Wheeling resident R. Banford Exley has sporadic memories of a raucous music festival he attended 50 years ago on a New York dairy farm.
He hadn’t heard of the Woodstock Music Festival until a friend asked him to go to the Aug. 15-18, 1969, event on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm near White Lake in Bethel, 43 miles southwest of the town of Woodstock, New York.
“I was skeptical, but he was persistent,” Exley said. “He didn’t have a car, and I did. He was looking for some way to convince me to go. Finally, he said Jimi Hendrix was going to be there.”
The lure of seeing Hendrix live on stage sealed the deal. Exley did not realize that his favorite artist would be among 24 iconic rock stars circa 1969 performing around the clock for three days. They included Creedance Clearwater Revival, Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, Janice Joplin, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, Sly and the Family Stone, Sha-Na-Na, Blood Sweat and Tears — and so many more.
Exley and his friend, a former West Virginia University roommate named Luis Ortega, finished their shift in the warehouse of the Ohio Valley Drug Company, a North Wheeling business owned by the Exley family. They loaded up Exley’s rare French-made Citroen and headed for New York with no notion of how to get there.
“We used paper maps to find our way,” Exley said. “We drove all night, and at 7 a.m. we found ourselves in traffic backed up for miles — we knew we found it. We were going so slow that people on foot were actually passing us.”
He said many people commented on his “nice” car. They admired its unusual shape and array of psychedelic paintings, making it lockstep with the ambiance of the day. The smell of marijuana wafted through the little car’s open windows. Some pedestrians handed Exley a blunt, and, after taking a hit, he passed it to his friend, who handed it through the passenger window to other pedestrians.
At about 7 a.m., exhaustion forced the travelers from Wheeling to pull over and get some rest. They pitched a tent in a nearby field and slept until about 2 p.m. Upon awakening, they joined other pedestrians trekking toward the stage area in search of a place to buy tickets. As they got closer, they saw thousands of festival-goers charging the chain-link fences at the entrance of the festival grounds with reckless abandon. The fences were no match for the crushing force of the crowd.
“We just walked in and joined the 200,000 or so people who were claiming their space to watch the performances,” Exley said. They were making announcements from the stage, and, at one point, the announcer declared that from there on it was a free concert. It was obvious the size of the crowd overwhelmed them. It grew to more than 400,000.
“The announcer said, ‘From now on, this is a free concert. That doesn’t mean anything goes. We are taxing everything that we have here, and if this thing is to be successful, we’re all going to have to pull together. We’re going to have to share whatever we have. We’re going to have to cooperate and get along.’
“Everybody cheered except for the guy sitting on my right,” Exley said. “He was upset. He said he had paid $18 for a three-day ticket he threw on the ground between us. He said, ‘damn it, I paid $18 for this ticket, and now everybody gets in free.’”
Exley asked the man if he no longer wanted the ticket, and the guy said “no,” because it was worthless. The ticket remains part of Exley’s collection of Woodstock memorabilia.
He said Richie Havens opened the show on Friday afternoon. He remembers Arlo Guthrie and several other acts. He recalls Joan Baez being the last act of the day.
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Exley and his friend went back to their tent and slept until morning.
He said he has no memory of eating any food.
“I know I did,” he said. “People were just passing food around. I don’t remember buying any food, but somehow, people just shared what they had.”
The spirit of sharing was not limited to food, according to Exley. Drugs were the same way. He said people would come by and offer marijuana. He took a hit before passing it on, and then another came along. It was kind of wild, he said.
“I don’t remember using the Port-A-Johns, but I obviously used them. I don’t remember any certain meals, but I had plenty to eat and drink. I felt totally taken care of, and I didn’t spend a dime on anything,” Exley said.
He remembers a Saturday event when a man with fully dilated pupils came along.
“He’s walking along with a handful of little, tiny purple pills,” Exley said. “Back then, we called them microdots. He said, ‘hey man, this is the best LSD I ever had. Here, take one.’ I did, and all seemed fine.”
Exley said that about a half-hour later, he started to feel a little something. Another guy with dilated pupils approached. He had a handful of big, clear capsules containing a brown powder.
“He said the drug was pure mescaline (another hallucinate),” Exley said. “He said, ‘hey, man, you gotta do it.’ I took one of those. About 20 minutes later, it was like I took off on a rocket ship. But the environment felt so safe and supportive, I felt energized. I’m sure my eyes were fully dilated. I was seeing all kinds of images and colors, rainbows and sparkles — just all kinds of things that people see on acid trips. It was all good. Then the music started. I never heard music like that before. It was great.”
Some of Saturday’s lineup included Country Joe and the Fish, Santana, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and The Who. The Saturday performances continued through the night until Sunday morning.
“At that point, I was still high from the drugs,” Exley said. “But I wasn’t tired. I remember they were passing food around. I didn’t leave the stage area. I walked around, went to the restroom, talked to people, smoked a few joints.”
The Sunday music started at about 1 p.m. with Joe Cocker before a monstrous rainstorm delayed the performances. Exley went back to his tent and fell into a deep sleep. He woke up on Monday morning after missing most of the Sunday acts, including Blood, Sweat and Tears, Crosby Stills and Nash, and Iron Butterfly.
Exley was disheartened at the thought of missing Jimi Hendrix.
“I walked back down to the stage area,” he said. “It was very muddy, and most of the people had left except for maybe 20,000. I kept asking people if Jimi Hendrix had played. Many of them were spaced out, so I didn’t get an answer.”
“At 8 o’clock on Monday morning, here came Jimi Hendrix,” Exley said. “He played for two hours. He was the reason I had gone to the event, and I finally got to see him. When he finished, we packed up and drove back to Wheeling.”
Woodstock would be his last outing as a teenager. He turned 20 the next day. On this Aug. 19, he will turn 70.
And Exley’s buddy, Ortega, was right. Jimi Hendrix was there, too.
• Fred Connors is a retired investigative, criminal courts and police reporter for the Wheeling newspapers. He holds multiple West Virginia Press Association awards, as well as one from the Southern Newspaper Publishers’ Association. Fred lives in Wheeling with his new bride, Sharon Kennedy Connors.