Scarlet Disko: How old were you during Woodstock?
Stephen Conley: I had just turned twenty in June.
SD: What were you doing at the time?
SC: I was a college student going to the University of Virginia, majoring in political science.
SD: Were your parents aware that you were going to Woodstock?
SC: No, by that time I had been going to college for 2 or 3 years so I was living independently.
SD: How did you get to Woodstock?
SC: We hitchhiked from a little town called Pound in Virginia. We didn’t get far the first day, but the next day we caught a ride that took us all the way to White Lake. This guy was bringing his children from Georgia back to his wife who was a nurse in White Lake. He was driving a Mercedes Sedan, and we sat in the back drinking beer the whole way. There was a bucket in the car that him and his kids peed in so we didn’t have to stop once. When we got to White Lake to drop off his kids, we spent the night at their house and the next day his wife dropped us off about three miles from the festival on her way to work.
SD: What day did you get there?
SC: Mark and I got there on Tuesday and nothing was ready; we camped up on the hill, not far from the lake. The first night that we heard music we wandered around to find that it was the Hog Farm playing the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” They were playing at an open stage and that was the first time I had granola, not knowing what it was. The Hog Farm was playing it so well that we thought the Beatles were actually down there. The Hog Farm was able to recreate how the orchestra rises and rises in the song with just a few simple instruments. We were stunned by how well they performed, it was an incredible opening music act that we experienced.
SD: How many friends did you go to Woodstock with?
SC: There was supposed to be six of us in a station wagon going to Woodstock together. However, the guy’s dad who we were borrowing the station wagon from was worried about it breaking down on us and decided not to let us use it, so my buddy Mark and I hitchhiked.
SD: Why did you go?
SC: I was and still am quite a music collector and follower. I was getting Rolling Stone in that little town of Pound,VA every month delivered to my grandmother’s mailbox. I saw the advertisement for Woodstock and mailed a check for $18 to get my tickets which were six dollars per day. That’s why I went, because I knew the lineup… I couldn’t believe that they’d charge $6 for all those amazing artists.
SD: What were some of the things you did while you waited for the music to start?
SC: We wandered the hill and people watched. Tuesday night we spent sitting out on the hill, enjoying the nice weather. Wednesday, Mark and I discovered the Hog Farm and stayed with them a lot, then we ran into our friends as we were people watching by the gate. It was awesome to see Woodstock grow; we were so lucky to get there early
SD: Because you were there so early, does that mean you had pretty good seats?
SC: I was about 40 feet from Richie Havens. When the Sri Swami came on people didn’t like them and booed them almost off the stage. I stayed at the front until after Joe Cocker when all hell broke loose. But, I could still see The Band on the hillside. I went for the music and I was going to take in as much as I could. I slept through Sly and the Family Stone, because I thought they hadn’t shown up, along with Quill and the Keef Hartley Band, evidently they did.
SD: Who were your favorite performers?
SC: Nobody knew who Santana was and they drove us nuts because they were so good. We were hungry for music by that point as we’d been sitting through some much slower bands. I wound up sitting next to a guy who was 19 from California. He had been to Monterey Pop and we got to talking for hours about that festival and music. When we heard Joe Cocker, we mistook him for Led Zeppelin, he was so good it was overwhelming. I thought Creedence Clearwater was fantastic and Janis Joplin was cool. The Grateful Dead were so stoned that they didn’t have their act together. I loved Joan Baez. However, I would have to say that the Band had the best sound. I don’t know if that’s because they had so many microphones or what it was but everybody sang and they all jumped around like a chinese firedrill after each song to play every instrument. The Band was the most enlightening for me. I was heartbroken that they weren’t on the movie or the album. Only this year did I find them performing “the Weight” on youtube which had been their last song and it was tremendous to watch. I began moving back more with the Who, their volume was overwhelming but once you got used to it they were fantastic. I could hear Crosby, Stills, & Nash from five miles away as we were leaving, but we were cold, wet, muddy, and hungry on Sunday morning and had to leave.
SD: What was your favorite memory of the festival?
SC: For me it would have to be the music. I really enjoyed talking to the guy that went to Monterey Pop. I loved meeting people who had experienced other festivals. The other part that I loved was that we had all suddenly realized that we had an identity and there were other people just like us.
SD: Do you have any bad memories?
SC: Being cold and wet. Mark and I were the first to get there but among the first to leave so we had a long ways to walk for a ride as no one was heading home yet. We were picked up by a guy from Washington D.C. with very long hair who drove a Volkswagen hippie van. As soon as we got in he told us that, “they’ve been reporting this whole thing was a war.” He had so many questions to ask us but we slept as he talked all the way to Washington D.C.
SD: What were some of your other memories of the music, crowd, and the overall atmosphere?
SC: The stage announcements gave people some information. Wavy Gravy woke me up one morning with the news of breakfast in bed for half a million. I loved the friendliness of people sharingand how controlled the large crowd was. Friday was a nice way to ease into the music. Saturday was bizarre with tons of stop-and-go because of the weather. I hated when the music stopped because that was why I went.
SD: Are there any life-changing pieces of advice that you discovered while you were there?
SC: I was a political science major so I had been reading about many different philosophers like John Locke and how they always refer to us as “the people.” All of a sudden, I understood that. In that crowd of people who were stoned, tripping, naked, and cold everyone took care of each other as “the people.”
SD: What did you do after Woodstock?
SC: I got married. I came home and felt lonely because of what we saw and what we experienced. We were heroes in a sense that anyone who knew of our youth culture and knew that we’d been to Woodstock wanted to talk about it. That was a lot of fun, but even getting to describe the joy and the awe that we had made me lonesome. Within two months I was married and that marriage didn’t last long. However, we did have a child and he’ll be 44 in February.
SD: What do you do now?
SC: I am now retired. My career has been working in nonprofits for organizations such as American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, clinical pain research for a medical college in Virginia, and the American School Health Association, where I retired.
SD: Do you think that Woodstock had an influence on all your work?
SC: I think that the biggest influence was education. The experience of Woodstock opened my eyes to the potential of schools being run differently. It gave me the idea for an alternative school that could capture a child’s interests and then follow those interests to teach them and help them to develop skills. I followed that through to work in a federal program to change rural schools.
SD: What would you change or keep in a future festival?
SC: I like the idea of spreading out the festival over a couple weekends or having several smaller events.
SD: If you could, would you go back to Woodstock?
SC: If I could I would go back, I’d like to have that feeling of camaraderie and the spirit again.
Interview by Scarlet Disko