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Spates Recalls Woodstock

For the 40th anniversary of the concert at Woodstock, the Finger Lakes Times spoke to local attendees, asking them to share some memories. Among them was Jim Spates, title, who arrived with his wife Tracy (who is now deceased) before the concert began.

According to the article, the couple was among the “minority” of attendees who paid for their tickets and Spates still has them.

“[Woodstock] was one of my greatest memories of my life,” Spates is quoted. “I think it was one of [my] wife’s, too.”

The article also notes the significance Spates attributed to the festival: “He believes it was the beginning of diversity, an important moment in the anti-war movement, a shift in the country when it didn’t matter that you had long hair. It also showed the importance of the music that they listened to, Spates said.”

It quotes him, “It was a symbol. It was a very significant turning point in our history.”

The full article appears below.


Finger Lakes Times
Peace, love and memories
Local Woodstock attendees reminisce

Craig Fox • August 16, 2009

GENEVA – Jim Spates and his wife, Tracy, heard the noise of hammers and drills when they arrived at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel 40 years ago this weekend.

On that Thursday night – Aug. 14, 1969 -workers were still building the mammoth stage that would transform the Woodstock music festival into the cultural event that defined an American generation.

Coming from Boston that weekend, the young couple, just 26 and married for four years, never thought Woodstock would become a life-changing event for them. But it did, Spates recalled last week.

It was such an important moment that Spates has kept their Woodstock tickets in a safety deposit box all these years. He knew they were there, but he had to search for the key to open it.

The Spates were in the minority, paying $30 each for the three days of peace, love and, of course, music. Most of the over 400,000 who came were gate crashers, managing to get through the crammed New York Statee Thruway and breaking down chain-link fences.

After driving on back roads to get to the small, rural community, Spates and his wife made their way through some woods to hang around the stage, he recalled.

“I remember how we sat there and waited for hours for something to happen, before all the big crowds came the next day,” he said.
And they certainly did.

Spates was a graduate student at Boston University, and his wife taught in an inner-city school in Boston. They considered themselves hippies.

“We were very much in the counter-culture stuff. I had long hair, and we wore leather stuff. I just said that we had to go to that,” he recalled.
Now 66, Spates – most of his long hair gone – is a sociology professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. His wife died a little more than three years ago of an aneurysm.

“[Woodstock] was one of my greatest memories of my life,” he said. “I think it was one of [my] wife’s, too.”

Getting there early, they missed the traffic jams. As Arlo Guthrie announced that weekend, the New York State Thruway was closed because of the mass of hippies and music-lovers trying to make their way to Bethel.

It could have not been a better musical experience, with Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Jefferson Airplane, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Joe Cocker and dozens more performing before throngs of people, some of whom used recreational drugs and went skinny-dipping in a pond to enhance the experience.
The Spates became a bigger part of that history-making weekend than most. Tracy and Jim ended up in the Woodstock documentary that coincided with the festival.

It was just a brief appearance – five seconds – but there they are, Spates said, seen in the background lying down and propped up on their elbows, as the camera follows “Wavy Gravy,” Woodstock’s announcer, dressed in a weird, floppy hat.

“No one would have noticed, but it was us,” he said. “I think the film was great. It showed what it was really like.”

By the time Saturday came, rainstorms created a muddy mess, so the couple decided that it was too much and that they should leave.

They missed Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner” on electric guitar, he said.

He believes it was the beginning of diversity, an important moment in the anti-war movement, a shift in the country when it didn’t matter that you had long hair. It also showed the importance of the music that they listened to, Spates said.

“It was a symbol,” he said. “It was a very significant turning point in our history.”

A few other local Woodstock attendees admitted being there but declined to talk about their experiences. One said he didn’t want his kids to know. Another guy said it was something he did before he met his wife, so it was ancient history and not to be discussed.

But retired Finger Lakes Times publisher Phil Beckley has always liked to retell the tale of the weekend he spent with 500,000 other music fans.
Beckley, a Republican who ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor two years ago, and two friends were also among those who purchased tickets, driving the two hours from Unadilla, Otsego County, a couple of weeks before.
On that Thursday night, they were on their way on Route 17 to Woodstock when they heard that the festival had been moved to Yasgur’s farm, so they had to drive a little farther than they had thought.

“It was a lot of great music and a lot of fun,” said Beckley, now 63.
They had to park a few miles away when they finally arrived, he recalled.
They didn’t have a tent or sleeping bags but may have had a tarp to sleep on. Sitting on the hill about 500 yards away from the stage, they brought a cooler of food but left most of it in the car. They ate potato chips and other snacks because they didn’t want to hike back just to eat, he recalled.

“In those days, I didn’t need to eat that much,” he said.

Playing the band’s rock oppera, “Tommy,” The Who was his favorite act. Regrettably, Beckley and his friends left on Saturday, so he, too, didn’t get to see Hendrix.

For Beckley, Woodstock wasn’t the cultural phenomenon that it was for others of his generation.

“We went home and got back to do what we were doing,” he said.
But it’s a memory – and a story he still likes to tell, he said.