Woodstock's 40th Anniversary Draws Some of Those Who Witnessed Generation-Defining Festival

The fields near Bethel, N.Y. that hosted the Woodstock music festival 40 years ago have become a pilgrimage site for veteran hippies as well as their children and grandchildren.Video by Travis Fox/The Washington Post
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009

BETHEL, N.Y., Aug. 14 Forty years ago, they came here to a stretch of farmland in the middle of nowhere, to tune in and turn on. Nearly a half-million people gathered for four days of music and mud, camaraderie and chemicals, at the festival known as Woodstock, which came to define the generation.

And this weekend some have come back, old Woodstockers like Teach and Groovy and Debby, to try to relive the experience through the retelling.

At least one other, Duke, never left. In 1969 he hitchhiked here from Texas, stayed on to help with the cleanup, landed a job on a dairy farm and now works as the "site interpreter" at the museum and arts center erected at the location of the original event, helping explain to those who weren't here what it was all about.

"Something took place here, and it's still happening," said Duke Devlin, 66, speaking from behind his thick, chest-length, snow-white beard. "The sense of community we had was really overwhelming. I've never really experienced a weekend like that again."

This weekend is probably as close as he'll get. While there have been, of course, other youth-centered Woodstock concerts over the decades -- including one in 1999 in Rome, N.Y., that was marred by violence and vandalism -- the 2009 jamboree is specifically designed as a kind of old-timers game.

The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts led off with a sold-out Friday night concert by Richie Havens, who opened the 1969 Woodstock because most of the other acts were stuck in traffic.

On Saturday at 5 p.m. there will be a "Heroes of Woodstock" concert, also sold out, featuring a number of the graybeard performers who are still around: Country Joe McDonald, Tom Constanten, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Canned Heat, Ten Years After, Jefferson Starship, the Levon Helm Band and Mountain. Of course, the very notion of a "sold-out" Woodstock show, able to accommodate only a certain number of people, indicates how much things have changed. Many of the 15,000 concertgoers expected by organizers will be in seats, not sprawling on blankets. And attendees will mainly be overnighting at inns and motels up to 60 miles away, not . . . sprawling on blankets.

On Sunday there will be a panel discussion about the original festival.

The sense of community Devlin mentioned, forged out of four days of chaos, is what keeps the Woodstock veterans tied to this place. "It was cool," said Debby, 58, who came down from Vermont and asked that her last name not be printed, explaining, "I did some time in the front lines of the drug war."

"It was just peace and love," said Debby, whose long hair is now white. She's lost most of her teeth, and walks with a cane. "Everybody cared for everybody. Nothing else happened except peace and love and music." This is her sixth time back to the site, and she had to be here this time, she said, because with her ailments, "I probably won't live to see the next big anniversary."

Some come here every year. Gary Rupp, known as Teach because he is a high school teacher, comes up from Carbondale, Pa., often toting with him some of the Woodstock memorabilia he has collected. This time he was showing off the perfectly preserved red T-shirt he got autographed by many of the top musicians who performed then.

Asked what Woodstock means today, Rupp paused and said, "You're looking at a generation of music that people all over the world still follow."

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