August 13, 2009
Remembering Woodstock: Max Said Yes!
When Jewish dairy farmer Max Yasgur died in 1973, he became one of few non-musicians to receive a full-page obituary in Rolling Stone magazine. That’s because Yasgur said “yes” to organizers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair 40 years ago this week, allowing half a million young people to camp out on his land in Bethel, N.Y., after neighboring towns refused to grant access to the flower children.
Now one of Yasgur’s relatives, Abigail Yasgur and her husband, Joseph Lipner, an attorney and novelist, both of Los Angeles, are celebrating the late farmer’s historic decision with a new children’s book, “Max Said Yes—The Woodstock Story” (Change the Universe Press). The book describes how Max hosted the festival—despite threats from his conservative neighbors—in rhyming verse and vibrant illustrations by artist Barbara Mendes.
“Some boys and girls got the inspiration/To hold a giant celebration/Where drums, pianos and electric guitars/Would play beneath a million stars,” the book recounts. A farmer in the book says, “There’s no way/I’d let hippies camp out in my hay…One farmer did not think the same/And Max Yasgur was his name./He raised cows, sold milk and cheese./He liked kids with big ideas like these.”
And so the festival took place in Yasgur’s cow pastures as “music blared from a giant stage/To celebrate the Aquarian age. /Rock songs and incense filled the air/The men who were dancing had long, long hair.”
Abigail Yasgur – who for 12 years served as director of the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles – is Max’s second cousin: They share a great-grandfather, Ezekiel, who immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine in the early 1900s. Abigail was just 14, living in Greenville, Penn., and too young to attend the concert when it took place Aug. 15-18, 1969. “But when it started and the newspapers were full of reports there was great excitement in our family,” she said.
She learned that Max had made a savvy business deal with festival organizers. But this didn’t sit well with some of the townspeople, who demanded a boycott of his dairy business, posting signs that read “Don’t Buy Yasgur’s Milk. He Supports the Hippies.”
Story continues after the jump
Abigail Yasgur never got to meet Max. At the time of the festival, he was already suffering from a heart condition; he died several years later, at age 53, after selling his farm (which had been rendered untillable by the concertgoers) and moving to Florida. Even so, Max remained a legend in the counterculture and was even feted in Joni Mitchell’s song, “Woodstock,” which speaks of a traveler “going on down to Yasgur’s farm.” Over the decades, hardly a week went by when people didn’t ask Abigail Yasgur if she was related to Max.
Abigail Yasgur, went on to become a librarian with a good knowledge of children’s literature; she noted that while numerous adult books analyzed the festival, hardly anything existed for children, and vowed to write a book about Max one day.
Several years ago, she began researching the project by reading numerous historical volumes, interviewing Max’s widow, Miriam, and attending a reunion of Woodstock officials, including festival organizer Michael Lang and Wavy Gravy, a member of the Hog Farm commune that helped feed the concertgoers.
“The most surprising thing I learned about Max was that he wasn’t particularly liberal; in fact, he wasn’t against the war in Vietnam,” the author recalled. “But everyone said he was a very generous person, a gentle spirit who really cared about kids.
At the end of ”Max Said Yes,” the farmer – who is shown smoking his beloved pipe – waves goodbye to the exuberant young people, who go on to “spread the songs of joy and charm/That they had learned on Max’s farm./And teach the world it should relax/And welcome all. Just like Max.”
The authors will discuss “Max Said Yes” on Oct. 18, 4 p.m., at Village Books in Pacific Palisades. For more information on Max Yasgur, visit www.maxsaidyes.com.