Long before that festival: Woodstock’s real musical history

Jane Byrd Whitehead’s zither at the Historical Society of Woodstock’s new exhibit. (Photos by Dion Ogust)

Byrdcliffe co-founder Jane Byrd Whitehead’s zither. John Sebastian’s custom-made leather harmonica belt. Tickets from the 1969 Woodstock Festival. These artifacts and many others, including photographs, posters, and reminiscences, are on display in the Historical Society of Woodstock (HSW) exhibit “Woodstock Music: In Tune with the Times, 1600-Present,” from June 29 to September 1, Saturdays and Sundays, 1-5 p.m.

An opening reception will be held Saturday, June 29, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., with a performance by Rennie Cantine and Sabrina Miller, at the HSW museum in the Eames House on Comeau Drive. That evening at 7:30 p.m., a presentation at Woodstock’s Mescal Hornbeck Community Center, 56 Rock City Road, will explore the area’s music history through instruments, song, and shadow puppetry.

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Although Woodstock became famous through the historic festival, music has been a vibrant part of the town throughout its history. The musical tradition that inspired the festival was built up over generations and still continues, with a thriving music scene and the Rock Academy that trains young rockers. The lobby of the HSW museum has been graced with an Arnold Blanch portrait, probably from the 1920s, that summarizes the Woodstock scene: Maverick Colony founder Hervey White writing in his cabin, with a guitar hanging above the window and a painting hanging on the wall. 

The exhibit was assembled by a committee of HSW members and people from the community with musical connections. The show begins with Native American pottery shards found in local rock shelters. Documenting the period up through the Byrdcliffe Colony, Archivist JoAnn Margolis dug out such items as tin horns used in the Down Rent Wars of the 1840s to communicate from farm to farm that the tax collectors were on their way. Pointing out photographs of uniformed band members, Margolis explained, “Starting in the 1800s, each hamlet had its own community band.” 

Fern Malkine-Falvey, daughter of folk musician Sonia Malkine, organized a wall of photographs taken at Woodstock area musical venues from the 1930s to the 1980s: Joyous Lake, Village Jug, Café Espresso, Deanie’s, Camp Woodland in Phoenicia, the Woodstock Library Fair, Christmas Eve on the Village Green, and many more. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s,” commented HSW member Olivia Twine, “you could walk from one bar to another and hear music all night long, practically free.”

Rennie Cantine contributed posters for musical events from the 1980s and 1990s, including many he designed himself. He also wrote recollections from growing up, performing, and organizing concerts in the Woodstock music scene. “The amount of home-grown musicians in Woodstock is spectacular,” said Cantine, referring to second-generation performers such as Amy Helm, Abby Hollander, and Richie Havens’s grandson, Chogyi Lama.

 Graphic artist Nikki delVerrocchio-Hall, who designed many of the layouts, also donated her collages of Upstate Reggae publicity for shows from the past 38 years. On a wall, she laid out a display of piano keys in the shape of a G-clef bearing a swirling list of over 200 names of musicians who have performed in Woodstock over the years, with room for names to be added.

Also featured are displays relating to classical music at the Maverick Concert Hall, jazz improvisation with Creative Music Studio, and the Sound-outs that preceded the great festival.

Of course, Woodstockers live with the irony that the festival bearing the town’s name actually took place 60 miles away. But the exhibit documents the spirit behind the name that draws so many people to the area. “We were always esoteric,” said Cantine. “The festival made us mainstream.”

The Historical Society of Woodstock exhibit “Woodstock Music: In Tune with the Times, 1600-Present” will be on display from June 29 to September 1, Saturdays and Sundays, 1-5 p.m., at the Eames House, 20 Comeau Drive, where an opening reception will be held Saturday, June 29, from 2 to 4 p.m., with a performance by Rennie Cantine and Sabrina Miller. On Saturday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m., at the Woodstock Community Center, 56 Rock City Road, “Woodstock Music: Colonists, Warriors, Witches” will explore the local music history through instruments, song, and shadow puppetry. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. Visit http://historicalsocietyofwoodstock.org for information on forthcoming weekend programs.

There is one comment

  1. Suzette Green

    Wish I could visit this exhibit, it is a long time in coming. Hopefully it will be well attended. In the Netherlands, villages still support local musicians in organized bands called “fanfares” (fan-fahr-ace). It is a great tradition, uniting the communities. Congratulations on the formulation and success, HSW!

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