As exotic and titillating as the goings-on looked through the widened eyes of a 17-year-old, Don Robbins could have been cruising the French Riviera or some other naughty playground halfway around the globe. As it was, he and a buddy were in a 1968 Camaro somewhere in the middle latitudes of Georgia, a short jaunt from their home in Forest Park.
Zigzagging the back roads in sweltering heat, the boys came upon but another surreal frame: A band of wild-haired, scruffy hippies shedding their brightly-colored garments on the bank of a creek and slithering into the water. But far more curious than the skinny dippers was a circle of locals, easily clocked by their jeans, corduroys and John Deere caps, dropping wads of cash into a pile.
Intrigued, the pair approached the men, who were kneeling in the shade of a bridge.
“They had moved one of the girl’s clothes well off the bank and were betting if she was a true redhead,’ recalls Robbins, now a 57-year-old optometrist. “I saw hundred-dollar bills in the kitty.”
In many ways, the fact that Robbins spins this vignette before rhapsodizing about Joplin, Zeppelin and Booker T helps define the legacy of Georgia’s—and the South’s—first and most storied musical extravaganza, which drew 140,000 to a speedway in Henry County over a July 4th weekend.
The 1969 Atlanta Pop Festival, like the massive gatherings held later that year in Woodstock and Altamont, wasn’t solely about music. It was a coming-out party for the budding, southern-bred counterculture, and for anyone who took note of it in other parts of the country, a contradiction of deeply held beliefs about the region. As Robbins puts it, “I never sensed any animosity towards the longhairs. The farmers were in awe of the hippies.”
The flower children were awestruck as well, never having seen so many of their own in one setting. In fact, the turnout caused many of them to reflect for decades to come.
“We may have felt like freaks, but now we knew we weren’t the only freaks,” writes Mark Kemp in Dixie Lullaby: a Story of Music, Race and the Beginnings in a New South. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but the feeling of community . . . was the beginning of a healing process—in me and in many southerners of my generation—that continues to this day.”
Eclipsed by Woodstock in music anthologies, Atlanta (the raceway was actually in Hampton, a half hour south) took place at a juncture in the South’s history. It was still the ’60s, though, and old stereotypes persisted. The cult film Easy Rider portrayed the region as an intolerant backwater that was highly suspicious of the counterculture. Lester Maddox, an ardent segregationist who was Georgia’s governor derided the festival as “one of the worst blights that ever struck our state,” and Merle Haggard topped the country charts by singing the praises of Muscogee, a “place where squares can have a ball.”
By contrast, Woodstock, in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains in New York State, enjoyed a reputation as a citadel of open-mindedness.
“You have to understand the context,” says Atlanta Pop Festival promoter Alex Cooley, a native son who eventually became a brand name in the festival planning sector of the music industry. “It was the height of the Vietnam War and Lester Maddox was governor.”
Cooley, 30 at the time, adds, “I wanted to do something to make people where I lived understand that we could change.”
From Janis to Zeppelin
Judging from the broad spectrum of acts, the festival lived up to its billing as the most democratic of boogies. Over two days, an ecumenical lineup cranked out deeply-rooted rock ’n’ roll, white blues, mainline jazz, sugary soul, heavy metal, folk and other sounds that defied conventional genres.
What sticks in the minds of many who attended was the set performed by bluesman Johnny Winter, whose blanched, white locks glowed like neon as darkness enveloped the track. Despite his substantial girth, Canned Heat’s Bear Hite played shirtless, an endearing gesture to an audience in various states of undress. “Going Up The Country,” the band’s flute-driven, signature tune, stoked frenzied dancing.
Although Otis Redding had died in a plane crash two years earlier, his Stax Records contemporaries, Booker T and the MGs and The Staple Singers, offered a soulful, Mohair-suit flourish.
And at one point or another, everyone got a little freaky.
A Brit with a T-shirt that said “I Came All The Way From England To Hear Led Zeppelin” ran amok as the festival wound down Saturday, frantically trying to halt an exodus from the grounds. Stay for the final performance, he pleaded, the one he crossed an ocean for.
“One of my best memories from the festival was seeing Led Zeppelin’s roadies throw a naked guy off the stage like he was a bag of potatoes,” remembers Carl Braddock, who came up from Pensacola. “Also seeing Janis [Joplin] get drunk on Southern Comfort was a trip. I was right down front for that one.”
“I was a 16-year-old kid back then,” Braddock explains. “I begged my mother for a week to let me go and she finally gave in. It changed my life forever.”
One festivalgoer who traveled even farther than Braddock was Larry McDaniel, who began his pilgrimage in Arkansas. For him, the showstopper was perhaps the least recognizable name on the bill.
“Grand Funk Railroad was on fire,” he says. “They blew away every other band.”
Nonetheless, the crowd didn’t warm immediately to the largely unknown Grand Funk, nor to Johnny Rivers and Tommy James, whose textured vocals and slick instrumentation seemed geared to Top 40. But Rivers’ “Memphis, Tennessee” brought people to their feet, and James’ “Crimson and Clover” was trippy enough to get them to tune him in.
