Music News & Reviews

Peace, music and mud: Kentuckians who were there remember Woodstock

The crowd at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival on Aug. 14, 1969, numbered more than 200,000. Somewhere in that crowd were several people who now call Kentucky home.
The crowd at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival on Aug. 14, 1969, numbered more than 200,000. Somewhere in that crowd were several people who now call Kentucky home. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The sun was rising over the New York City skyline as a weary John Harrod and his Centre College buddy John Marshall rolled into Manhattan. It was the summer of 1969, and they were on their way to Woodstock in upstate New York for three days of peace and music.

Marshall knew a total of two people in New York -- a stewardess and Tona Barkley, a friend from Paducah who was living in Greenwich Village.

“I was getting ready for work when the phone rang,” Barkley said. “They’d been driving all night from Kentucky and needed a place to crash. I told them to come on over, and when I get back from work we’ll all go to Woodstock.”

“The bottom line is that I fell in love with John (Harrod) almost immediately,” said Barkley. “But it was a confusing time.”

“I was in love too,” said Harrod. “I was experiencing some changes in my life and wondering what to do.”

During a turbulent time in our country, Woodstock came to symbolize a celebration and confirmation of our common humanity and the kind of society we all aspired to, even if only for a brief moment.

On the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, we caught up with several people with Kentucky connections whose lives were touched by the excitement and chaos of the festival.

“I had never heard of granola before”

Pat Holland, 73

North Middletown

Pat and Rob Holland woke up to the sound of a state trooper banging on their Ford station wagon window. They had set out Thursday afternoon from their Washington, D.C. home and weren’t really sure where they were.

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Pat Holland as she looked in 1969. This photo is from her National Geographic ID badge. She and her husband, Rob, drove up to New York from their home in Washington, D.C. After 26 years at the magazine, Holland retired. She lives now in Woodford County and plays often at Broomwagon Coffee Shop’s Monday night jams.

“Traffic was already getting bad and it was getting dark,” Holland said. “We turned off on this little farm road thinking we might be near the festival site. Over the crest of the hill there was a locked gate. We couldn’t back out because a painted up school bus was right behind us, so we spent the night in the car.”

“Do you have gas?” was all the policeman said.

“When we said yes, he told us to get moving,” Holland said. “We were off the map with forest on both sides and no idea whether we were going in the correct direction.”

Fortunately they ended up on a farm adjacent to the festival. “We just had to climb a fence gate and we were in the thick of it.”

The Hog Farm, a commune that set up a free kitchen, put her to work. “My job was stirring one of the many 50-gallon drums of oats. I was done-for after a couple of hours,” Holland said. “I had never heard of granola before then.”

“Yoga master Tom Law and his wife Lisa had the idea to get a bunch of volunteers to sit in a giant circle behind the stage,” Holland said. “We got a yoga lesson while at the same time being the human helipad marker for the musicians being flown in. But the grit and rocks being kicked up was hard to take.”

Day one of the festival (Friday) was heavy on acoustic, roots and folk acts. Holland grew up with folk music and describes herself as a folkie. Her music teacher at the Silver Springs Cooperative School was Ruth Crawford Seeger, the legendary Pete Seeger’s stepmom.

“The festival was such a wonderful idea,” Holland said. “Everyone in the crowd bought into the idea that we were there for peace and love and music. And we were listening to tremendously good musicians.” She was impressed by Melanie, whom she had not heard before and Joan Baez, who was six months pregnant at the time.

“Many, many people were doing drugs,” Holland said. “At the very least most of us were smoking marijuana.”

The Hollands came especially well prepared for the weekend. “My in-laws had been to the New York World’s Fair in ’64 and warned us that vendors would be charging an arm and a leg for food,” Holland said.

The back of the station wagon was fitted with a mattress covered with a homemade peace symbol quilt and matching pillows. They had rain gear, sweaters, a propane stove, kitchen supplies and two coolers with hamburgers, hot dogs, soft drinks and beer.

Husband Rob made a shrewd food barter that netted a nice Woodstock souvenir, a mountain dulcimer that Holland still treasures.

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Pat Holland holds the mountain dulcimer that she got a Woodstock in 1969. Her husband, Rob, bartered food for it. They came prepared with a station wagon full of food, a camp stove and a mattress. Photo provided

“The songs sung at Woodstock kind of armed our generation for citizen protesting,” Holland said. “I came back and participated in sit-ins at University of Maryland and was tear-gassed and arrested.”

