September 2004
Out of the Garden

One man's journey to Woodstock — and why he left early

By Paul D. Lehrman

The other day at a party for a soprano friend (she's a singer, that is, and not a member of a certain family), I found myself performing with several other musicians I had never met before in an impromptu chorus, serenading the birthday girl with a medieval German canon. Shortly thereafter, a slightly inebriated guest confronted me to ask if this little group could do a request. “We can try,” I said. “Sing ‘Woodstock,’” he said.

Because we didn't have any electric pianos (which Joni Mitchell, who wrote the song but wasn't at the festival the song commemorated, used) or electric guitars (which Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, who had all the chart action with the song and were there, used), we would have had to whip up a quick a cappella version. For a group who had worked together all of five minutes (which was even less than CSN&Y had on that historic occasion), that would have been difficult. So we begged off. Instead, I offered to tell the gentleman a story. “I was at Woodstock,” I said. He looked at me in admiration and confusion as to how someone so young-looking (hah!) could have accomplished such a thing. “But,” I added, “I left.” His admiration immediately turned to disgust. “How could you do that?!” he yelped. So I told him. And because it all happened exactly 35 years ago, I'll tell you.

I was in high school on Long Island, about 20 miles outside of New York City. Being a conscientious sort at an early age, I bought advance tickets to the festival as soon as they came out, which made me one of approximately 186,000 (according to the Woodstock Statistics page at As I didn't yet drive, I hooked up with my friend Roger (not his real name), who was a couple of years older. In college and at home for the summer, Roger arranged to borrow his mother's Plymouth Valiant to get us up to White Lake, N.Y. I had big plans after the festival, too: I had a girlfriend up in Montréal whom I had met the year before at music camp, and when the music was over, I intended to hitchhike up to visit her for a few days. I even had a plane ticket for the trip home. It was going to be the teenage adventure of a lifetime.

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman