The “Light bus” is back!

Woodstock – the myth. The Volkswagen 1 – another myth. The two came into contact 50 years ago and shaped an era. For the anniversary of the festival, the painted Light bus is now back on the American highways and byways.

Mud, music and about 400,000 people: At the Woodstock-Festival 50 years ago, the alternative beatnik and hippie movement became a mass phenomenon. “Woodstock” still stands for love and peace, for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, for the Age of Aquarius. And for a lot of rain – hence the mud. The whole festival achieved cult status, and a few images surreptitiously found their way into the cultural memory: Jimi Hendrix with his guitar and his version of the “Star-spangled banner,” young people laughing and dancing in the rain, with their naked feet sunk in mud – and also possibly one of the best-known buses in the world, the Light bus. A Volkswagen T1, a Bulli, wild and anarchic, painted with esoteric symbols in vibrant colors.

Bob Hieronimus

Woodstock is a legend, but the man who had painted the Light bus wasn’t even there, neither as an artist nor as a member of the audience: Bob Hieronimus, doctor of symbology and enthusiastic painter of cars. Now 75, he has an aura of cheerful serenity.  “There were too many people for me back then. I had a ticket, but I didn’t go. My bus went instead!” Bob had painted the bus a year before, in 1968, as a commission for his friend, Bob Grimm, who named it the “light bus” after his band, “Light.” Grimm and his band went to the festival as guests, not as performers. There the bus served them well: when the sun was shining, they sat on the roof and listened to the concerts, and during stormy weather they sat in the bus while thunder, wind and rain raged outside.

The Woodstock festival was scheduled to take place from August 15 to 17, 1969 in the state of New York, but actually didn’t end until the morning of August 18. It also didn’t take place in Woodstock – the organizers didn’t get a license for the location – but rather in the small town of Bethel, around 70 kilometers from Woodstock. Around 30 musicians performed, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Santana and The Who. About half a million people came. As a result, the festival was the second largest city in New York State for three days.

For the 50th anniversary, one of the original organizers, Michael Lang, was planning a new edition, but had to cancel the "Woodstock 50" festival at the end of July. The Light bus will now be on display at the original site of the festival

A house on wheels

“The Volkswagen bus is a house on wheels,” says Bob, “and in those days it was suitable for people who didn’t have much money. It’s fantastic: you can travel in it and meet other people!” He has painted numerous cars, including a lot of buses. “In my opinion, the bus is ultimately about one thing: love.” That certainly describes the main message of the Light bus. Both 50 years ago and today, the message is the same: “We are all one, together on this planet. We are all sitting in the same boat,” as Bob explains. That’s why he chose symbols from different cultures and languages for his bus, from Hebrew to ancient Egyptian and Sanskrit.

“I researched page after page in different languages. I wanted other people to understand what it was about. It took me six months to paint the original bus.” 50 years later, Bob instructed a small group of artists to help him paint the new Light bus. The old one went missing at some point in the 70s. And for the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the Canadian documentary filmmaker John Chisholm wanted to resurrect the bus.

Together with Bob, he went in search of the original – in vain. Finally, with the aid of Volkswagen, Bulli fans and a Kickstarter campaign, they managed to locate another Volkswagen Bulli T1 from that era, which they then lovingly restored: the Light bus was back on the road!

“People love the Light bus!”

“The Light bus became famous because many people understood its message of love. We resurrected it because so many people came to me and asked: Where is the bus? So we went ahead and did it,” says Bob. He and John Chisholm have been touring the USA since May 2019, presenting the bus at various car shows. Now they are driving it to the place where everything started: to Woodstock.

“That’s the plan. I am looking forward to finally getting there. I’m sorry that I didn’t make it last time,” says Bob. And he tells us how excited people are when the Light bus drives past: “People start to clap, sing and wave. They just love it!” The Magic Bus is the highlight of a car show in Los Angeles. Visitors hug Bob, take photographs of him and the bus. “It simply stands for the whole idea of the hippie movement back then,” classic car fan Don Ramsey explains.

Woodstock: A few facts

  • The festival’s full name was: “Woodstock Music & Art Fair presents an Aquarius Exhibition – 3 Days of Peace & Music.”
  • The organizers expected around 200,000 visitors. However, more than twice as much showed up – food ran low, but things still remained peaceful.
  • A day ticket cost seven dollars – which would now correspond to around 40 euros.
  • Because so many visitors had arrived in advance and were already camping on site before the ticket booths had been set up, it became impossible to check tickets – so the festival was simply declared “free of charge.”