Fifty-three years ago today, hundreds of thousands of beautiful people descended upon Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm in the town of Bethel, NY for the now-legendary Woodstock Music & Arts Fair. Originally slated from August 15th—August 17th for an estimated 200,000 concertgoers, the now-historic music and cultural event stretched to roughly noon on August 18th and, at its peak, swelled to an astonishing 400,000 attendees.
Woodstock Music & Arts Fair was a once-in-a-lifetime snapshot of American history in the 20th century and the peaceful culmination of a tumultuous decade that saw a drastic shift in youth culture that changed the country forever. Commonly renowned as the most iconic music festival of all time, Woodstock was the counterculture’s response to the world in which they had grown, and was a pivotal moment for a nation engulfed in Vietnam War protests and social unrest following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a year prior. Even in the craziest of circumstances, the frantically unorganized Woodstock somehow became a utopian city where music was played, freedom thrived, and people lived together in communal peace and harmony… and mud.
Spread these four days which altered the history of rock n’ roll and live music forever was a hit parade of legendary performances that would go down in the history books as some of the most celebrated concerts of all time. All-in-all, thirty-two artists performed at the festival ranging from Joe Cocker to The Who to the Grateful Dead.
To celebrate, we narrowed down the list of the top 15 most impressive performances—the ones that outshined, blew acid-soaked minds, and have since stood the test of time.
These are our picks for the top 15 acts of Woodstock:
15. Arlo Guthrie
“The New York State Thruway is closed, man!” said the high-spirited son of American music icon Woody Guthrie to an endless sea of cheering people late Friday night. His statement was slightly misstated, being that the thruway had never actually shut down completely. However traffic had stretched over ten miles from the concert-grounds and some areas of the highway had become nearly impassable due to abandoned cars along the roadway. Guthrie played a fantastic setlist that included his well-known “Comin’ into Los Angeles” along with a handful of folk classics.
Comin’ into Los Angeles
Wheel of Fortune
Walkin’ Down the Line
Story about Moses and the Brownies
Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep
Every Hand in the Land
Arlo Guthrie – “Coming Into Los Angeles” – Woodstock 1969
14. Ten Years After
Ten Year’s After’s performance at Woodstock is frequently overlooked. However, within this hour-long set was a mind-blowing display of heavy blues rock and earth-shaking musicianship that would change the band’s career forever. Their rendition of “I’m Going Home”, which was featured in the famous 1970 Woodstock documentary, is without a doubt one of the greatest moments of the entire festival. Despite battling humid weather which would cause the guitars to frequently go out of tune and various other technical difficulties, these fearless British blues-rockers put themselves on the map with their unbridled energy and face-melting guitar wizardry.
Good Morning Little School Girl
I Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes
I’m Going Home
Ten Years After – “I’m Going Home” – Woodstock 1969
13. Richie Havens
Coming in at number thirteen is folk artist Richie Havens, the very first performer to step on stage at Woodstock. Taking the stage at roughly 5:00 p.m. Friday evening, Havens opened up the four days of peace and music with a lengthy two-hour performance. Due to standstill traffic conditions, many of the artists scheduled afterward were running late, forcing Havens to extend his performance far beyond his slated timeslot. In a moment of improvisational genius, the folk legend crafted on-stage, one of his most famous compositions, “Freedom.” His appearance at the festival launched him into prominence, and much like many of the artists who were lucky enough to play Woodstock, this lent his career a legendary status.
The Minstrel from Gault
From the Prison > Get Together > From the Prison
I’m a Stranger Here
High Flying Bird
I Can’t Make It Anymore
With a Little Help from My Friends
Strawberry Fields Forever > Hey Jude
Richie Havens – “Freedom” – Woodstock 1969
12. The Band
Although Bob Dylan had turned down an invitation to play the festival, Levon Helm, Robbie Roberston and the boys of The Band surely picked up some of the slack. Performing many of the songs that would wind up on the collaborative 1975 release from Bob Dylan and The Band, The Basement Tapes, these Canadian-American music legends put on one of the most memorable shows of the weekend, featuring classics such as “Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “I Shall Be Released” and their eventual world-renowned smash-hit “The Weight”. Despite the phenomenal performance, The Band was not featured in the award-winning 1970 documentary film.
Don’t Do It
Tears of Rage
We Can Talk
Long Black Veil
Don’t You Tell Henry
Ain’t No More Cane
This Wheel’s on Fire
I Shall Be Released
Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever
The Band – “The Weight” – Woodstock 1969
11. Creedence Clearwater Revival
In another commonly forgotten Woodstock appearance, Creedence Clearwater Revival let loose a blistering albeit resentful set in the wee hours of the morning. CCR was actually the first band scheduled to play the festival, back in April of 1969. However, as a result of the chaos that ensued throughout the haphazardly organized music festival, their prime-time Saturday slot was pushed back until after midnight Sunday morning. Needless to say, the band members were not the happiest campers in White Lake that weekend. “We were ready to rock out and we waited and waited and finally it was our turn. There were a half million people asleep,” said John Fogerty in 2007. Fogerty was so upset with how things went at the illustrious festival that he insisted the band’s performance be omitted from the documentary—a call that would prove to be an unfortunate business decision in the years to come.
