In the summer of 1969, I had just turned 24. My ex-husband, Chris (Yoga name, Mahesh) and I had been married for just over a year and we were living at Ananda Ashram in Monroe, NY.
The guru in residence, at the time, was our yoga instructor, Swami Satchidananda. We lived, worked, and practiced the different forms of yoga, at the Ashram. We also played music.
On the weekends the Ashram offered weekend retreats. Every Friday and Saturday night, Mahesh and I would “open” for the Swami with a set of our own original, spiritually oriented acoustic music. Afterwards, the Swami would speak informally to the guests, followed by group meditation and chanting.
There were two disciples from NYC, who came to the Ashram pretty much every weekend, Steve (Sridhar) and Jeff (Ajathan). They were dyed in the wool New Yorkers, wheelers and dealers (but with a heart), who had been introduced to the Swami by Peter Max, a fellow disciple. Sridhar and Ajathan were big fans of our music, and told us that if we ever left the Ashram they wanted to manage us. Sridhar “knew people” in the music industry.
Two of the people that Sridhar and Ajathan happened to be friends with were Mike Lang and Artie Kornfeld, the masterminds behind the Woodstock Festival. That summer, Sridhar and Ajathan couldn’t stop talking about Woodstock.
One day, Mahesh and I drove into NYC to pick up supplies for the Ashram, and we also met up with Sridhar and Ajathan who took us to meet Mike and Artie at Artie’s house. This was a few weeks before Woodstock, and everyone was flying high. Mike was racing around, talking a mile a minute, wheeling and dealing, on the phone, on several phones, in fact. Artie and Mike were buzzed, and hella busy, yet they made us feel welcome, like we really MATTERED to them.
Mike and Artie were also friends with Peter Max. When they told Peter that they wanted to have a spiritual leader open the Festival, to set the tone of the entire event with a good vibe, and to keep the crowds mellow, Peter suggested having the Swami give a brief speech and blessing.
Although Monroe NY was in driving distance from the Festival and the Swami wouldn’t be spending the night, he still was going to need a room to freshen up before he spoke on Friday afternoon. He would be accompanied onstage by about 20 disciples. Among them were Mahesh and I, Sridhar, Ajathan, another musician friend also named Steve (Ishwara), who played Tabla (the Indian Drum, traditionally used to accompany the Sitar), as well as several other Yogis.
This was a huge event for the Swami and his disciples, but little did we know how groundbreaking Woodstock would end up being for the entire world!
Mahesh and I were sent ahead, the day before, on Thursday, to procure a room for the Swami to use on Friday. The NY State Thruway was already backed up for miles. Luckily we made it to the exit before they closed it down completely.
People were just giving up and abandoning their cars and trying to hitch a ride further with people still trying to get through. We had a VW bus, and we picked up as many people as we could fit in it. We finally arrived at the field where everyone was setting up their spots. We parked our bus, and went wandering around. Thousands of people were already there, and the field was peppered with every kind of camping rig imaginable, including hammocks, pup tents, mountaineering tents, teepees and ingenious one-of-a-kind home made contraptions.
Many campers had turned their VW buses into unique living spaces, complete with beaded curtains, Indian bedspreads, incense, candles and the like.
As we walked through the crowd, the mood was joyous and expectant. We weren’t sure of how the event would come off, but we all knew we were experiencing something monumental!
Our senses were bombarded with the sites and smells of the hippie lifestyle — pot smoke, incense, patchouli, sage and more. Our eyes were treated to a smorgasbord of hippie styles of dress from bell bottoms to sarongs, leather fringe vests to handmade dresses, South American peasant blouses to madras shirts and tie dyed tees.
We wandered past drum circles, and groups of guitarists playing the songs of the day. We were greeted with smiles, laughter, offers of fruit and joints, the entire crowd was feeling the love. The excitement and expectations of a one-of-a-kind event were palpable. We were surrounded by good vibes, and an overwhelming feeling that we were all in this together.
The Hog Farm had been there for days, helping to build the stage. They had already set up a free kitchen and the lines were long, as they were joyously serving up yummy Rice and Veggie plates to the masses. Each plate was accompanied by a greeting and a smile. The feelings of camaraderie and commonality were strong. This was history in the making!
At this point, so many people had descended upon the venue and were hopping the fences on all sides, that Mike and Artie gave up, and declared it a Free Festival. When the announcement was made over the PA, the crowd went nuts and broke out in cheers. There was no stopping the momentum of this incredible event!
