If you didn’t go to Woodstock in 1969, Woodstock would come to you.
On Thanksgiving weekend of 1969, I was with a cold and wet but happy crowd at the Palm Beach Pop Festival in Florida. The Woodstock music festival 50 years ago was an iconic American event that was one of the big news stories of 1969, along with the moon landing and the continuing national divide over the Vietnam War. Woodstock has entered the national consciousness over the last half century, but other large pop festivals sprang up around the country in 1969 at venues in Dallas, Atlantic City, Detroit, New Orleans and other locales. On the weekend of July 4 in 1969, Atlanta played host to a music festival that drew more than 100,000 people, eclipsing the crowd that had attended the legendary lovefest at Monterey, CA in 1967, when Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and a host of other acts wowed the crowd.
The Atlanta pop festival was an unforgettable event that sold me on going to the Palm Beach gathering in 1969. Musical acts at the three-day event in Florida included Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Spirit, Sly and the Family Stone, Vanilla Fudge, Iron Butterfly, King Crimson, Jefferson Airplane and The Rolling Stones on their “Gimme Shelter” tour of America. I was ready to rock, and so were the thousands of other young people who converged on the swampy, rain-drenched auto raceway where the festival would be held. Local citizens were worried about the “hippie invasion” that could bring drugs, nudity or riots to the area. Law enforcement authorities issued dire warnings about the event and had a large presence at the festival.
In the end, the Palm Beach music festival was summed up by headlines in the Palm Beach Post newspaper during the three-day event. “Festival’s Music ‘n’ Mud” read the headline on the paper’s Nov. 29, 1969 front page report about the first day of the event. “Festival: Sun, Joplin Lift Crowd” said the happy headline on the next morning’s coverage of the music and the youthful fans. “Festival Ends in Glow” said the Post‘s headline on Dec. 1, after The Rolling Stones closed out the event with a 13-song set. Some of the glow came from campfires built to ward off the nighttime cold and rain, and the festival had its problems with anything from logistics to drug abuse, but the music left a lingering glow.
The Byrds sang a medley of Bob Dylan songs, including “My Back Pages,” “Positively 4th Street” and “Mister Tambourine Man,” then they sang their hit song that meshed with the mind and mood of those of us in the audience: “Eight Miles High.” Janis Joplin brought the crowd to its feet when she belted out tunes like “Summertime,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Ball & Chain” while sipping her signature Southern Comfort whiskey. At the end of her set, she autographed the Southern Comfort bottle she had finished and tossed it lightly into the crowd. I hope whoever caught that bottle still has it all these decades later. As Janis smiled from the stage, her fellow Texas musicians Johnny and Edgar Winter joined her for an impromptu jam session, along with Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice. The awestruck audience saw musical history under a Florida sky on that day in 1969.
Jefferson Airplane and their psychedelic light show lit up the last night of the festival. The Airplane’s Grace Slick was in great, sultry voice as the band performed its songs, including “Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit,” “Volunteers” and “The Other Side of this Life,” while the crowd cried out for more. They got more in the wee hours of Dec. 1, when The Rolling Stones took the stage after hours of delays. By then, the crowd had dwindled to a few thousand, and singer Mick Jagger thanked those who had lingered in spite of the cold and rain. The weather took its toll on the sound system and on the boys in the band, but still the Stones soldiered on with a solid sampling of their work, including “Satisfaction,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Stray Cat Blues,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Live With Me,” “Honky Tonk Women” and “Street Fighting Man.” A week later, they would perform at the infamous Altamont festival in California as the decade of the ‘60s lurched to a violent and chaotic close.
It was a long, cold hitchhike back to Georgia when the Florida festival drew to a close, but it was worth it. The saying on T-shirts, “I’m old but at least I got to see all the good bands,” is a whimsical truth.
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