“The festival was fun,” says a Kansas City, Mo., man who asked for anonymity so his grandchildren wouldn’t ask him questions he’d prefer not to answer.
It was also an uncharted racial landscape. “It had all the hippies and blacks and rednecks all thrown together to hear some music. They had no idea what was going on, but managed to stumble through a couple of days of mayhem at a steep-banked oval.”
With a snicker, he adds, “I was just a 17-year-old kid wearing Pat Boone loafers and some Indian beadwork around my neck.”
As the event approached, a hot, humid spell was already sweating the state. Temperatures hovered near 100, and a drought wilted the speedway’s rare patches of lawn. The OD (overdose) tents, staffed by mental health counselors, provided an oasis, whether or not you were hallucinating.
“Polite At Pop Festival: Music Fans Stay Orderly Despite Heat, Wine, Drugs,” a double-decker headline in the Atlanta Journal Constitution announced. “A Real Sizzler, Hippies Invade Farm Pond.”
Henry County firefighters arrived on several occasions to hose down the overheated, who in turn frolicked in the fresh mud.
Forty years after the fact, it can be difficult to distinguish between the real and the illusory; time varnishes memories, and it swaths events in myth.
Atlanta is shrouded in a particularly thick haze because there was a sequel the very next year. Staged in Byron, in Peach County, it drew another vast audience, and like its predecesssor, received scant attention outside Georgia. But the 2nd Atlanta Pop Festival (much better known as the Byron Pop Festival) booked The Allman Brothers, who came out twice, and Jimi Hendrix, whose psychedelic interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner,” performed at daybreak, is part of ’60s lore.
“Considering that 100,000 people crashed the gate and at least 300,000 eventually showed up, things went amazingly well,” writes Scott Freeman in Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band. The majority of musicians who played at “the first great rock event of the seventies,” as Freeman puts it, arrived from “places that most of the kids in the Deep South had only read about.”
Somehow, the shows become one in the recollections of many aging hippies, but even if they transpose details and scramble facts, their anecdotes teem with the togetherness and freewheeling spirit of the period.
“My momma wouldn’t let me go to Atlanta and she wouldn’t let me go to Woodstock,” says Michael Pierce, a 57-year-old artist who lives in Farmington, on the outskirts of Athens. Soon after he graduated high school, however, Pierce joined the caravan to Byron, which he remembers as “a new beginning.”
“I believed the revolution was happening at that moment,” Pierce says. “Things were fixing to change.”
A permanent legacy
With the festivals still fresh in peoples’ psyches, the change gusted northward to the big city, where tie-dyed in the wool rebels coalesced around midtown, Atlanta’s fledgling countercultural district. Head shops opened, as did intimate music halls and boutiques that catered to hippie fashion. The owners tacked up festival posters that featured a peace sign emerging from a wreath. Piedmont Park became a premier concert venue.
The neighborhood wasn’t a clone of Haight-Ashbury, though, and its inhabitants weren’t quite the Woodstock generation.
The twangs gave it away, as did the contradictory impulses of southern hippiedom, born on the Fourth of July at a dusty, arid raceway in the Georgia sticks. Furthermore, few outside the South even knew that a happening as seminal as Woodstock had taken place, let alone had spawned a mass movement. “A largely forgotten festival” is how The New York Times dubbed Atlanta Pop 20 years later.
Hazy perhaps, but forgotten hardly, at least on this side of the Mason-Dixon. For certain, the vibe had to be overpowering to penetrate the hard shell of southern culture.
“As the scene grew, just about every redneck grew his hair long,” Pierce notes. “It was hard to differentiate between them and us.”
As telling and troubling as it was down South, the confusion got very little ink in the social histories of the ’60s. Rather, the scribes obsessed on the Woodstock revelers, painting many of them as chameleons whose self-portraits kept changing with the times. They also pronounced Woodstock the endnote of the decade.
But the scene wore on in the South as the gallery of southern archetypes expanded. Alongside the belle and the born-again and the “good ole boy” was a shaggy-haired figure with a deep connection to the red Georgia earth.
Seeking a Buddha-like placidity, Pierce spends much of his days wandering through the woods, playing a flute or a handmade didgeridoo. “There are plenty of people still experimenting with the experiment,” he says.
So why aren’t they making a fuss about its 40th anniversary? Too busy living it, perhaps, or contemplating the larger, redemptive lessons to be drawn from the music.
“For white southerners like me, who began grade school in the wake of desegregation and came to embrace the rock counterculture as an alternative lifestyle, any declaration of ancestral pride carries a subtext of tremendous emotional weight…” writes Kemp, a North Carolinian. “When I moved to New York in the mid-1980s, I made a conscious effort to purge the southern vernacular from my speech. …. Today I am no longer compelled to suppress my identity. Step by step, the music has taken us down a path to self-awareness and forgiveness.”
It’s been a long time coming.