Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, Washington 1968

Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, Washington 1968
Authored By John Nicholson

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.

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. Cool. Let's get it on. 

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. Success being defined as passing off peacefully, everyone having a good time and no-one getting hurt, poisoned, or shot by a half-naked biker woman.

It wasn't about making money. These people did not define success in terms of bread. And that's beautiful. It should also be said that Sky River is a great name for anything. Who doesn't like a sky river?

It had an appropriate inspiration. Earlier in 1968 3,000 fans attended a rock concert at a farm in Duvall, Washington where an upright piano was dropped from a helicopter. Why? What do you mean, why? Just to see what happened, of course. That is reason enough for most things. 

Sky River was music and and 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 cheese. Peace, man. And flowers.

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. One of the most endearing aspects of the counterculture was how it produced theatre and mime groups who would pass hippie, or later yippie, comment on the politics of the day in a funny, anarchic sort of way. The Firesign Theatre were good at that.

A Labour day weekend festival, held August 28 through September 3, 1968, 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.

There was Country Joe and the Fish, Peanut Butter Conspiracy (one of my faves) 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 the bands and the 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. And who can say that was a bad thing?

With only 3,000 - 4,000 there at any one time, 15,000 in total, 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. There's no bad weather man, just inappropriate clothing.

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. The organisers said they lost $6,000 but everyone else made money.  As it turned out, the uptight locals loved the hippie kids and how it all played out. Local merchants had made more profit 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 freaks, please, look we have soy milk and brown rice” was not a cry that was to be heard very often in the coming years. Fear was the more typical response. 

Uniquely, a festival under the Sky River name happened for three 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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