Mississippi River Festival 1969

Mississippi River Festival 1969
Authored By John Nicholson

In 1969, Southern Illinois University initiated the Mississippi River Festival. Though primarily designed as a summer residence for the St Louis Symphony Orchestra (with Walter Susskind the conductor), [a la Tanglewood in Massachusetts featuring the Boston Pop Orchestra] the Mississippi River Festival regularly featured other types of music over its typical two-month, 30 date run. 

So this wasn’t the usual hairy freaks in a field for a three day gig. This was all more respectable and well organised and didn’t involve people called Sky or Sunflower. Flowers were not dropped from helicopters and Wavy Gravy was not in charge of making people feel secure, more’s the pity. 

There was room for 1,900 seated under the canvas tent at the front and another 25,000 in the open air, on the grass (in all ways, maaan)

It attracted some of the cream of the rock, folk and blues fraternity. In 1969 these included Aorta, Arlo Guthrie, Blues Image, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Eddie Fisher, Ian and Sylvia, Iron Butterfly, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, The Band, The New Christy Minstrels, Walter Süsskind, Paul Butterfield Blues Band

And it is very significant in the history of rock. It is often assumed that Bob Dylan’s first live appearance after his motorcycle accident in 1966 was at the Isle of Wight Festival in August but in fact, it was at the Mississippi River Festival on 14th July 1969 when he came on stage to play four songs with The Band!

In their 2006 book , The Mississippi River Festival, Amanda Bahr-Evola and Stephen Kerber wrote: “To host the symphony, the university created an outdoor concert venue within a natural amphitheater by installing a large circus tent, a stage and acoustic shell, and a sophisticated sound system. To appeal to the widest possible audience, the university included contemporary popular musicians in the series.

The audacity of the undertaking, the charm of the venue, the popularity of the artists, the excellence of the performances, and the nostalgic memory of warm summer evenings have combined to endow the festival with legendary status among those who attended.”

All of which sounds very cool indeed. This really sounds like a fantastic place to get your groove on. 

From the first, the MRF was an artistic success. It drew large audiences from both sides of the Mississippi River and from far beyond the metropolitan St. Louis area. It also generated extensive favorable publicity for SIUE. However, when student unrest in Carbondale led to the resignation of the university president in June 1970, the young MRF abruptly lost its original patron. Boo. When the hip dude goes, you know what usually happens.

Financial problems troubled the MRF throughout its lifetime. The festival consistently lost money. The state of Illinois cut back its financial support of the university during the 1970s, and in turn the university was increasingly hard-pressed to sustain the MRF even though The Who, Yes, Chicago, Eagles, and the Grateful Dead shows were heavily attended.

Some shows attracting crowds in excess of 30,000. Jackson Browne appeared as both a support band (for Yes in 1972 and America in 1973) and ultimately, as a lead act in 1977. He also wrote two of his songs for the live Running on Empty album in a nearby Holiday Inn at the intersection of I-270 and Illinois Route 157.

It is estimated that over one million visitors attended MRF over 12 summers

The last shows were in 1980 after an 11-year run but it remains very fondly remembered by all who attended across that decade and has its own bookmark in the History of Rock.

*written with help from the wonderful Woodstock Whisperer.

Scroll To Top