Courier Journal – ‘No idea what to expect.’ Louisville women remember Woodstock 50 years later
As they listened to Ravi Shankar play his sitar on stage, a pair of University of Kentucky co-eds fell asleep in a field under the August night sky.
The year was 1969, and it was Friday, Aug. 15, the first of three days of what would become the most iconic music festival of all time — The Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
With the golden anniversary of Woodstock on the horizon, Louisville natives Karen Knight-Wilburn and Nancy Brown — who were 19 years old in the summer of ’69 — recount their experiences during that weekend 50 years ago.
‘We had no idea what to expect’
The friends had spent the summer working at a motel in Cape Cod and had noticed a poster in a store window advertising a three-day music festival with some big-name performers. The cost was $6 per day or a whopping $18 to attend Friday through Sunday.
With time to spare before the start of their sophomore year at the University of Kentucky, the young women splurged on the multi-day ticket, then called their parents back in Louisville to let them know they’d be taking a detour.
“We had no idea what to expect,” Knight-Wilburn said. “My dad told me to give him the names and addresses of where we’d be staying.”
Brown’s parents warned her to stay away from “weirdos.” Fifty years later, those requests still make them laugh.
“What could we have told them?” Brown said. “We’re staying by the third tree to the left of the stage?”
So they left Cape Cod with nary a plan, a bag of cookies and one Navy-issued blanket they borrowed from a friend.
Just getting to the festival site was an adventure. In their little red Volkswagen Beatle, it took the friends seven hours to drive 10 miles on the two-lane road leading to the event entrance.
But it didn’t matter. “We loved it,” Brown said. “Sitting in the traffic was just part of the fun. It was really relaxed, we talked to everyone else who were in their cars. Karen blew bubbles and had a lot of other toys.
“We took turns behind the wheel or sitting on the hood, so even the traffic was a good time,” she said.
Concert-goers stuck in the gridlock eventually abandoned their rides. Cars were left for miles on both sides of the road. Brown and Knight-Wilburnjoined suit and ditched their VW and walked the final two miles to the festival gates.
“That’s when we found out they weren’t even bothering to take tickets anymore. You could just walk in for free,” said Knight-Wilburn as she held up her ticket from 50 years ago.
That’s the reason she still has them and why “they are in such good condition. I didn’t have to turn them in.”
She’s also kept a Woodstock program in pristine condition for the past 50 years. The booklets were tossed into the crowd and the pages list the bands and the order they were scheduled to play.
But if you know your Woodstock history, you know the order fell apart thanks to numerousrain delays and because some musicians were stuck in the traffic getting to the festival.
‘The music seemed like it never ended’
The hayfield where Brown and Knight-Wilburn joined around half a million other youths ranging in age from about 16 to 30+ years old, was part of a 600-acre dairy farm nestled beneath the Catskill Mountains near White Lake in Bethel, New York, about 40 miles south of Woodstock, the festival’s namesake location.
With only a bag of cookies and one blanket between the friends, they were anything but prepared. But “it didn’t make any difference. The vibe was everyone was in it together and everyone shared,” Knight-Wilburn said.
As they spread out their blanket the first night of the festival, two young men with a sheet of plastic suggested they all lay it out on the ground, and the four covered themselves with the blanket.
The plastic ground cloth would end up keeping them out of the mud — at least for the first night of Woodstock. As Shankar played on stage and the Kentucky girls drifted off to sleep, the first of many rain showers began.
“Ravi put us to sleep,” Knight-Wilburn remembered. “Rain on our faces woke us up.”
Written by: Kirby Adams for Courier Journal