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Remembering Woodstock: When music was in the air and people believed they could change the world

It's been 50 years since more than 500,000 people descended on upstate New York to experience a truly huge counter-cultural milestone, writes John Daly

Woodstock Festival
Woodstock Festival
Rory Gallagher
Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton

One of the biggest stars of the late Sixties might have been there - were it not for a vote that forced him to bypass the event.

Rory Gallagher, who for a short time lived in Londonderry as a child, and his band Taste were touring the US in August 1969 with British super group Blind Faith and soul ensemble Delaney & Bonnie.

"We were actually on the tour bus when a record company agent came on board in New York asking if we would we be interested in performing at this big event at Woodstock," recalled Rory's brother, Donal, who was the band's manager at the time.

"Eric Clapton asked for a show of hands, but it got voted down predominantly by the 12 guys in Delaney and Bonnie's band.

"The guys in Taste, Rory included, kept their hands down. Eric wanted to do it and I remember whispering to him that, with all due respect to democracy, it was his shout, but he stuck by the vote and Woodstock went on without us."

Taste did make up for missing Woodstock the following year when they performed at the even bigger Isle of Wight festival, which attracted an estimated 600,000 revellers.

But it's the first Woodstock that lingers in our collective memory.

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As a cultural touchstone from the baby boomer era, the gathering of over half a million people at Max Yasgur's 600-acre farm in Upstate New York 50 years ago this month continues to resonate as the 'Three Days of Peace and Music' that changed a generation.

Despite the tumultuous events between then and now - wars, tragedies, natural disasters and technological advances - the very word Woodstock still conjures up images of an event that has withstood the passage of time. 1969 was the year Richard Nixon took office, Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, and on August 15, 16 and 17 saw multitudes of 'flower children' and music lovers crossing barricades and a major cultural divide to let it all hang out at the height of America's summer of love.

It did help that 1969 turned out to be one of the most productive years in popular music, with The Beatles' final collaboration on Abbey Road; The Rolling Stones' groundbreaking Let it Bleed; The Who's rock opera, Tommy; and Led Zeppelin releasing two seminal albums within that fateful 12 months.

Other giants of the era - Cream, The Kinks, Moody Blues, Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane and Fleetwood Mac - added to the mix.

"Woodstock was a reaction by the youth of its time and the conditions we faced," said festival co-founder, Michael Lang.

"We proved that it is possible to live together in harmony and with compassion, and with only our best selves represented. Woodstock gave people around the world hope, which is why I think it remains relevant today."

In his book, The Road to Woodstock, Lang added: "For me, Woodstock was a test of whether people of our generation really believed in one another and the world we were struggling to create. How would we do when we were in charge? Could we live as the peaceful community we envisioned? I'd hoped we could."

As to the plentiful availability of drugs, Lang remembered pot and LSD as having shown the younger generation another view of reality: "Our minds had truly been opened up to a reality that was so different than the reality we saw around us.

"It showed us that life was much more than rushing to work, buying stuff, drinking alcohol and going to church on Sunday. In fact, the main impact of drugs was showing us that you could be blissfully happy without any of what our parents thought was important."

The only performer from this island to play Woodstock was Northern Ireland's Henry McCullough, a guitarist with Joe Cocker's The Grease Band. Universally in demand as a first-rate blues-rock guitarist, the native of Portstewart in Derry, would go on to become a permanent member of Paul McCartney's Wings in the Seventies.

Asked constantly about his memories of the festival, McCullough, who died in 2016, had little to say about the mayhem of the event.

"We were on tour, and Woodstock was just another gig for The Grease Band that summer. We helicoptered in, did the gig, and helicoptered out right after to the next Holiday Inn.

"It was only much later that the significance of Woodstock and what happened there became apparent. I'm always slightly disappointed to have to tell curious kids that I was only there for a few hours."

Known by his contemporaries as "a musician's musician", McCullough did etch a suitable epitaph with his searing notes powering Cocker's version of 'With a Little Help From My Friends' - one of the best remembered songs of the famous event.

Minutes after The Grease Band left the stage, a massive thunderstorm washed over the Woodstock site, temporarily bringing the entire festival to a halt, and Cocker was heard to remark: "Did I do that?"

The line-up of performers at Woodstock was unmatched anywhere up to then - Santana, Grateful Dead, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, The Band and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Fifty years on, Woodstock continues to throw up interesting pieces of ephemera.

The iconic concert poster, designed by artist Arnold Skolnick, has become enshrined as one of the most famous pieces of music art.

The legendary image of the dove perched on the neck of a guitar became the definition of the Woodstock Nation, and has been reproduced millions of times. Skolnick received just $15 for his creative artwork, without a cent in extra royalties over the past five decades.

Max Yasgur, the dairy owner forever famous for giving over his farm when many other locations refused, ended up being sued by his neighbours for property damage. Two years later, he sold the famous farm and died in 1973 of a heart attack. He received a full-page obituary in Rolling Stone magazine, one of the few non-musicians to receive such an honour.

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