Mahesh and I were roaming around, meeting new people and enjoying ourselves, when suddenly the crowd parted and there were our buddies, Sridhar and Ajathan, wearing grins from ear to ear! They were so joyous, they couldn’t have wiped the smiles off their faces if they tried! Meeting them was truly amazing and serendipitous — considering how many thousands of people were there! They proudly told us that they’d gotten us a “gig” for later that night, playing on the smaller stage, set up in a natural amphitheater, by Wavy Gravy and the Hogfarm. We were so excited! This audience of about 10,000, would be our biggest gig ever!
That night, we played sitting down, on yoga meditation cushions, atop Oriental rugs. Mahesh played his beloved Gibson J-200, I played bells, tambourine, laps and other percussion instruments. Ishwara joined us, playing tabla. The crowd liked us so much, that we played THREE ENCORES! Each encore was followed by a standing ovation!
The air was full of ganja smoke, and we were high from playing our music and the energy being sent our way from the crowd. We were ecstatic, what a perfect event to have given our best performance ever!
After our set, we made our way back to our bus, and were so excited that we could barely get to sleep. Many people didn’t even try to sleep. There was drumming and weed circles going on throughout the night. Occasionally we would hear bursts of laughter, or soft humming and strumming.
We slept a few hours in our bus, and woke up early. There was a lot going on, so it was hard to perform our usual morning meditation, but we really didn’t want to miss our morning Hatha Yoga session.
Although there were people all around, we went ahead and laid out our yoga mats, and started doing the first stretches — a series of movements called the Sun Worship. As we began, several festival goers laid out blankets and started mimicking what we were doing. Pretty soon, we were conducting and teaching an impromptu yoga class! Mahesh would demonstrate each pose, while I would go around helping and correcting the practitioners. Afterwards we chatted about Yoga with our new friends. It was a perfect way to start the day.
Next, we got breakfast from the Hog Farm, where we were once again served up a healthy meal by a smiling Hog Farmer. Then we headed to the Holiday Inn, where we were to procure the room for the Swami. This was no easy task. The hotel was several miles away from the field, and we were now going against traffic. We stopped at a grocery store along the way, where we bought refreshments for the Swami and his accompanying disciples. We picked up picnic supplies, juice, fruit, nuts, yogurt and a few other healthy snacks.
We finally arrived at the hotel in the late morning. We got the hotel staff to let us set up tables and chairs in an out of the way outdoor area. We laid out a nice spread, and then went back inside to wait for the Swami and his disciples.
As it turned out, the hotel was running behind, and was unprepared for this many guests all arriving at once. Most of the rooms weren’t cleaned yet, and ALL THE Friday night ENTERTAINERS were also waiting in the lobby, which was a large L-shaped space, in essence, two separate adjoining rooms. Each room was furnished with many different seating arrangements, of a couch, a table and several easy chairs. Although the musicians must have all known each other, they kept to their separate areas. There weren’t many interactions between the different bands.
And here we were, musicians ourselves, wearing our little white yoga pajamas, sitting on a couch, surrounded by some of the biggest names in rock — The Who, Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane — all the bands that played on Friday night. And we sat there silent, just witnessing it all. These people had already accomplished what we hoped to achieve.
The main thing I remember about those few hours was watching some performers pacing around the lobby, obviously anxious to get to their rooms. I distinctly remember that Grace Slick kept shouting, “Do you KNOW who I AM? Do you KNOW who I AM?” She was definitely not a happy camper!
The Swami and his entourage finally arrived. We told him that there were refreshments for all in a private alcove outside. The Swami chose not to eat before his big speech, but his disciples were happy to partake of the snacks! We all chattered excitedly with each other as we ate, recounting stories about our separate journeys getting to the festival site, and marveling at the size and scope of this amazing event we were witnessing!
The Swami rested and freshened up, and then was whisked away to be driven to the stage area. Soon, his car hit traffic and was unable to proceed, and they sent a helicopter to get him, so he could arrive in time to speak. The event was scheduled to start at noon.
Now we had to race through insane double lane, bumper to bumper traffic to get to the stage area in time to accompany the Swami. We filled our VW bus with as many yoga students as we could fit, and made a mad dash for the stage area. I remember weaving in and out through traffic, with the side door open, and we kept piling in more passengers who were also trying to get to the stage area. Ishwara came up with the bright idea to send a few of our passengers out into traffic, and actually ASK each individual driver of the stopped cars to pull over to the right or left, so that we could get through, with the honest explanation of having to get to the stage to accompany the Swami and help him open the festival.
