Today is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Woodstock festival.

Hippies, brown acid, traffic jams, Jimi Hendrix, helicopters, Sha Na Na, etc.

Woodstock happened before I was born, so it’s something I heard about from others – and I heard a lot. I’ve heard from quite a few people who say they were there – some stories more plausible than others. The only person who I ever met who was definitely there was Richie Havens, the opening act for the entire three-day festival.

Havens’ set that day was supposed to be what my encounter with him was – very short.

But like so much of Woodstock, what was supposed to happen was very different than what actually took place.

Music was supposed to start in the mid-afternoon, but with crowds in the hundreds of thousands, much bigger than expected, not many of the musicians who were supposed to play that first day could even get to the grounds.

Havens says he was supposed to be act number five for the day, but the organizers asked him to go on first. Each time he tried to wrap up, he had to go back out and play some more.

So how do you fill a 20 minute set that you stretch to a couple hours? Play every song you know, and when you run out of those, make up a new one. The song Havens mostly improvised onstage at Woodstock, “Freedom,” became one of his signature songs.

The other musicians did eventually get to Woodstock – but they weren’t the only ones who dropped by, and I don’t mean the hippies. The festival was held on land managed by farmer Max Yasgur, so maybe it’s no surprise that down the way from the tents were some cows.

The official position of the festival was summed up by a sign that said, “Don’t bother Max’s cows. Let them moo in peace.”

Woodstock Remembered: Richie Havens on Opening the Fest of ‘People Just Being People’

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Richie Havens photo by Kasra Ganjavi via Flickr/Creative Commons