Changing Times: Denise Baker Recalls Her Woodstock Experience
Denise Baker is wondering about the movie, "Taking Woodstock." She is curious to see Hollywood's take on the festival that rocked the world back in August 1969.
Baker, a visual arts professor at Sandhills Community College, has a vested interest in Woodstock: She was there.
Forty years ago, Baker left a note for her parents at her upstate New York home telling them she had gone to a concert and would be home "late" that evening.
She didn't know that she was going to Woodstock and wouldn't be returning for five days. She certainly didn't know she was taking the first step on a journey that would shape her outlook on life.
"My good friend, Jim Horseman, came by my house in an old antique Ford with a rumble seat," she says. "He always knew what was going on and he had heard about Woodstock. He said, 'Let's go,' and I said, 'Let me leave my parents a note.' I thought I was just going to a concert in upstate New York, I had no idea what I was getting into."
She lost track of her friend at the festival and, in the true spirit of the '60s, Baker had to find her own way home.
"I just started heading home," she says. "It was out of my control. I had to be in the moment. So I just started hitchhiking and bumming rides."
Her parents were upset when she got home, but she was leaving in two days on her way to a private all-girl college in Missouri, so there wasn't much time for them to punish her. Having tasted a bit of independence, she entered college riding a philosophy of spontaneity.
"What I took away from Woodstock was a feeling," she says. "People there were pretty nonjudgmental, open-minded. I was a different person when I left for college. It completely changed me, made me see the importance of going with the flow and not to be stressed out. It gave me the gift of being able to fall into fun and the attitude of never passing up possibilities. I'll always believe in the possibilities."
By the Time She Got To Woodstock
Just getting to Woodstock was an experience for Baker. Living only two hours away, Baker and Horseman were familiar with the area so they took off on back roads to reach White Lake, located near Bethel, N.Y.
Baker remembers the traffic on the two-lane roads as they drew closer to the green pastures where Woodstock was set to take place on Max Yasgur's farm.
"We took the back roads, these little two-lane roads and cars were everywhere, but they weren't moving," Baker says. "The traffic was only going one way, both lanes would have cars going one way. There was no getting out, there was only getting in. There was nothing but hippies and happy people. It was amazing."
Once there, Baker said she heard the music, but never really saw the performances. She was excited by the opening day performance of Richie Havens and enthralled by the appearance of Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Havens graced the first day of the three-day bill, while CSN took the stage on the final day of the event.
Baker believes it was the first time performing in public for CSN. Stephen Stills had been a member of the Buffalo Springfield, where Stills had delivered what some regarded as an anthem for the counterculture with his song, "For What It's Worth."
"I didn't really see anyone (musicians)," Baker says. "I heard people playing. I tried to get close, but I could only get so far. I never really saw anyone, but I heard them playing. Richie Havens was great and I really loved Crosby, Stills and Nash. I was a big fan of the Buffalo Springfield, so to see them was special."
Organizers hadn't expected the horde that descended, hadn't made provisions for the massive crowd. They were expecting in the vicinity of 50,000 people, not the estimated 500,000 that showed up.
Rain splashed down early in the event, turning the rolling green pastures into fields of mud. Shelter was almost non-existent and food was hard to come by.
It may have been the age of Aquarius, a monument to brotherly love and helping hands, but it wasn't all peaches and cream.
In fact, it was a lot of peanut butter and marshmallow cream sandwiches, according to Baker. She says that peanut butter, marshmallow cream, bread and water were delivered to the muddy site by helicopters.
"The only thing I had was the clothes on my back and a big baggy purse," Baker says. "I was muddy, filthy. All these people -- sitting in mud, sleeping in mud. There was a lot of people covered with mud. I wasn't the only one. For an 18-year-old, it was a bit frightening, a little overwhelming, a little uncomfortable. I ate a lot of peanut butter."
But still the magic of the moment 40 years ago clings to Baker, and it is the music that brings the moment back in clear focus. The eclectic lineup provided by the festival, from Ravi Shankar to Jimi Hendrix to Sha Na Na to the Grateful Dead, still lives, if not in reality then in the imagination.
"If I listen to the right music, well, I'll always be 18 when I hear that music," Baker says. "That music is like seeing an old friend. When I hear it, I'm there again."
Woodstock has been dissected and analyzed from all angles. Some see it as the defining moment of a generation, while others see it as a muddy and disorganized mess.
Baker freely admits that she felt "discomfort" at times. But she also latches on to the festival as a moment that changed her in significant ways, all for the good.
There is one thing that many people agree on, and that Baker also feels: Woodstock was a moment in time that was never repeated.
"You know, I lived there (upstate New York), and for the next several years they would have all kinds of concerts," she says. "They were trying to create another Woodstock. There was never another Woodstock."
Directed by Ang Lee, "Taking Woodstock" has been the subject of varied reviews, some good, some bad. Movie critic Marshall Fine has this to say about the movie:
"Based on a memoir by writer Elliot Tiber (whose name was Teichberg when the events in the film occurred), the film celebrates one lone little man with the vision and the nerve to seize a moment and help make Woodstock happen. Without Teichberg, there might not have been a Woodstock -- as simple as that.
"Yet Lee's film isn't a Woodstock movie per se. Though he recreates great swaths of the sprawling, fantastical festival, he's not looking to recreate the Woodstock experience. Rather, this is a backstage story, a personal tale that happens to be set against three days of peace and music. ...
"But this is truly Elliot's story. As (Demitri) Martin plays him, Elliot is a guy stuck in his life, looking for a way to change things -- to launch himself in a direction he perhaps can't even imagine."
Baker doesn't have to see the movie to know that about Woodstock.
"I would be a different person if I hadn't had the experience," she says. "It completely changed me.
Contact Hunter Chase at firstname.lastname@example.org or 693-2478.
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