Ozark Music Festival, Sedalia, Missouri 1974

Ozark Music Festival, Sedalia, Missouri 1974
Authored By John Nicholson

Have you heard of the Ozark Music Festival held in 1974 at Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia, Missouri? Unless you're local to the area, probably not.

Other, less well-attended festivals have had more prominence in rock culture and history but this three day gig attracted up to 350,000 people and is commonly agreed to being one of the most messed-up, drugged-out and downright debauched festivals in rock history.

In fact, if you've read many of my blogs on festivals, you'll know that the locals of whatever small town nearby always wants the festival to be banned because they fear hippies invading, getting naked, getting high and doing it in the road, baby. Those fears are pretty much always unfounded, but at this festival, held in Sedalia, Missouri, all those fears came true. A town of 23,000 was over-run by up to 150,000 long hairs every day from Fri Jul 19, 1974 - Sun Jul 21, 1974 for the festival at the Missouri State Fairgrounds.

It all started, as these things always do start, with what was basically a lie. A company called Musical Productions Inc. from Kansas City promoted the festival, and they assured officials from the Missouri Department of Agriculture (the state agency which oversaw the State Fair) and the Sedalia Chamber of Commerce that the three-day weekend event would be a blue-grass and 'pop rock' festival with no more than 50,000 tickets sold.

Ahem. As George Costanza once said, 'It's not a lie if you believe it.'

Of course, there was no 'pop rock' and only a smear of bluegrass. This was rock n roll, baby and the line-up of bands was so magnificent that surely the promoters knew more than 50,000 would attend. By 1974, rock culture was up and running on all cylinders. There wasn't so much a counterculture crowd for festivals now, there was a big mainstream rock audience to service and this line-up meant to service them good and proper. 

Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Aerosmith, P.F.M, Peter Sinfield, Blue Oyster Cult, the Eagles, America, Marshall Tucker Band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Boz Scaggs, Ted Nugent, David Bromberg, Leo Kottke, Cactus, The Earl Scruggs Revue, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Electric Flag, Bruce Springsteen (did not perform),Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Charlie Daniels Band, Joe Walsh and Barnstorm, The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Jimmie Spheeris, Triphammer, Bill Quateman, Jefferson Starship, Fresh Start, Babe Ruth, Locomotiv GT, The Sweet, Shawn Phillips, REO Speedwagon, Spirit, Banco, Elvin Bishop.

Now that is one helluva line-up of bands. There's almost no-one on that list you wouldn't want to see. Anyone dig Triphammer? Wolfman Jack flew in by helicopter to DJ the event and generally be wolf-like.

Even though the festival was not scheduled to start until Friday, July 19th, thousands had arrived by Thursday night and there was a steady line of cars, trucks, vans, hitchhikers winding towards Sedalia and the fairgrounds. While in line, festival-goers were advised that once inside the grounds, vehicles would not be allowed back outside until the festival was over; many left a vehicle outside the fence for beer runs. Always be thinking, the rock fan who is in need of constant refreshment.

The massive traffic jam from the huge crowd effectively shut down Sedalia. Inside the fairgrounds, drug use was open and widespread and one fan died from an overdose. Travel well, old friend.

More than 800 people had to be treated for drug overdoses. 'Man, this coke is cut with so much flour I'll be sneezing cake for three days.' Many of the ODs were so critical they had to be transported to local hospitals.

Scorching heat and limited water and food supplies compounded the problems for many fans. These were old problems that many good promoters had learned how to solve, but not so here. People were left to fry in the summer heat.

It looks hot. It looks dusty. It looks like a disaster zone but with a lot of skinny naked people just hanging out.

Even though logistically the whole event was a disaster, the music was widely hailed as being superb. Many point to a young Lynyrd Skynyrd as a standout act. Electric Flag had reformed for an under-rated record that year, BTO were riding high in the charts, Aerosmith were hitting their stride and Joe Walsh's Barnstorm album was a big favourite. Great to see British glam rockers The Sweet on the bill too, along with Babe Ruth whose debut album First Base was popular with discerning rockers everywhere.

Yes, there seems to be much agreement that the music was excellent. It was just everything else that was a problem.

By Monday, July 22, the festival crowd had left, leaving a field of garbage behind. Damage estimates of $100,000 were reported, and with the Missouri State Fair only a few weeks away, the fairgrounds had to be cleaned up quickly. So what did they do? They only hired helicopters to spray lime over the fairgrounds as a precaution against the possible outbreak of disease. That is lime, the mineral, not the fruit juice and it really burns, man. It'll put a hole in your skin. 

On the ground, bulldozers scraped up the topsoil, which was littered with discarded drug paraphernalia, gnawed cobs of corn and discarded underwear.

Meanwhile, festival-goers crowded the Interstate 70 rest stops to catch up on sleep lost during the weekend. Tents and sleeping bags were spread throughout rest stops all along the highway like human litter.

There were questions in the state legislature and The Man agreed it could never happen again. And it never did. This time, there was no 'hey the kids were great' vibe. No. This had been like Sodom and Gomorrah they said. And if you didn't dig drugs, rock n roll and sex, then it probably was, but if you did, the Ozark Music Festival 1974 was a veritable orgy.  Doesn't sound so bad really. There's a health warning on the brown acid though, but hey, its your trip. 

Someone made a movie of it though I can only find the trailer on YouTube. Somehow, the Ozark Music Festival in 1974 has flown under the radar, but it was one of the hottest, most boog-a-loo down n' dirty 3-day events of the era. 

The last word goes to the Missouri Senate committee report on the event. “The Ozark Music Festival can only be described as a disaster. It became a haven for drug pushers who were attracted from throughout the United States. The scene made the degradation of Sodom and Gomorrah appear mild. Natural and unnatural sex acts (were they really?) became a spectator sport. Frequently, nude women promoted drugs with advertisements on their bodies.”

To which I can only say "Yeah, let's get it on, man!"

Pictures and more info here

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