'Magical' Woodstock: The town that lent the festival its name

The town of Woodstock in upstate New York traces its artistic, anti-authoritarian roots much further back than its association with the storied festival. ― AFP pic
The town of Woodstock in upstate New York traces its artistic, anti-authoritarian roots much further back than its association with the storied festival. ― AFP pic

LOS ANGELES, Aug 16 ― Music blared from the church near local Woodstock teenager Richard Heppner's home ― but it wasn't bells that sent his father over the edge.

“You cannot call the cops on Jimi Hendrix,” Heppner recalls insisting until his dad conceded, as the guitar hero rehearsed in the abandoned place of worship.

The town of Woodstock ― a municipality 107 miles (172 kilometres) north of New York City ― didn't actually host the festival carrying its name, but rubbing shoulders with greats like Hendrix was standard fare, said Heppner, who holds that his home town's artistic bent reaches back long before 1969.

“We like to believe the spirit that gave birth to the festival started right here,” said the now 67-year-old, who serves as the town's historian.

Organisers of the Woodstock weekend, whose 50th anniversary starts Thursday, originally wanted to hold the event celebrating peace, love and music in its namesake town, long a haven for creative types including Bob Dylan.

For space and permit reasons they were forced to look elsewhere ― about 60 miles southwest ― but opted to retain the Woodstock moniker.

Though the festival wasn't held in the town now home to some 6,000 people, tourists making pilgrimages to the original grounds have continued to mistakenly arrive in droves for half a century, a snafu that never fails to make Heppner smirk.

“The name continues to hold the magic,” he said, speaking from the town's historical society. “Our name is attached to a generation.”

Artistic legacy

According to Heppner and other long-time residents of the town it's a reputation not misplaced, as the town of Woodstock in upstate New York traces its artistic, anti-authoritarian roots much further back than its association with the storied festival.

After dreaming up their vision in a series of love letters, American artist Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead and her husband-to-be, Englishman Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, opened the Byrdcliffe art colony in the mountains overlooking Woodstock in 1903, which remains active to this day.

“This is a town that is generated by that kind of artistic spirit,” said Derin Tanyol, director of exhibitions and programs at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild.

It “really has earned its title as an artist's colony,” she said outside one of Byrdcliffe's main houses nestled behind a mulberry tree, where an outdoor psychedelic art exhibit entitled “Psych Out!!!” is ongoing.

Alan Baer, an architect and the exhibit's curator, arrived in Woodstock three decades ago with his artist wife, drawn by the area's artistic energy.

“There's so much history here,” he said. “You're working independently of that history, but it's in your genes; you definitely feel it.

Today tourists in Woodstock can dine in upscale sustainably sourced restaurants and pick up a tie-dye “Grateful Dead” t-shirt after, with several shops downtown capitalizing on the town's link to the festival by offering hippie goods visitors seek.

“We certainly rely on the Woodstock music festival to bring people here, even if they end up having to go somewhere else,” Tanyol said with a laugh.

Giggles aside, the town's reputation has begun drawing in more and more wealthy New Yorkers seeking fresh air and fresh vision ― triggering a spike in real estate prices and a dwindling population of creatives able to maintain a living.

And yet, according to Tanyol, an ages-old feedback loop is at play: “This is a town that really is culturally and economically defined by... two very distinct types, the starving artist and the wealthy New Yorker who has a second home here.”

“The artists need the wealthy people in order to fund the organizations that give the artists places to have their exhibitions ― and the wealthy people need the art.”

'Magical place'

Townspeople have noticed even more travelers in search of the Woodstock aura showing up in town in recent months, as the actual festival grounds in Bethel prepare to host a series of events and concerts from veteran performers like Santana August 15-18.

The constant influx of cash and people summering upstate has some in the town conceding that Woodstock's longstanding countercultural spirit is “waning,” historian Heppner said.

“Have we lost the true meaning of Woodstock? Some people say yeah, yeah we have,” he said. “If I can't rent a house here, and I like music, or I like to paint ― you don't have an art colony if you don't have artists.”

But for Baer, the area is a “charged, magical place” that he thinks will last.

“It's the art spirit; it has nothing to do with money,” the 69-year-old said. “It has everything to do with seeing, looking for whatever can make a difference in the world ― artistically, creatively ― and giving it a place in our existence.” ― AFP-Relaxnews

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