We did it! One by one, the cars moved aside, the way was gradually cleared, and after about ten miles or so of this, we arrived at the backstage area.
Our rush to get to the stage turned out to be anti-climactic, as the crew was far from ready for the entertainment to begin. We found ourselves backstage, once again surrounded by the Friday lineup of musicians. Every once in a while we’d glimpse Mike racing around with a Walkie Talkie in one hand, and a joint in the other. Artie was making his way around, shmoozing with the different musicians.
I remember that the Swami was sitting with Ravi Shankar and his tabla player, Alla Rakha, and he called Mahesh and I over to meet them. The Swami proudly presented us to Shankar, and tried to describe our Indian influenced, western music to the pair (Mahesh would put his guitar in open tuning, and would strum it, or pluck the strings in a way that emulated the sounds of an Indian raga).
They nodded politely, having no idea what our music sounded like, and shook our hands. We thanked them for providing the world with such amazing music, and then left them to socialize with the Swami.
Finally, the crew was ready for the entertainment to begin. It was supposed to begin at noon, and here it was 4 pm. When they came to get the Swami, he told them that he thought it would be better to give the crowd some music first, before putting him on.
He said that the attendees had been waiting for four long hours in the hot sun, and if the Swami went on first, the crowd would not pay attention to his words, and would just be waiting for him to finish, so the music could begin. Mike and Artie saw the wisdom in his observations, and put Richie Havens on first.
After Havens’ epic performance, we all filed onstage, and sat down on either side of the Swami. The Swami spoke briefly about the power of music to bring peace into the world, and how he had great hopes for this young generation of Americans.
He wisely could see that the crowd was there for the music, not a lecture though, so he kept it short. Then he led his disciples in a chant, and the crowd in a brief moment of silence.
We were in awe to be onstage facing a half a million music-lovers — a sea of our peers. I looked out upon the massive crowd of joyous, expectant faces, and I could hardly grasp the magnitude of the event!
This was by far, the largest crowd that I had ever seen in my entire life! I was seated directly to the left of the Swami, and was humbled, feeling the love.
There is a famous photo, shot from behind of the Swami with the crowd in front of him. That disciple immediately to his left, looking up at him, that’s me!
And then we filed offstage, and went on our way. Sadly, our time in the limelight was over, and we were not allowed in the backstage area afterwards. We were, once again, just regular “civilians”.
As for Mahesh and I, after leaving the stage, we made our way back to our bus, and found a good spot to watch the evening performances, but after a short while we decided we’d better leave. We still had several hours of driving ahead of us, and we were due back at the Ashram to perform our regular Saturday morning duties at 6 am. We were responsible for teaching yoga classes and providing our weekend guests with Saturday morning breakfast.
The drive back to the Ashram was a combination of still-high mixed with the let-down of returning to ordinary life, But this gathering had filled us with hope — that we could change the world through music, and make our planet a better place.
We naively thought that OUR generation would be different, and once the current crop of greedy lawmakers died off, and WE were in control, we would bring peace and harmony to the world.
In the subsequent years I have never abandoned the hippie creed and lifestyle, but many who attended Woodstock that weekend went on instead, to follow in the footsteps of their parents, and they abandoned the dreams of their youth.
It is hard to look back on those hopeful days without a twinge of sadness for all that could have been. And as we approach the 50th Anniversary of that great event, my memories are bittersweet. Let’s hope the celebrations this summer will bring us renewed hope.
(This article is reprinted from: https://medium.com/@tarathralls/remembering-woodstock-60f9c9f89e21 )
About the Author:
Tara Thralls says: I am a child of the 60s. I marched against Vietnam…my band played on the smaller stage at Woodstock…I used to go see Bob Dylan in the mid-60s, saw the Grateful Dead for the first time at a free concert in Central Park in 1967. These days I’m a politics junkie, and spend most of my time reading, watching, listening and blogging about Politics. My creative efforts have been going into new, snarky screen printed designs on T-shirts and Left-Handed Mugs I’ve also been expanding into Greeting Cards, Postcards and Keyrings. I also have a passion for Indie Music (mostly British). I know it seems odd for an old hippie like me to have even FOUND Indie Music, but it is the only type of music that I listen to these days.