Built in 1903, the colony was the vision of Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, an Englishman enamored with poet Walt Whitman’s idea of a golden age where man could remove himself from the machine culture of the industrial revolution and return to a more soulful community with nature. After looking for land in California and Oregon, Whitehead chose Woodstock, a quiet farming village that seemed to exist in a more antiquated age thanks to its tannery, glass factories and bluestone quarry. Because of its proximity to New York City it could draw artists of every stripe and better still, and the Catskill valleys reminded him of Italy.

“Byrdcliffe changed the entire cultural landscape of Woodstock at that point and it’s never gone back. It’s just progressed since then,” said Carla T. Smith, executive director of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild.

Whitehead built a wooded campus of 30 buildings including a large theatre and an inn to house students. He hired likeminded dreamers to operate the colony including Hervey White, a playwright and social activist in Chicago who Whitehead found working at Hull House.

“(Woodstock) was just a little village and when the artists came and said, ‘wow, what a beautiful place this is’, their friends followed,” said Smith, a Grayslake native. “Then the people that Ralph hired and brought here to teach them, that’s what made the difference. Essentially, many of them never left.”

In the decades to follow, Whitehead’s surviving son Peter sold off some of the land while renting the remaining homes to artists of his choosing, later including The Band and Dylan. Dylan was a periodic Woodstock resident since 1964, coaxed up by Albert Grossman, his manager, a folk music mogul and University of Chicago graduate who decided he would build an empire in neighboring Bearsville and bring all of his clients there to live with him.

The Dylan mystique turned Woodstock into a bohemian boomtown. Tinker Street was lined with clubs where sometime residents and weekend visitors including Peter, Paul and Mary, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Butterfield, George Harrison and later, Todd Rundgren, Bruce Springsteen and countless others would perform while recording in newly-opened studios or rehearsing for tours.

Dylan fled to the city two years later, the hippie invaders had taken their toll. In his recent book “Chronicles: Volume One” (Simon & Schuster), he writes, “at one time the place had been a quiet refuge, but now, no more. Roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all fifty states for gangs of dropouts and druggies.”

The Woodstock festival fit Whitehead’s utopian ideal of peace through music, but when stragglers remained long after the festival ended, local residents sounded the alarm. In his definitive history, “The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock” (Overlook Press), historian Alf Evers writes that “so many people from all over the region came to Woodstock no longer ‘to see the artists’ but ‘to see the hippies’” and that “traffic jams became weekend commonplaces.”

Woodstock had officially transformed into a tourist town and long-time residents struggled to cope. Although artists continued to work at Byrdcliffe, the town’s energy dimmed. The influx of heroin in the area in the early 1970’s didn’t help. With so many of its principals either dead or moved on, Woodstock faced an uncertain future and a search for an identity.
After the garden

An inaugural drive down Tinker Street in 2006 reveals a tamer town high on charm. A weekly drum circle (neatly regulated to just two hours on Sundays) on the village green draws tourists who slurp ice cream while walking between upscale boutiques and espresso shops. Dylan never returned; his Byrdcliffe home is now occupied by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan.

The local music scene is much more muted. Institutions such as the Tinker Street Cafe (where Dylan briefly lived in an apartment above), the Joyous Lake and others are closed, leaving live music to just two venues: the Colony Café (open just a few nights a week) and Grossman’s Bearsville Theatre, home to recent shows by Jon Spencer and Dan Hicks. Noise regulations restricted the scene from expanding and although musicians still live in town, they often play elsewhere.

“I think (Dylan) probably brought unwanted attention,” said guitarist Baker Rorick. “The people who were around (at that time) say ‘we had quite a scene and we could do everything’.”

Joe Beesmer, a Woodstock native and leader of the band Uncle Funk, said he remembers the time when the local newspaper flowed with show listings. “It’s sort of toned down,” he said. “The town tried to keep its idyllic sense, not letting bands play outside. Which is a shame because as a musician, I have very little choices of places to play.”

For some, a quieter Woodstock is not necessarily a bad thing. Today, the mountain roads still claim residents from Pat Metheny to Marshall Crenshaw (David Bowie was spotted in town recently), which means that when there is music, it’s high caliber and intimate. “It’s not like it was,” said Ron Osenenko, owner of the Woodstock Music Shop. “But in some respects, it’s better. You can see great new music in small venues for not a lot of money.”
Midnight rambling

The solace Dylan found in Woodstock came through the gentle way of life here, where homespun interaction breathes warmth into the music. At the Colony Café, a weekly bluegrass session covers the span of the American songbook, from Hank Williams to Bill Monroe to the Grateful Dead and Dylan. By night’s end, the line separating the performers from the audience disappears.

There is no better place in Woodstock where the past blurs with the present than up at Levon Helm’s house Saturday night. Helm, the drummer and singer for The Band, is the last living link to the Woodstock era. He remains a town resident, on 18 acres of land, home to a lake, woods, a bear and her three cubs, and Helm’s home and studio.

Twice a month for three years Helm has hosted the “Midnight Ramble,” a house concert series where 100 guests pay $100 each and are invited to Helm’s home studio for a night of music. Snacks are on a table in his garage, Helm’s pit bull mutt Muddy waddles among legs and musicians have a drink with the audience before stepping to the microphone to sing. Garth Hudson, Helm’s former bandmate, has dropped in to perform as well as Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello. The unusual experience has drawn fans to Woodstock from as far away as Russia and Japan to experience the type of music Dylan and The Band made in Woodstock: tightly-worn harmonies, spry acoustic instrumentation, and spontaneous interpretations of ancient country, blues and mountain spirituals.

“This is all about having a good time playing music for the joy of playing music and nothing else,” said Larry Campbell, a long-time Dylan guitarist who is producing Helm’s first new album since 1982.

Helm, 66, is one of the great figures in American music, the singer of such classics as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” For him, the concerts are also celebrations. A three-year bout with throat cancer left Helm unable to talk and the Rambles were designed to coax his voice back. Today, while looking a bit frail, he sings a full two-hour show as well as playing mandolin and drums with considerable strength.

“It’s certainly a miracle,” he said. Renewal is a familiar story in Woodstock, especially for those who have lived here most of their lives. “It looks like it used to when I first got here in the late 1960’s,” he said. “It’s nice and quiet and you get to think.”

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