I’ve only been to upstate New York once – and that wasn’t anywhere near Bethel.
But I’ve recently found myself thinking about that part of the world and the event that, for me, really put Bethel on the map – the Woodstock music and art fair.
It’s 50 years since almost 500,000 people converged on the area over four days from August 15, 1969.
Much of the festival has entered into folklore: Jimi Hendrix playing guitar with his teeth on ‘Star Spangled Banner’; Joe Cocker nailing the Beatles song ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’; or Ten Years After booming through ‘I’m Going Home’.
Scenes of the huge crowd chanting through a rainstorm, sliding in the mud and bathing in the dam have been published endlessly – and were part of an Academy Award winning documentary about the event.
But, my favourite moment of Woodstock didn’t even feature a musican.
It involved a crew-cut dairy farmer who is said to have supported the Vietnam War, but also believed in the right of free speech.
The late Max Yasgur had allowed the festival to take place on his land at Bethel, when others had declined.
And his speech to the hippie hordes was classic:
“I’m a farmer. I don’t know how to speak to 20 people at a time, let alone a crowd like this.
“But, I think you people have proven something to the world: half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music – and have nothing but fun and music – God bless you for it”.
Over the years, I’ve read reports that Max Yasgur and his family also freely handed out every bit of water and milk they could when the Woodstock crowd swelled dramatically.
This was a remarkable man indeed and, when he died in the early 1970’s, I was delighted to see him given a full-page obituary in Rolling Stone magazine – apparently one of the few non-musicians to have received such an honour.
It seems that, although he may not have agreed with all the sentiments of the counterculture, he actively defended the right to express those sentiments.
Max Yasgur, God bless you sir – and wish you were here!