By Ken Newto n
For a 17-year-old devoted to music, a week or two from heading to college, the allure proved too great to ignore. Less than 100 miles from his doorstep, the royalty of rock would convene.
Ditching his summer job early, the teenager answered this call, a decision about which he remains grateful.
“I had no idea that this was going to turn into some kind of cultural watershed moment,” Dr. Daniel Trifan says now. “All we knew is this was going to be the rock concert to top everything.”
That was Woodstock, billed as “three days of peace and music.” It began 50 years ago today.
Trifan became one of an estimated 500,000 people to sit in an alfalfa field-turned-amphitheater and take part in a generation-defining event. He would hear a band, Blood, Sweat & Tears, for which he would be a performer in seven years. He would witness history on the way to becoming a history professor.
Woodstock became that for many who attended, both universal in feeling yet deeply personal.
Growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey, Trifan had gone to high school across the Hudson River, in New York City, at the Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School. He had a high school diploma and admission papers to Princeton University.
As August 1969 arrived, though, he also had burning in his hand a trio of $6 tickets for a buzzed-about event in the Catskills, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
(An upstate New York town exists named Woodstock, home then of a summer arts colony. After assorted permitting difficulties, the festival was held about 60 miles away, around Bethel.)
“This entire festival cost $18, for 24-hour music by top-of-the-line groups,” Trifan said.
Top-of-the-line might be underselling it. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix got featured on many of the promotional posters, but the lineup also included the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Joe Cocker, Sly & The Family Stone and the Grateful Dead.
A newly formed band named Crosby, Stills & Nash, along with Neil Young, played its first show in Chicago one night before taking the stage before a half-million people at Woodstock.
Trifan had seen some of the bands and heard of most of them. They had been his radio heroes, and they would be in one place.
“These musicians, I was going to catch up in the space of three days,” he said.
The festival began on a Friday, and Trifan and his friends made the drive up from Teaneck on Thursday night, camping about 2 miles from the festival site. The next morning, their decision about driving the rest of the way became clear.
“The traffic was already bumper to bumper. It was just jammed, so we decided to walk,” he recalled, noting the historic backups caused by festival goers just abandoning their cars. “We knew this was going to be heavily attended, but not like this.”
The group scoped out a good viewing location, then Saturday morning found an even better spot by one of the camera mounts, in the center and no more than 100 feet from the stage.
Festival promoters, faced with a crowd six times bigger than the most optimistic estimates, saw vendors and other infrastructure quickly overwhelmed. Trifan said his group ate only the snacks they had packed in. But they also witnessed the generosity that became the hallmark of the event.
“All I saw was people pitching in, helping one another and sharing things with one another,” he said.
Trifan catnapped when he could, stayed to the bitter end (Hendrix playing to the diminished crowd on Monday morning) and made it back to Teaneck, exhausted, by the afternoon.
Princeton, where Trifan would “party and play music,” did not work out. He got a minimum-wage job in a Manhattan office before catching on as a bass player with a rocker named Buzzy Linhart. From there, Trifan became a charter member of The Eleventh House, an influential jazz fusion group led by guitarist Larry Coryell. He played for Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1976 and 1977.
Eventually, he would return to higher education, getting his undergraduate degree at his hometown university, Fairleigh Dickinson, before moving on to graduate studies at Duke University.
At age 36, he defended his doctoral dissertation (on Soviet arms-control policies) on Aug. 1, 1988. Eighteen days later, he began teaching at Missouri Western State University, where he retired a year ago.
Trifan said the Woodstock experience shaped his worldview, both as a musician and a person. If nothing else, he said, it taught him to never turn down the opportunity to do something that might be special.
“I was understandably optimistic that this might mark a turning point in society,” he said of his thinking after the festival, then adding, “but society doesn’t change quite that quickly.”