Joan Baez took the stage of Woodstock a little before 1 a.m. on the first evening, following sets by Ravi Shankar, Melanie Safka, and Arlo Guthrie. She was six months pregnant and missing her husband David Harris, who was in a Texas prison for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. “This is an organizing song,” she told the audience before playing “Joe Hill. “And I was happy to find out that after David had been in jail for two and a half weeks, he already had a very, very good hunger strike going with 42 federal prisoners, none of who were draft people.”
Ten years ago, Baez spoke to Rolling Stone to share her experiences at Woodstock for an interview that has never been published until now. She talked about traveling to the festival on a helicopter with Janis Joplin, avoiding all the food backstage for fear it had been laced with LSD (much of it was), and why the magic to the weekend was impossible to replicate despite many attempts over the years.
Thanks for talking. I know this is a well-worn subject.
Well, it’s a never-ending one.
How did you get to the festival since the roads were so jammed up?
On a helicopter. As I remember, I was given the last room in a hotel/motel somewhere because everyone else was sleeping in the lobby and so forth. As I remember, I got up in the morning and at some point there was a helicopter landing right outside my window. That part is true. And then I ended up making these gestures at the pilot and he did them back like ,”Come on, get in!” I ended up with my mother, my manager, Janis Joplin and I don’t know who else in that helicopter.
What do you remember seeing out the window as you flew in?
I remember flying over and it looked like ants with everyone heading over to one spot. I was thinking, “Jesus Christ!” I think we were the last or close to the last flight that got in before the rainstorm started up in a big way. It was pretty extraordinary.
What was it like hanging out with Janis Joplin?
I have a memory of Janis which is always very funny because it was always the same thing each time I’d see her. I was such a dope. I’d say, “I’d really like to spend time with you. Why don’t you come over for a cup of tea?” She didn’t know what a cup of tea was! She was standing there with a bottle in her hand. Finally she just made some wisecrack about a cup of tea and I cracked up over myself. I was such a prude and I didn’t get it about not offering her tea. In vocabulary it just meant, “Let’s talk.”
Do you have memories of playing at the open stage by the Hog Farm?
It was very funny actually. People would line up to perform. It was very sweet. Whoever was taking down names didn’t recognize mine. I was just in line with everyone else. It was very cool. It was my turn and I went out onstage and there was a guy stark naked way up at the top of the audience, it seemed like it was slanted up hill. As I picture him now, I picture this gangly guy with flowers in his hair, or at least in his hand, and he’s dancing through this crowd down towards the stage. I think I was singing “I Shall Be Released.” I timed is by the time he reached the stage I was through.
Describe the scene at that stage. It was Jerry Garcia and your sister…
I don’t know because memories are so spotty and the memory I just gave you may not have much to do with reality. That’s about all I remember of it and someone else will say, “No, no, no. That’s not how it was.” The only thing you can do about memory is just be very humble about it because it may not have much to do with reality. It’s the impression that I have.
Do you recall the general vibe backstage? Did you see Abbie Hoffman or anything crazy?
Everybody was crazy. I guess the collective memories that people have, I have in a sense. It’s the mud and the cops roasting hot dogs and people wandering around in the nude. And the fact that, looking back, it was in fact a huge deal. I think of the events that happened around that time, it was a perfect storm, which is why people wish they’d been there. And not just Woodstock, but the whole time period when it was music and people feeling community with each other because they had either been in the civil rights movement or the movement against Vietnam.
It was like a perfect storm and I realized that Woodstock was like the eye of the hurricane because it was different. It was this weekend of love and intimacy and attempts at beauty and at caring and at being political. And because it was isolated like that, somehow it was safe and those things could happen. That’s why a cop could roast hot dogs and put his gun in the front seat of his car and not worry about it because it was this extraordinary safe place.
You were six months pregnant. How did that impact your perception and your performance?
I never thought of that, but it probably did. My perception was impossibly strict then anyway. But I think generally at those things, even from the beginning, I felt very lucky to be there. I knew by then it was as huge as it was. You sit back and think, “Gee, I’m lucky I got in.”
You didn’t go on until after midnight. What did you do when you were waiting?