Born on the Bayou
Ninety-Nine and a Half
Bad Moon Rising
I Put a Spell on You
Night Time is the Right Time
Keep on Chooglin’
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Woodstock 1969
10. Joe Cocker
Gravelly-voiced singer Joe Cocker was a new name at the time. He was an animated and impassioned frontman with a soul evocative of an old bluesman. His cover of The Beatles hit “With a Little Help from My Friends” was starting to pick up steam, and his performance at Woodstock was the final boost he needed to skyrocket himself to stardom. Cocker still spoke fondly of his appearance at Woodstock up until his death in 2014, describing the experience, “like an eclipse… it was a very special day.” Following Cocker’s heartfelt performance, the heavens opened up and the famous Sunday afternoon rain storm ensued, further inundating the festival grounds with copious amounts water and mud.
Something Comin’ On
Do I Still Figure in Your Life?
Just Like a Woman
Let’s Go Get Stoned
I Don’t Need a Doctor
I Shall Be Released
Something to Say
With a Little Help from My Friends
Joe Cocker – “With A Little Help From My Friends” [The Beatles cover] – Woodstock 1969
9. Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead’s performance at Woodstock was marred by technical difficulties. The rain-soaked weekend forecast opened up a Pandora’s Box of troubles, and eventually led to electrical problems that posed a significant danger to the performers onstage. Between the buzzing amplifiers, the long-winded stage banter and microphones that would shock anyone who dared to touch, this was most definitely not the best performance from the Dead. After five songs which spanned over 90-minutes, the band’s set was cut short during their rendition of “Turn on Your Love Light.” Regardless of these troubles, the Woodstock recording is indeed an interesting listen, and despite the troubles, remains a noteworthy moment in Grateful Dead history.
Turn on Your Love Light
Grateful Dead – Woodstock 1969
8. Country Joe McDonald
Country Joe McDonald played twice during the festival; once on Saturday as a solo act and again Sunday with his band Country Joe & The Fish. However, it was this solo performance that stands out most in the chronicles of Woodstock history. Before his final song, he engaged the audience in what he and his band called the “Fish Cheer,” a cheer that normally would spell out the word “f-i-s-h.” However this time around, Mcdonald switched the cheer to “gimme an ‘F,’ gimme a ‘U,’ gimme a ‘C,’ gimme a ‘K’… what’s that spell?” “Fuck!” the audience roared in response. After that, he infectiously lead the enthusiastic crowd in a 400,000-person sing-along for his most famous song and anti-war anthem, “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”.
Heartaches by the Number
Ring of Fire
Rockin’ ‘Round the World
I Seen a Rocket
I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag
Country Joe McDonald – Woodstock 1969
7. Jefferson Airplane
At the painful hour of 8:00 a.m, on Sunday morning, Jefferson Airplane—the final act slated for Saturday night—took the stage at last. “Alright, friends… you have seen the heavy groups, now you will see morning maniac music,” said a disheveled Grace Slick to a hungover, mud-caked sea of hippies. “Good morning, people,” shouted Slick. Despite the ill-timed set and recovering audience members, their performance was one of the weekend’s best. The set lasted for a little over an hour and a half and featured some of the band’s greatest hits such as, “Somebody to Love,” “Volunteers” and the psychedelic masterpiece “White Rabbit.”
The Other Side of This Life
Somebody to Love
3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds
Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon
Eskimo Blue Day
Plastic Fantastic Lover
Uncle Sam Blues
The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil
Come Back Baby
The House at Pooneil Corners
Jefferson Airplane – “Volunteers” – Woodstock 1969
6. Sly & The Family Stone
The funk-filled stylings of Sly & The Family Stone provided just the right ingredients for a Saturday night (Sunday morning) party up in the Catskills. Despite the late hours, the band was firing on all cylinders and the crowd gave every bit of that energy right back. The set predominantly contained songs from the album Stand!, released in May of the same year. Their performance at Woodstock would prove to stand the test of time and is hailed as one of the band’s strongest performances of their 16-year career.
