One day in August 1969, Mark Galvin’s friend called him and asked if he wanted to attend a rock concert in upstate New York. Galvin, then 18, was spending a summer at home in Cleveland, Ohio after a freshman year at the University of Miami.
As a young man always ready for adventure, Galvin had already taken a cross-country road trip with a friend through the American Southwest. That foray had included a fool-hardy trek into the bowels of the Grand Canyon, where two British men had to rescue them. Interested in the concert, Galvin—now 69 and a longtime Bellingham resident—called his father at work and asked to borrow the car.
“Sure,” his father nonchalantly replied. With permission granted, he and several friends piled into the vehicle and headed to what would become known as “Woodstock,” the cultural and musical event so big and iconic that—half a century later—we still haven’t seen anything like it.
‘A Magical Scene’
On Thursday, August 15, 1969, Galvin and eight friends set out in two vehicles for the three-day “Woodstock Music & Art Fair,” to be held on a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. Of the nine young men, only one had bought an advance ticket. By the time they arrived, the festival would be free.
Within an hour of leaving Cleveland, they’d taken a wrong turn onto the Ohio Turnpike, been separated from their friends in the other car, and blown a tire. Somehow, Galvin recalls, they eventually met at the house of an acquaintance in upstate New York. Everybody slept on the floor.
The next morning, the men began driving the remaining miles to the festival. Switching on the radio, they heard a message that the New York State Thruway was so clogged with concert-goers it was impassable, and drivers should turn around. This did not deter them.
“When you’re 18, this is a sign that, you know, this must be good,” Galvin says.
Somewhere near the festival, Galvin and his friends parked their cars and set out on foot. Everywhere, they were surrounded by a sea of hippies.
“It was a magical scene,” he recalls. “Just all these people. We probably walked eight or 10 miles to get there. And of course, everybody’s smoking weed and in a great mood. It was a gorgeous day.”
When they finally got close enough to the festival in the early evening, the sounds of folk singer Richie Havens came into earshot. Not the original opener, Havens was forced to play a longer than planned set because other performers were delayed from arriving. Several acts actually arrived via helicopter.
That night, the rain that would turn the festival grounds into a mud pit began. Ravi Shankar played through the rain, and other Friday night performers included Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, who’ve both performed at the Mount Baker Theatre in recent years.
Late that night, Galvin dropped the old, well-used sleeping bag he’d brought with him under a semi-truck, attempting to stay dry as he slept. It didn’t work.
“I wake up, and I’m just soaking wet,” he says. “There’s water under the truck. It poured.”
Fortunately, Galvin escaped the fate of one person doing something similar: a 17-year-old boy, who accounted for one of only two deaths at Woodstock, was crushed beneath a tractor while sleeping.
Saturday’s performances included Country Joe McDonald, Santana, Canned Heat, The Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Part of the excitement, Galvin recalls, was not having a program or any idea about who would grace the stage next.
At some point during the day, Galvin’s friend Michael disappeared from the group. This was bad for multiple reasons, the most important of which was that he’d been entrusted with the group’s drug supply. During the festival, the festival’s showrunners, aware of the lack of proper food, sanitation and first aid, helped to make informational announcements over the sound system. Among these was the infamous proclamation: avoid the brown acid.
Galvin and his friends stuck to pot, and between enjoying the music, mostly tried to stay warm. Although there’s no official attendance record, the crowd at Woodstock is thought to have been, at its peak, between 400,000 and half a million people. Yet despite all of the inconveniences attendees faced, good will prevailed.
“Under the horrible conditions, everybody just rallied,” he says. “There was nobody getting angry, nobody getting pissed off. It was like, we’re in this mud bath with 450,000 people; what are you going to do?”
‘In a Daze’
After surviving another night, Sunday morning dawned. The hillside where Galvin and his friends had been staying had become even muddier.
“People were wandering around, just kind of in a daze,” he says. Eventually, a vote was held among the remaining friends (several had left the day before) to stay or to leave. The ‘leaves’ won unanimously. There was, however, one problem: When Galvin and his friends walked back to his father’s car, it was missing. Their friend Michael had somehow gotten Galvin’s keys the day before, and driven back to Cleveland.
Instead, Galvin says, everyone piled into the back of the remaining vehicle and went home. Upon getting there, Galvin went to the hospital at the insistence of his dad’s friend, a doctor. He’d somehow ripped his foot open while walking around, and stitches were needed. According to a Time magazine article, cut feet were the festival’s most frequent injury.
The following spring, Galvin and his friends all went to see the festival documentary in theaters. It not only made them appreciate what they’d been part of, but was also less stressful.
“We all went to the movie afterward and thought, ‘This is way better,’” he says with a laugh. “You’re not covered in mud, you’re not cold. You’ve had food.”
After Woodstock, Galvin endured Vietnam draft lotteries, eventually got a college degree, and travelled extensively, including throughout Africa and Asia. He also saw a number of Woodstock’s artists in concert again.
Galvin and his wife moved to Bellingham from Ohio in the early 1980s, raising a son and daughter. Eventually, Galvin became a teacher and spent 30 years in the Bellingham School District, teaching at Shuksan Middle School, Bellingham High School, and Squalicum High School, where he twice took student groups to India on experiential learning trips. After retiring from teaching, Galvin lost his wife to a brain tumor in 2016. Today, he spends time with his grown children, 11-year-old grandson, and partner Darcy Carlson.
In looking back at Woodstock, Galvin says he’s amazed not just by the dozens of great bands that played, but also by the number of major alternative groups who attended. They helped care for people needing food, shelter, or just a friendly face after a bad drug high, helping turn a potentially disastrous event into something memorable for all the right reasons.
Could something like it ever happen again? Galvin doesn’t think so.
“It would be so different now,” he says, bringing up increased commercialization, social media, and security in a post-9/11 world.
In greater context, Galvin sees Woodstock as just one of the watershed moments of the summer of 1969. There was Chappaquiddick, the moon landing, and the Tate murders, all with a month of each other, and all while Vietnam raged on. Woodstock was an exclamation point, he says, on both the decade and its counterculture.
“There had been the whole thing of San Francisco and communes and LSD,” he says. “And after Woodstock, it was over.”