Most folks planned to head home Sunday evening to get to work on Monday morning, but because of delays the festival was still going full-tilt on Monday morning.

“For us it was a five-day festival, not three,” Holland said. “When Hendrix played on Monday morning, most of the crowd wasn’t listening. They had their backs to him, looking for their shoes in the mud so they could walk out.”

After 26 years as a project manager at National Geographic Magazine, Holland retired to a farm in Maryland, but about 10 years ago she followed her son and grandson into Kentucky.

Today Holland, lives on a Bourbon County farm in North Middletown. She regularly shows up with her fiddle at the Broomwagon Coffee Shop’s Monday night old-time music jams.

“You could sit in the rain and suffer or you could get out and play in it”

Scott Mello, 74

Frankfort

Scott Mello was standing face-to-face with a stark naked young man who declared that he was the “highest anybody has ever been in the history of mankind.”

“The guy was a kid really, maybe just out of high school, not a shred of clothes on,” Mello said. “He comes walking up to us talking about chess. I said I play chess. So he looks at me and says ‘Pawn to King 4.’ I told him no, I need the board, and he went on his way. It was bizarre.”

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Today Scott Mello is a retired attorney in Frankfort, but in 1969 he was part of the scene at Woodstock. Jeff McDanald

Mello had grown up in White Plains, N.Y. “Contrary to the country club image of White Plains, I grew up a block from the projects. My family didn’t have much money.”

At Woodstock, he was part of a group of friends who had met at University of Buffalo. “We still stay in touch, Tom is in Boulder, Ron lives in Owen County and my first wife Judy lives in Lexington. We’d only been married about two weeks before Woodstock happened.”

“We thought we’d be smart and leave early, maybe 10 a.m. on Friday,” Mello said. “Traffic was historic, just unbelievable. We made it to within three or four miles and abandoned the car and started walking.”

“Although we had our camping gear, we were considering just seeing the Friday night concert and leaving, because the scene was ridiculous,” Mello said. “But around 11 p.m. it became obvious that something magic was happening in this big natural amphitheater with everybody tripping and the music was amazing.”

“You could sit and suffer in the rain or you could get out and play in it,” Mello said. “There was no sense of – and this was New York – being pushed and getting yours over somebody else. The hippie love thing was effusive.”

“After the rain I got up from where we were sitting and headed back over the hill to our tent to get a plastic sheet to sit on,” Mello said. “Remember we’re in the Borscht Belt in the Catskills and it’s been declared a disaster area on the news. The Band was on stage playing and across the ridge I see all these 70 and 80-year-old Jewish men and women on their folding chairs with these big grins on their faces. We were the attraction and they’d come to take it all in.”

“Between the rains Judy and I got involved in sort of a conga line with people shaking beer cans in rhythm,” Mello said. “We snaked around through the woods where we came upon a young woman sitting on a tall rock flanked by big bags of marijuana. It was a marketplace.”

“It got really hot and we went swimming at the lake on Saturday,” Mello said. “I was getting kind of dizzy and the swimming was wonderful. All these naked women and guys around and everyone’s being so cool. Nobody’s being a jerk.”

“We got back to the music and some of the most memorable ones to me were Arlo Guthrie, Crosby, Stills and Nash and the (Jefferson) Airplane coming on as the sun was rising. The Who played the whole ‘Tommy’ and Sly and Family Stone got everyone dancing. The music was what held everything together.”

“Woodstock showed just because you get a bunch of people together, it doesn’t mean it has to get nuts,” Mello said. “For me it was a life changing event.”

“Both our fathers died early before we got out of college and we said you know what, we’re not going to work for retirement. We’re going to have our adventure. We started realizing how nice people out in the middle of the country are.”

“In the south, the default way of interacting with somebody is to be nice. Where I’m from the default way of interacting is find out how genuine they are and challenge them if they try to hand you any crap. And that’s a wonderful difference.”

In the 1970s Scott and his wife and another friend opened Jubilee Candles in Monterey, a Kentucky gathering spot for like-minded back-to-the-landers. Tom and his family later joined the Family of Saint Benedict in Columbia, Ky., an experimental commune associated with the monastery.

