There will be considerable prose generated later this summer for the anniversary of Woodstock, but consider a rock festival that came first. Forty-five years ago this weekend, an unimaginable multitude marched into Georgia for the first Atlanta Pop Festival, a weekend of peace and music that essentially marked the birth of a new South.
Cultural fallout from 1967’s “Summer of Love” in San Francisco still drifted across the country two years afterward, and so-called hippie districts had taken root in major metropolises. Birmingham didn’t make the cut, but in Atlanta, something was definitely happening Midtown, around 14th Street.
Cheap rents and available space drew devotees of the counterculture to live and open shops in the area around Piedmont Park, which became famous for free music events and frequent hassles by Atlanta police.
The epicenter of the scene was, to many, a two-story domicile on 14th Street nicknamed the Birdhouse, home of The Great Speckled Bird, the first great alternative newspaper in the region, unapologetically leftist in its politics and decidedly divorced from the Associated Press Style Book.
In the pages of The Bird that spring I spotted an ad for a wondrous concert planned for the July Fourth weekend. Though gatherings emulating 1967’s groundbreaking Monterey Pop Festival had been mounted in a few other cities, the Atlanta Pop Festival promised “more Blues/Psychedelic/Soul/Jazz/Rock greats than ever assembled before anywhere.”
The assembler was a smooth operator named Alex Cooley. Just turning the untrustworthy age of 30 in 1969, the Atlanta native had attended and been fascinated by the Miami Pop Festival the previous year. Cooley realized he could put on the same kind of show in Georgia with broader ramifications. “It was the height of the Vietnam War and Lester Maddox was governor,” he said later. “I wanted to do something that would make people where I lived understand that we could change.”
With 17 other investors staking his enterprise, Cooley located a site near Hampton, 30 minutes out of Atlanta, with room to accommodate an immense crowd. Then he booked performers he hoped would draw that crowd.
The bill was wildly eclectic, from mainstream jazz by Dave Brubeck to Chuck Berry’s first-generation rock; from sweet soul by the Staple Singers and Booker T to the blues of Canned Heat and Paul Butterfield; from the folk of Ian and Sylvia to the cataclysm of Led Zeppelin.
Anxious to see for myself, I inveigled my friend Janice into driving over that weekend (since she had a car and I didn’t, this seemed prudent) and we picked up Peter and Lynne along the way. We arrived at the outskirts of Hampton amid a stupendous traffic jam generated by multitudes of music lovers.
Independence Day dawned hot and cloudless. Cooley had chosen no sylvan glade like Max Yasgur’s farm, but an arid piece of property ordinarily operated as the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Though the racetrack offered excellent sight lines to the stage, it afforded little shade from a merciless Georgia sun. As thousands poured through the gate and the temperature climbed toward 100 degrees, the crowd overwhelmed the promoters’ logistical preparations. According to Marley Brant’s rock festival history, Join Together, “It was said there was no ice to be had in the four-county area surrounding the festival site for three days.” Henry County fire trucks even sprayed the crowd with water to help cool things down.
Whatever discomfort one felt was mitigated by the music. Theoretically un-hip performers like Johnny Rivers and Tommy James played some of the best sets. Many performers making their Deep South debut were amazed by their reception. Grand Funk Railroad, then just another garage band, drove all the way from Michigan just to play. “To see that crowd, just how big it was…there is no end to this wave of people,” guitarist Mark Farner remembered later.
It was a diverse audience, too. Though tie-dyed longhairs and ethereal chicks in bell-bottoms were represented, the Atlanta Pop crowd included military personnel from bases nearby, as well as average kids from around the region curious to experience an alternative lifestyle they’d only read about.
With as many as 140,000 people crammed into an almost literal melting pot for the weekend, chaos could have erupted. Instead, civility did. “It was a good thing there were so many hippies,” festivalgoer Mike Flores recalled, “because we all shared what we had.” The sense of communal purpose was nicely put by Jon Pareles of The New York Times in another context: “This has always seemed to me a nonnegative claim to fame — gosh, people acted decently? they didn’t revert to cannibalism in three days? — but amid the political, generational and racial tensions of 1969 it was treated as a major achievement, one that helped redeem the image of a scruffy younger generation.”
There was memorable music, but not all the memories were good ones. Janice returned home with a blown-up car air conditioner and without an heirloom quilt lost somewhere on the acreage, while I brought back a particularly vivid sunburn I still think may be my eventual undoing.
Janice emailed last week to relate that she tells her tale of Atlanta Pop privation with humor now. “But at 19, it did not feel like a musical wonderland…not exactly what I had expected or wanted,” she said. ”But I had seen Janis Joplin.”
As weary concertgoers departed the festival that Sunday, they would return to their respective homes having witnessed something new in the Old South. As attendee Hugh Fenlon told Georgia Trend magazine, “I’m not sure what made a bigger impression on me, the music or the social scene.”
In just one weekend 45 years ago, Atlanta joined the national counterculture, putting a region known for its backward attitudes face forward again. The hippie ethos vanished shortly thereafter, but the possibilities of cultural evolution in the South born at the Atlanta Pop Festival remain palpable to this day.