There’s nothing wrong with Peter Barberio’s memory of Woodstock.
The owner of Stringed Instrument Division in Missoula was there 50 years ago for all 3½ days of the transformative rock festival in upstate New York.
He was there at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm just north of Bethel when Richie Havens swung into “From the Prison” shortly after 5 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 18, 1969, to kick things off.
He was still there early Monday morning when Seattle’s Jimi Hendrix closed the show with a set that included a medley lasting more than half an hour. In the midst of it, bombs burst into air from Hendrix’s guitar and “wah pedal” in a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that a rock critic from the New York Post called “probably the single greatest moment of the sixties.”
“I remember 'most everybody there,” Barberio said this week at his shop on North Higgins Avenue. “My favorite guys were Sly and the Family Stone. Santana was great, too. Those are my favorites at the time. They’re the ones that really cooked.”
Santana, a new band from the West Coast, played Saturday afternoon. Sly and the Family Stone were established and so were scheduled for later that night. They started their 60-minute set at 3:20 a.m. Sunday.
The backdrop was the Vietnam War and civil rights struggles, the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the violent Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Man had walked on the moon for the first time less than four weeks earlier. The Fifth Dimension sang “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” and the festival itself was billed as “an Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.”
It was all that and more to Barberio, who preserves his Woodstock tickets in a plastic baggie in his shop. In the face of overwhelming numbers, Woodstock quickly became a free event. Tickets became souvenirs.
“Woodstock Music and Art Fair,” they say.
“Sunday, August 17, 1969. 10 a.m.,” says one.
“$7.00,” they all say.
Barberio was a musician almost from birth. His father was a Calypso musician of renown, and Barberio, born in 1951, was playing saxophone in a band “before the Beatles came out.” He also picked up the autoharp as a youngster, and started making and perfecting his own design in 1967. He's still doing it.
He lived in Cornwall on the Hudson River, a town 60 miles north of New York City and half an hour south of Wallkill. When the original site of Woodstock, New York, fell through, organizers with Woodstock Ventures turned their eyes to Wallkill.
After high school graduation Barberio and buddy Greg Walter, a fellow musician, took jobs making artificial Christmas trees for $1.48 an hour. Barberio convinced a reluctant Walter they should go to Wallkill to look for work with the Woodstock people.
“We worked there about week or so clearing the land,” he recalled. “All of a sudden people in Wallkill were in a debate, and they said you’ll have to up and move everything. So they moved up to Bethel, Max Yasgur’s farm.”
Walter persuaded Woodstock Ventures to rehire him in Bethel, 45 miles west of Wallkill in dairy country in the Catskills. But he did so by enlisting another friend with a background in arts and carpentry.
“I lost my job in the process of going up there,” said Barberio.
He was miffed, but things turned out fine. He camped out in Bethel with his girlfriend, Vickie, in the days leading up to the festival and didn't have to work during it.
“So I didn’t have trouble losing the job,” Barberio said. “It was easy for me, and I got to spend more time with my girlfriend and stuff before I went to college.”
Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez. John Sebastian, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, The Who and Jefferson Airplane. Joe Cocker, The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — 32 acts in all, mostly folk music on Friday, rock after that, playing between and during rain and hail storms to a mob of from 400,000 to half a million strong (estimates vary).
Late Saturday night, after the Grateful Dead’s extended set, there was silence on the stage for at least 45 minutes. Creedence Clearwater Revival, perhaps the top rock-and-roll act in America, was scheduled to play at midnight.
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At nearly 1 a.m., “a single note rang out from the lead guitar,” wrote Walter years later.
“The stage lights seemed to turn to crystals. I could see every pixel of energy that rose from the two spotlights shining on John Fogerty, and every atom from each of the three hundred thousand people on the field behind us felt in sync. Every musician. Every person on stage. Every human with eyes to see and ears to hear The Note.”
CCR followed The Note with "Born On the Bayou," kicking off an hourlong performance.
“They played understandable, danceable, clean, clear American music,” said Walter, who carried a Kodak camera around Woodstock and used it frequently.
He found the slides in a shoebox in his parents’ home in California in 1999, and turned them and others into a book, “Woodstock: A New Look,” in advance of the 40th anniversary in 2009.
Today, Barberio has a stack of the hardbacks at the front of Stringed Instrument Division, and says his may be the only place that sells them. There’s a half-page color image of a teenage, curly-haired Barberio clutching an autoharp on Page 16 and several mentions of him elsewhere.
The outside world watched Woodstock on television. The news highlighted the drug overdoses and traffic jams 20 miles long. Nudity abounded, as did August rain. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller declared Yasgur's farm a disaster area.
“It smelled like mud and rain, that thick eastern humidity smell,” Barberio recalled.
“But I didn’t see any heroin shooting up or people fighting. I didn’t see anybody getting drunk or belligerent. It was just good vibes, and that was really nice to see. It seemed like the whole hippie community was there, what we had fought for all through the '60s, you know? It was a real good feeling.”
As the weekend wore on, a different vibe emerged. It wasn’t exactly bad, but there was a sense that rather than the dawning of a new age, an important one was passing.
“Right away, or not long after that, are the Kent State shootings (May 1970), and they had one other festival that they tried to do in California, Altamont, and that turned nasty,” said Barberio. “You just knew Woodstock was it. It was the swan dive of the whole era. That was a general consensus.”
He dropped out of college in Ohio, and the next thing he knew he was dodging tear gas and running from police in the streets of Washington, D.C., at the Moratorium for Peace March in mid-November.
Barberio drew a high number in the 1971 draft lottery and went to technical school in Minnesota to learn how to fix violins. He landed his first career job over the phone. He was hired by Bitterroot Music in Missoula in 1978, and has lived, worked and made music here ever since.
On the other hand, Walter’s birth date was one of the lowest drawn in the military draft lottery. In his book he said he'd wanted as a youngster to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and serve in the Air Cops, "but I couldn't justify going to Vietnam." Married by then, Walter fled to Canada with his pregnant wife Renee.
There, he said, “We were welcomed as landed immigrants, and given help to raise our two children.”
Walter was one of 1,600 Americans under federal indictment who were granted pardons by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, freeing him to come back home.
Sometimes home has been Missoula. When he's in town he plays keyboard and Barberio plays alto sax for Zeppo Blues. Their most recent collaboration was a couple of weeks ago at the Hot Springs Blues Festival. Walter returned to his other home in Nelson, British Columbia, last week.
For Barberior, the Woodstock experience remains indelible and irreplaceable. He thinks attempts to rekindle it with anniversary concerts have failed or fallen short.
“That whole feeling really pertained to that era,” he said.
Woodstock 50 in Columbia, Maryland, was canceled two weeks ago, after months of turmoil. A smaller music fest started Thursday on the Woodstock site in New York. It features 1969 veterans Fogerty, Guthrie, and Carlos Santana. As many as 100,000 people are expected over four days, to what’s now a 16,000-capacity pavilion at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
“It was just a wonderful blossoming,” Barberio said of the original event. “I didn’t see anything bad at Woodstock, other than falling around in the mud. But that’s no big deal. I do that anyway.”