Retroski: Greg Morrill

Greg Morrill

Yes, I know it’s not ski season, but I had some nostalgia to share from 50 years ago.

Today, Aug. 15, marks the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival that was attended by hundreds of thousands. And yes, I’m one of the millions who now claim to have been there.

But I was there — honest!

Like many others, I didn’t plan on going. I was working for IBM in Burlington and after the workday on Friday, Aug. 15, 1969, I headed for a friend’s apartment in Winooski. A bunch of us met there every Friday before heading into downtown Burlington to hit the bars. Well, actually there weren’t that many bars in downtown Burlington in those days. We usually ended up at the Tariff near the corner of Church Street and Main. And by the way, Church Street was still a street in 1969!

When I got to the apartment, I found that several of the guys were getting ready to drive to the Woodstock music festival. I had forgotten that they had bought tickets for the event. They invited me to come along with them, but I said I didn’t have a ticket. They said I could buy one at the festival.

So I made a quick run to my apartment to pick up some basics for the trip and off we went.

By the time we got to the Northway, we were hearing reports on the radio that traffic for the festival was backed up all the way to the New York Thruway. Eventually those reports said if you were heading to the festival, you should turn around due to the gridlock. We kept going.

Since we were coming from the north, we plotted a route to get off the Thruway early and basically come in the back way. This seemed to work, since we didn’t catch up with traffic for quite a while and it was still moving. Granted, it gradually slowed to a crawl, but we felt we were getting close.

When we finally came to a halt and could go no farther, we pulled to the side of the road. It was in the wee hours of the morning and a light rain was falling. So we slept in the car.

When I woke up, it was daylight. It had stopped raining. We were diagonally parked on the edge of a field. There were cars similarly parked as far as I could see in either direction. Behind us was the road we had been on and both lanes were now parked solid with cars.

My first challenge of the day was finding a place to pee! I headed for a little grove of trees across the road, but around every tree were people sleeping. Some were in sleeping bags — very wet sleeping bags. Some were just wrapped in blankets and one creative couple was wrapped in clear plastic. Well, at least that kept the rain off.

Eventually, with relief, I found a clump of unoccupied bushes.

We joined a column of people heading toward the festival grounds. We didn’t know if that was relatively close or miles away. It turned out that we were relatively close — I’d estimate just over a mile.

The column grew as we continued. I still thought I was going to have to buy a ticket. However, when our column walked over a trampled hurricane fence, I began to realize I wasn’t going to need a ticket.

We came over a ridge and got our first view of the field leading down to the stage. The biggest crowd I’d ever seen was spreading back up the field from the stage. We proceeded down to the back of the crowd and secured our spot on the grass.

We weren’t exactly close to the stage, but in the end we were probably about halfway back in the crowd that built up during Saturday.

Some of the acts we saw were Country Joe McDonald, Santana (who was actually a new group then), John Sebastian, Mountain, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin.

However, the group that made the biggest impression on the crowd that day was Canned Heat. As I recall they even mentioned that they’d been talking about breaking up, but after the Woodstock reaction, decided to stay together.

Janis Joplin came on in the wee hours of Sunday morning (3 a.m.-ish, I think) and a light rain began to fall. So we headed back to the car after her performance. Actually, I think it was during her performance.

When we woke up in the car on Sunday morning, we noted that the road had been cleared of cars so travel was again possible. After a brief discussion, we decided to take advantage of that situation and head for home. We all had to be at work Monday morning, so the prospect of another night with little-to-no sleep didn’t seem worth it.

I haven’t mentioned the mud. Even though it didn’t rain Saturday, the Friday rain had softened the field and the paths through the audience soon turned to mud, red mud at that. It was easy to slip and fall in it. Some people intentionally slid in it, but even if you just walked through it, you ended up with red mud up to your knees.

So, as we retraced our route to get back to the Thruway, we joined others to take advantage of a river beside the road to wash off the mud. Our timing was perfect, since a local church service was just getting out. And there in the river behind the church was a collection of American youth in various stages of undress.

I’m sure I heard parishioners telling their children to listen to the word of God or “you’ll end up like them!”

I’m sure that this 50th anniversary will produce some pundits touting the importance of Woodstock. However, in my opinion, if it truly had any long-term social or political significance, our society today would be different than it is.

A couple of messages that some of us took from Woodstock were that not all people in uniform were evil and not all longhairs were good people. The New York State Police distinguished themselves by making their mission the safety of the attendees. They concentrated on getting the roads open so emergency vehicles could get through and not on enforcing every law that might have been broken. I even saw a trooper in uniform sitting at a campfire with a collection of longhaired, tie-dyed youth.

On the flip side, the brown acid was really bad and being peddled by what appeared to be kindred spirits of the peace, love and music movement.

There may still be a message today for those of us who attended Woodstock. Woodstock happened at a time when the youth of America felt that no one was listening to them. As youths, we felt our government was run by “white-hairs” who not only weren’t listening, but were actually lying to us.

Today we are those “white-hairs.” Are we listening to our youth? 

Greg Morrill of Stowe is a retired computer programmer and college professor. Email letters to

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