For three days in August 1969, 400,000 people gathered on a dairy farm in upstate New York to listen to rock ‘n’ roll. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair boasted performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who and Jefferson Airplane. But the festival is most famous for exuding a harmonious, we-are-all-one attitude that rain, traffic jams and overcrowding could not dispel. In honor of the festival’s 40th anniversary, a new documentary, Woodstock: Now and Then, airs Aug. 14 on VH1 and on Aug. 19 on the History Channel. TIME talked to Michael Lang, the original founder and co-organizer of Woodstock, about the world’s most famous concert.
What inspired you to organize a music festival
The starting point was the Monterey Pop Festival [in 1967]. Large music festivals were relatively new back then and Monterey Pop was the first rock festival that I knew of, anyway. I was really impressed by it and a friend of mine and I decided we wanted to put on a similar event. We called it the Miami Pop Festival. And then a couple of months later I moved to Woodstock, N.Y. Woodstock was an artists’ community with a lot of galleries so I spent the summer of 1968 there. There were a series of local concerts, and I went to several of them. It was the ideal way to hear music: out there on the grass, in such a bucolic setting, with no police and no hassles. I thought that was the perfect setting for something a little bit bigger.
How did you pick the location
The first place we found was a site in Saugerties, N.Y., where we actually ended up doing the Woodstock ’94 celebration. But the landowner wouldn’t let us have the space. So we found another place, a half-used, half-abused industrial site. We convinced the local town to let us use it by claiming we were putting on a jazz and folk festival.
None of us looked like jazz guys or folk guys, so people became suspicious. Rumors started about the bands and the number of people we expected to show up. People got upset and it actually got pretty nasty. About a month before the show, the townspeople passed a law that required permits for the land. And then, of course, they immediately set about denying our permit request.
The next day, as we were trying to figure out what our alternatives were, we went for a ride around the countryside. We came down this road and there it was, the perfect farm. It belonged to a man named Max Yasgur. So we went up to his door and asked him if we could use it.
How did you convince him to let you hold a concert on his property
He didn’t need much convincing, believe it or not. He needed some extra money and he liked us. He liked the way we presented ourselves. We made a deal on the spot.
What was a day at Woodstock like
People would wake up sometime around 8 or 9 o’clock and find their way to the bathrooms or shower. They’d go to the food concession stands, take a swim in the lake. Then the music would start. We had each day planned out with acts for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The day ended when the last act played. Because of the weather and the traffic on the roads, Friday night started an hour late and ended at about 2 a.m. Saturday ended about 6 a.m. with Jefferson Airplane. Sunday actually ended on Monday morning, when Jimi Hendrix closed the festival with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” At night, nobody was moving anywhere. People weren’t going to give up their spots by the stage.
Everyone talks about the major acts like Hendrix and the Who. What were the acts you felt were overlooked
Many of the acts exploded out of Woodstock. Santana was a brand new act; they hadn’t even recorded yet. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young played their second show ever. Joe Cocker had never been known in the States before that. So that was gratifying to see these really talented musicians go on to become major artists. But for me the highlight was Sly and the Family Stone. When they played “I Want to Take You Higher,” it was a moment I’ve never seen repeated ever. The energy that was bouncing back and forth between Sly and the audience was phenomenal. Live music is about that energy what comes off the stage and hits the audience, and what comes off the audience to encourage the performer. I’ve never felt such strong energy before or since. There were half a million people responding to his calls of “Higher, higher!” It was like a big, psychedelic church.
It sounds like it was one big party. People just played what they wanted to, when they wanted to play it.
It was very inspirational and things happened spontaneously. Richie Havens went on first, which he wasn’t supposed to do, but he was the only person available. He’d been playing for an hour and a half and he ran out of songs. He looked out over the audience and realized what he was seeing was freedom. He began writing “Freedom” right then and there, right on stage. Country Joe McDonald’s “Fish Cheer” was something that grew out of the moment. And the thing was, the music wasn’t even the biggest act. The big deal about Woodstock was the people. The crowd was so enormous. The musicians were flabbergasted.
You organized Woodstocks ’94 and ’99 and you’ve said in other interviews that you felt the attendees at those were less innocent. How so
They were living in a very different time. Woodstock ’69 was very specific to its time. Live music is a reflection of what’s going on in the country and in our lives. It tells you about what’s going on in a generation.
Now the world has moved on. By the time we held Woodstock ’99, we were a much more complex society. There was more information available, more information to absorb. Woodstock ’99 was much more of an MTV feeling. Music in that time period was edgy and angry. Kids were feeling disenfranchised and worried about their future. I think that changed in the Bush era, when organizations like MoveOn.org and Rock the Vote started trying to get people involved in the political process. People started protesting again. I think the other two Woodstocks were just reflective of their times.
Do you think there will ever be another moment like the original Woodstock
I don’t know. You can’t re-create a moment. The closest we’ve come to it a group of people that size, evoking those kinds of feelings toward each other was at Obama’s inauguration. It was Washington’s Woodstock.
What’s the most important part of Woodstock’s legacy
The people. People all over the world come up and say, “Aren’t you the Woodstock guy” They tell me their stories and say it was life-changing. Even people who just saw it on film or heard about it say it had a very positive effect on their outlook for the future. I think if you took a poll, you’d find there were about 10 million people who feel like they attended Woodstock, at least in spirit.
Read TIME’s 1971 review of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin’s last albums.