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Sky River Rock Festival 1968

June 24, 2015

Sky River Rock Festival 1968

It's 1968 and we're on Betty Nelson's organic raspberry farm just outside of Sultan, Washington, about an hour's drive from Seattle. The fact that it was an organic raspberry farm, should give you a clue that it was run by someone sympathetic to the burgeoning counterculture revolution.

The Sky River festival site
The Sky River festival site

An organisation called The New American Community was a liberal sort of aggregation headed up by a local college professor, who I imagine, looked like a cross between Jerry Garcia and an owl. He was John Chambless, he got a lease off Betty and set about convincing Mr and Mrs Straight that Freaksville being visited upon their nice community would be a positive thing, no really, it would and not in any way an orgy of hardcore drugs, exposed genitals and sun-burned nipples.

He promised it wouldn't be that big and wouldn't be advertised widely and it would raise money for American Indian human-rights groups. And he was a professor, so he wouldn't lie would he? The Sultan folk (Sultanas?) didn't object and let it happen.

Sky River advertisement
Sky River advertisement

Sky River is an important festival, not for its size, but in the fact that it was America's only really successful festival in the summer of 1968 at which major league acts actually performed.

It was music and an arts fair, which basically meant, along with the music, there were stalls where hippy types could sell their tie-dyed candles and trousers made out of hemp and sesame seeds, to people who were so stoned they couldn't tell blue from from cheese.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe also found a home here because nothing said hippy fest in 68 more than someone trying to get out of an invisible box.

It should be noted that this was actually called a 'Rock' Festival and not a pop festival and that was linguistically honest. A Labour day weekend festival, the music began early on Saturday morning and went on until midnight on Monday. So who played? The Grateful Dead, who were already one of the biggest acts in the Bay drove up from San Francisco.

Grateful Dead live at Sky River 1968
Grateful Dead live at Sky River 1968

There was Country Joe and the Fish

Country Joe & the Fish smile for the camera
Country Joe & the Fish smile for the camera

Peanut Butter Conspiracy

The Peanut Butter Conspiracy
The Peanut Butter Conspiracy

Buffy Saint Marie and It's A Beautiful Day. Muddy Waters(dressed in a suit, despite being on a farm - lord knows what the old blues dudes thought of this scene)

James Cotton Blues Band, Dino Valenti, the Youngbloods and Big Mamma Willie Mae Thornton, to name a few, along with lots of local bands and also an early incarnation of Santana.

This was one of those beautiful events where band and groovers all mixed together and egos where checked at the door - not that there was a door - this being a field - but you get what I mean. Bands jammed, freaks freaked. All was good. This was the kind of festival that people talked about being an expression of the new Aquarian spirit of peace and love. It was the kind of event which inspired legions of others to want to put a festival on and to attend one. It felt new and revolutionary, it was also a place to meet people who were searching for a new American Dream.

With only 15000 there, things didn't get heavy. Organisation was good. There was water, food and sanitation and, this being 68, the heavy drugs had yet to take hold, so mostly people smoked weed and everything was very cool. The kind of drugs that were consumed really did gear how the gig went down. Back when it was just dope, everything seems to have been laid back.

There was some rain and mud and people just grooved in it.

Grooving in he mud at Sky River
Grooving in the mud at Sky River

Big Mamma Willie Mae Thornton played using James Cotton's band, people danced naked and she was to go on to play a lot of festivals, her raw, original rock 'n' blues spirit being very much of the moment.

The festival grossed over $55,000 and a lot of that was handed over to Native American organisations. As it turned out, the uptight locals loved the hippy kids and how�it all played out. Local merchants had made more money over the weekend than at any time in the year. They even pushed to repeat the event the following year - surely the first and only time that happened. “Give us more music and freaks, please” was not a cry that was to be heard very often in the coming years.

Almost uniquely, Sky River happened two years consecutively. 1969's incarnation was on a larger site in Tenino, headlined by Steve Miller, but it was the 68 fest that went down in history as being the first successful festival outside of California and the first to take place in a back-to-nature, rural setting and on a not-for-profit basis. All in all, Sky River Rock Festival 1968 was pretty cool. I wish I'd been there, man.

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