Written By: Ben Cosgrove
The original plan was for an outdoor rock festival, “three days of peace and music” in the Catskill village of Woodstock. What the young promoters got was the third largest city in New York state, population 400,000 (give or take 100,000), location Max Yasgur’s dairy farm near the town of White Lake.
So began LIFE magazine’s description, in its August 29, 1969 issue, of what has come to be seen as one of the defining events of the 1960s. Here LIFE.com presents a gallery of pictures many of which never ran in the magazine from those heady, rain-soaked days and nights.
Lured by music [the story in LIFE continued] and some strange kind of magic (“Woodstock? Doesn’t Bob Dylan live in Woodstock?”), young people from all over the U.S. descended on the rented 600-acre farm.
It was a real city, with life and death and babies—two were born during the gathering—and all the urban problems of water supply, food, sanitation and health. Drugs, too, certainly, because so many of its inhabitants belong to the drug culture. Counting on only 50,000 customers a day, the organizer had set up a fragile, unauthoritarian system to deal with them. Overrun, strained to its limits, the system somehow, amazingly, didn’t break. For three days nearly half a million people lived elbow to elbow in the most exposed, crowded, rain-drenched, uncomfortable kind of community and there wasn’t so much as a fist fight.
For those who passed through it, Woodstock was less a music festival than a total experience, a phenomenon, a happening, high adventure, a near disaster and, in a small way, a struggle for survival. Casting an apprehensive eye over the huge throng on opening day, Friday afternoon, a festival official announced, “There are a hell of a lot of us here. If we are going to make it, you had better remember that the guy next to you is your brother.” Everybody remembered. Woodstock made it.
One of the LIFE photographers on scene during the festival, John Dominis, summed up his own recollections of Woodstock this way:
“I really had a great time.,” Dominis told LIFE.com, decades after the fact. “I was much older than those kids, but I felt like I was their age. They smiled at me, offered me pot. . . . You didn’t expect to see a bunch of kids so nice; you’d think they’d be uninviting to an older person. But no they were just great!
“I worked at LIFE for 25 years,” Dominis said, “and worked everywhere and saw everything, and I’ve told people every year since Woodstock happened that it was one of the greatest events I ever covered.”
Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.