A Woodstock Experience By Chance

The following is a guest blog post from John Kane, author of Pilgrims of Woodstock: Never-Before-Seen Photoscoming to bookstores on August 1, 2019. Explore the Pilgrims of Woodstock video preview and book announcment as well. 

During the spring of 2018, I serendipitously discovered a photo collection that belonged to Brooklyn-based photojournalist Richard F. Bellak. Rather unknown, his natural-light portraits caught my eye. I learned that he went to Woodstock independently and never shared his photos, it seems, with anyone. The photos and negatives revealed that he aimed his lens at the crowd and not at the stage.

Around this time, I had just wrapped up a comprehensive book titled The Last Seat in the House: The Story of Hanley Sound (TLSITH) with the University Press of Mississippi. Contrary to a long line of rejection letters, Indiana University Press asked if I would consider writing something specifically about the Woodstock Music Festival. My other work, TLSITH, which IUP had liked, includes elements of Woodstock in it, but it’s a very long book. However, since I already had much of the Woodstock research in place, I emphatically said “Yes!”—having the Pilgrims of Woodstock format somewhere in the back of my mind. Within a few days, the formulated idea of Pilgrims of Woodstock came to me: A book about the festival’s real performers––Bellak’s muse––the Woodstock audience.

There are many books about Woodstock, so it was important that I not create another acid-trip-psychedelic adventure. Woodstock, in my view, is often misinterpreted this way. I was more interested in what was happening in the field, especially what was on the minds of the 400,000 that gathered during those three days. In this way, Pilgrims of Woodstock  is a book about what occurred in the makeshift byways of this newly formed city.

The actual composition of Pilgrims of Woodstock happened fairly quickly. When Indiana University Press accepted my proposal, I was given only three months to iron out its final presentation. With the 50th anniversary of Woodstock looming, it was paramount that I get working fast. With limited time, the construct and scaffold of Pilgrims of Woodstock emerged, much like the Woodstock stage had in Yasgur’s alfalfa field 50 years prior. Again, it was time to create something out of nothing.

First order of the day was to find actual Woodstock attendees. This was followed by scheduling and conducting interviews (mostly by phone). It turns out that many eager baby boomers claim they were at the event. However, I noticed that if they began the interview by referencing scenes from the Woodstock movie, presumably they were not in attendance. Perhaps it’s true that if you remember the 1960’s you weren’t really at Woodstock! It was also important to me that I find a balanced demographic for the book. Voices from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds would give a good snapshot into an authentic cultural and social experience. Moreover, voices from female attendees, Vietnam veterans, journalists, and West Coast youth culture were aspects I wanted to emphasize.

Once this phase was complete, time came to manage Bellak’s work. This was a puzzle in itself. How will the narrative flow with the images? What images should be included? After a lot of intense brainstorming, Allan DiBiase (my co-editor) and I were determined to refine the project until it was chronologically cohesive and meaningful.

Looking more deeply, the counterculture framed in Bellak’s shots overall does not seem extraordinarily happy. In fact, many of his subjects look very uncomfortable. And although consensus is that folks felt a unifying blanket of shared love over that weekend, that “blanket” was an extremely soggy and miserable one. Still, after I generously received an optimistic foreword written by Tom Law—known cultural icon, political activist, and Hog Farm member—the book reveals a warm sense of hope for the future of Bellak’s subjects.

The result of my work is a focused approach toward a unique Woodstock experience in effect characterized solely by those who reveled in what Woodstock had to offer. When reading Pilgrims of Woodstock, these are people whom we come to know only by first name, age, and place of departure. This treatment creates a time capsule. As the days unfold, Bellak’s images come to life. With the voices of the audience as the primary storytellers, it seems as though they are actually in the shots. However, they are not. But they could be if you keep looking.

In total, 40 subjects were interviewed but only 30 were chosen. I derived my questions to them based on things I saw in Bellak’s images. By taking this approach, a theme surfaced that worked seamlessly. The result is a choreographed dance between story and Bellack’s atmospheric stills. And in this way, Pilgrims of Woodstock is a new perspective into one of the most significant musical and cultural events in history.

In February of 2019, a few pieces from Bellak’s collection were chosen for display at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts Museum in Bethel, NY. These will be up for a year long exhibit called “We Are Golden: A Season of Song and Celebration.” His work currently hangs alongside famed music photographers Henry Diltz, Baron Wolman and others. Bellak would be so proud.

I am also proud and honored to have unearthed Richard Bellak’s photographic legacy and that I have been allowed––through the interviewing process––into the lives of so many incredible people. Writing Pilgrims of Woodstock has been my Woodstock experience and I will never forget it.

John KaneAbout the Author

John Kane, D.A., grew up in Somerville, MA. He is an educator, artist and author. For the last decade he has been a college professor teaching media, leadership, and visual art courses. His research interests tend toward historical musicological topics with a focus on the early development of live concert sound reinforcement. He resides on the seacoast of New Hampshire. Pilgrims of Woodstock is his debut work. Follow the Pilgrims of Woodstock Facebook page and the Pilgrims of Woodstock website for more information. 

You might also enjoy this preview video and this book announcement for Pilgrims of Woodstock: Never-Before-Seen Photos.