“People ask why would I want to live in Kentucky. It’s the people. The hippies were right. If you want to have a better world you have to love your neighbor.”

While in his 50s Scott went to law school and today is a retired attorney living outside of Frankfort with his wife Michel Smith.

“It’s not like today where everybody has a phone on them”

David Pollack, 67

Lexington

David Pollack had just graduated from Levittown Memorial High School on Long Island and was ready for adventure. Woodstock would be a welcome break from his summer job at his grandfather’s Pontiac Dealership where he earned money for college.

He estimates he and his two friends were within six or seven miles of Woodstock when their car overheated and died. The ride was his friend’s brand new Chevy Nova.

“Back then you were supposed to break new cars in. You weren’t supposed to buy a new car and immediately take it on a 300 mile round trip.”

“We had a tent and sleeping bags, but we left then in the car and started walking. We didn’t know how far away we were.”

“The only band I really remember was Ritchie Havens. There was a lot of food sharing going on. People helping people. We might have had an idea of going back to our car to get our sleeping bag and tent, but then we got distract by other stuff. There was some hash or something involved.

“We camped out that night in the rain and the next day we were like, this is not fun, we’ve had enough of this. We had gotten separated from the driver, so we hitched a ride back with this other guy who had to get back for work.”

“When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t realize how big of a deal it is. It started dawning on us on the way out as we saw all the abandoned cars and police directing traffic through the small towns.”

“It’s not like today where everybody has a phone on them and can check the news.”

Pollack first came to Kentucky armed with a BA in archaeology/anthropology for a short-term archaeology project at University of Kentucky. “Then they were hiring and I got a job. Later I decided I liked the people here, so I went to grad school here.”

Today Pollack lives in Lexington and is the director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey.

He’s not so sure the three-day Woodstock ticket purchase was a good investment. “Since the fences were down they weren’t taking tickets. I wish I hadn’t paid the $18.”

“It was in the stars all of this would happen”

John Harrod, 73 and Tona Barkley, 73

Owenton

John Harrod and Tona Barkley are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock -- the 50th anniversary of the weekend they met -- with a shindig at their home in Owenton.

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Tona Barkely and John Harrod met on the eve of Woodstock. Eventually they ended up married and still make music together. The plan to celebrate the music festival’s 50th anniversary with a shindig at their home in Owenton. Jo Mackby

Truth be told, the star-crossed lovers never made it to Woodstock.

“We all went to a party at the stewardess’s place,” Harrod said. “Then we started hearing news reports of traffic backed up for miles and road closures. I ended up staying in New York for two weeks. There were substances involved.”

Harrod had brought along his Martin D-28 guitar and played and sang while Barkley quietly made sketches of the scene.

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Tona Barkley drew this image of John Harrod in 1969. They met when John stopped in New York on the way to Woodstock. Harrod had brought his guitar to a party, which Barkley sketched. They never made to the festival. Image provided

“It was a time when you didn’t know what’s right and what’s wrong,” Barkley said. “I went to Vassar (College) and got involved in the antiwar movement and heard Timothy Leary on campus with his ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’ message.”

Harrod was just returning from two years in Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and was on the rebound from a broken relationship. “We occupied the London School of Economics and demanded something. I can’t remember what.”

“We got off to a great start but then went our separate ways,” Harrod said. “We each got married to other people and later divorced. But it was in the stars all of this would happen.”

They reunited more than 30 years later. Now they are married and living in Owen County, just 12 minutes from Monterey, Kentucky’s hippie enclave.

“I was very attracted to the hippie movement,” Barkley said. “But I never felt at home with calling myself a hippie. I grew up as more of a goody two shoes. Here’s all this stuff swirling around – Civil Rights, Vietnam – and you’re just tremendously confused. Now if you asked my kids, they would say I’m a hippie.”

“Through Centre College I was getting radicalized,” Harrod said. “I was getting a good education too. I dressed down but I didn’t wear bell bottoms and flowered shirts and all that. I didn’t have long hair until later. I mostly identified myself as a musician.”

“I met Wendell Barry when he came to Centre and spoke,” Harrod said. “A big influence on my thinking that has continued.”

Today Tona Barkley identifies herself as retired and is active as a portrait artist. She plays along with Harrod in his band and accompanies him in various settings. Harrod is best known as a fiddle player, music historian and archivist of traditional music.

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