I know it was really late. I know I was sitting in Joe Cocker’s van for a long time. At one point somebody poked a head in and said, “Is everyone okay?” “Yeah.” “You in there Joan?” “Yeah.” You sure everything’s okay?” Well, the rumor was out that I was in labor. I was fine. I don’t remember walking onstage though. I remember looking out and I don’t think I could see much, but I knew there was a city out there.
Do you think the rain helped bring everyone together?
Absolutely. I think at a concert, one of these acts of God makes it a totally unique concert. Everyone is just in it together.
I was watching the movie recently. It looks so great, but also so incredibly uncomfortable with all the mud and so many people crammed together.
[Big laugh] It really was. The fainthearted had a miserable time.
I felt stressed out just watching it. Maybe I’m a prude.
For the most part, people were swept away. It didn’t matter if you fell down and slipped in the mud.
How important do you think the movie was in spreading the legend and myth of Woodstock?
I think it’s a wonderful movie and a wonderful vehicle. It keeps a myth alive. There really are people who think it was the revolution. They think it was the most important thing that ended the war in Vietnam, for instance. I don’t agree with that. I think that it was an extraordinary weekend and people absolutely made the most of it.
I keep thinking of you there six months pregnant and the food is laced with drugs and it’s so disorganized and chaotic. Were you ever afraid?
I probably didn’t eat! I probably only ate packaged foods since I was so spooked about drugs. I’m sure I was just really careful.
You spoke onstage about your husband at the time. Do you remember your feelings at that moment?
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I usually talked about him being in prison for draft resistance. It’s pretty blunt what I had to say. I’m not sure exactly what I said, but in those days I usually talked about the prison and the draft and the war and non-violence, just enough to get people bored enough to yell, “Why don’t you keep singing?” If they weren’t political, they would get really fed up with it. But if they were, they were relieved to have somebody say the things that they felt were important to hear.
You played Live Aid and many others of these festivals since. Why do you think it’s been hard to capture the feeling again or really anything close to it?
I guess you can’t. You just can’t. I think its silly for people to try, but it’s hard for people to give up nostalgia and give up what once was. They don’t want to admit it can’t be again. But I thought the idea of trying to have another Woodstock was absolute nonsense. It’s just nonsense. Live Aid was an interesting little bump in history, just kind of came along. I have this thing about risk. That’s why I think that Woodstock wasn’t the revolution. It was just this careful sideshow that went on because in real social change, if there isn’t a risk taken somewhere by somebody, it doesn’t have a real meaningful impact. I always felt with Live Aid the only risk was to not have been invited. It was just very light. I think it pretty much stayed that way through an era of greed.
It’s interesting to think of Woodstock as the eye of the hurricane since there was so much chaos swirling around. Nixon was sworn in earlier that year. Vietnam was raging. But you watch that movie, and there’s no sense of that chaos anywhere.
Right. It was an island.
Did you feel at the time that it was important?
I think so. I think it takes a moment and then you get that feeling. It was like the March on Washington. All of a sudden you realize there are 350,000 people out there and something is never going to be the same after that. That is true of Woodstock. It wasn’t political. It wasn’t like [Martin Luther] King, but nothing really was the same after that. Something just takes a little turn in history.
It’s amazing how quickly the protest movement burned out in the couple of years that followed Woodstock.
I think that people who came to the war as their first introduction to social change or being outspoken or doing civil disobedience, if that was their entry to it, it became hard to know what to do next. Sometime you it just kind of fizzles. If you had your political and social instincts taken care of early on in the game, then you just keep going. Some folks were made for jail and some weren’t. The people who had been Quakers or had the discipline of Gandhi and non-violence, they’d go to jail for draft resistance and go out and go on with their lives. People where it was an enormous thing in their lives would have their ego damaged in jail and they’d have difficulties for the rest of their lives and so forth. It’s just kind of what a person’s background was what they bring to the point where they’re going to get serious about politics.
Do you think that Woodstock has been too romanticized over the years?
Not as a concert at all.
How about as a cultural event?
Even as a cultural event it hasn’t been romanticized. I think it was fantastic. I think the only way its been overdone was thinking it changed the world, politically and as far as the war went. It was only a part of things. It wasn’t it.
It’s insane to think that 500,000 were all in one place on a farm. That’s a city.