Sing a Simple Song
You Can Make It if You Try
Dance to the Music
I Want To Take You Higher
Sly & The Family Stone – “I Want To Take You Higher” – Woodstock 1969
5. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
In May of 1969, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash released their self-titled debut album. Shortly thereafter, Neil Young joined the group. The newly-formed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had only performed one gig before their legendary appearance at Woodstock. “This is the second time we’ve ever played in front of people, man. We’re scared shitless,” exclaimed the visibly nerve-racked Stephen Stills to the Woodstock faithful at 3:00 a.m. Monday morning. Their performance was split in two; one acoustic set, one electric set. Neil Young had specifically requested not to be filmed for the documentary, claiming that the filming was an unwanted distraction. Young’s name was subsequently removed from the documentary and soundtrack album.
Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
4 + 20
You Don’t Have to Cry
Long Time Gone
Sea of Madness
Find the Cost of Freedom
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” – Woodstock 1969
4. Janis Joplin
The unrestrained passion and fiery heart and soul within Janis Joplin’s voice is absolutely otherworldly. Her legendary performance at Woodstock was certainly no exception. At 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, Joplin took the stage, and anyone cognizant at the time was in for one hell of a treat. Performing with The Kozmic Blues Band, Janis put forth a jaw-dropping display of live blues splendor, kicking out classics like, “Summertime”, “Kozmic Blues”, “Piece of My Heart” and the incredibly moving “Ball & Chain”.
Raise Your Hand
As Good as You’ve Been to This World
To Love Somebody
Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)
Can’t Turn You Loose
Work Me, Lord
Piece of My Heart
Ball & Chain
Janis Joplin – “Ball & Chain” – Woodstock 1969
At 2:00 in the afternoon on Saturday, August 16th, 1969, a relatively unknown guitar player named Carlos Santana caught the audience by surprise and took Yasgur’s Farm by storm. Santana’s Latin rock fusion ignited the wide-eyed festival-goers, as he immediately transformed himself into a guitar legend. One of the highlights of the entire festival is without a doubt the band’s performance of “Soul Sacrifice,” where Santana’s extraordinary guitar playing stood out above the rest as it howled, wailed, and hurled spectators into cosmic oblivion. Drummer Michael Shrieve was just 20 years old, yet his massive drum solo at the heart of the song is broadly reputed to be one of the greatest rock drum solos of all time.
You Just Don’t Care
Fried Neckbones and Some Home Fries
Santana – “Soul Sacrifice” – Woodstock 1969
2. The Who
Performing for $6,250 and not a penny less, The Who finally took the stage at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning and played a scorching hour-long set that included almost all of their rock opera, Tommy. Their performance is indeed intense, and that intensity was matched by the chaotic goings-on in and around the concert area. This show included what is known as the “Abbie Hoffman Incident.” Following the band’s smash-hit “Pinball Wizard,” lefty radical political activist Abbie Hoffman jumped onto the stage shouting in typical Abbie fashion, “I think this is a pile of shit!” He continued, “While John Sinclair [sentenced to nine years for smoking marijuana] rots in prison…” then was quickly interrupted by Pete Townshend, who took over the mic screaming, “Fuck off! Fuck off my fucking stage!” Shortly afterwards, the evidently temperamental Townshend added, “The next fucking person that walks across this stage is gonna get fucking killed!” as the crowd roared with frenzied delight. The famed performance ended just after 6:00 a.m. as Townsend thrilled the captivated audience with his trademark smashing of the electric guitar.
Heaven and Hell
I Can’t Explain
It’s a Boy
Do You Think It’s Alright?
There’s a Doctor
Go to the Mirror
Smash the Mirror
Tommy’s Holiday Camp
We’re Not Gonna Take It
See Me, Feel Me
Shakin’ All Over
The Who – “See Me, Feel Me” – Woodstock 1969
1. Jimi Hendrix
Without question, the greatest performance of the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair was the final performance of them all—Jimi Hendrix. For those still lingering on Yasgur’s Farm at 9:00am on Monday morning, August 18th, 1969, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix was there to put the cap on these four days of peace and music. For over two hours, Hendrix played for an awestruck audience of under 30,000 people. Those lucky individuals were privileged to witness perhaps the most famous guitar solo of all time: Hendrix’s psychedelic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, an interpretation that musically reflected the distorted turmoil of the decade. Just over a year later, Jimi Hendrix would be dead, and the spirit of the late 1960’s would die with him. The Woodstock performance still stands as his most iconic moment.
Message to Love
Hear My Train a-Comin’
Spanish Castle Magic
Jam Back at the House
Gypsy Woman > Aware of Love
Voodoo Child (Slight Return) > Stepping Stone
The Star Spangled Banner
Jimi Hendrix – “The Star-Spangled Banner” – Woodstock 1969
Woodstock ‘69 was something that happened which will never happen again—a once-in-a-lifetime experience that if you were lucky enough to witness first-hand, is surely something to brag about. Here’s to 53 years!