Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life

Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life
Authored By John Nicholson

This is more commonly known as just Vortex and was a remarkable week-long rock festival in Oregon in 1970. It was sponsored by the Portland counterculture community, with help from the state of Oregon in Clackamas County near Portland. It goes down as one of the few events where The Man and The Freaks worked together.

It was put together in order to demonstrate the positive side of the anti-War Movement and to prevent violent protests during a planned appearance in the state by President Richard Nixon. To date, it remains the only state-sponsored rock festival in United States history.

In 1970, Nixon had scheduled an appearance at the national American Legion convention in Portland, Oregon, in order to promote the continuation of the Vietnam War (boo). A coalition of Portland-based anti-Vietnam War groups, called the People's Army Jamboree, planned a series of demonstrations and other anti-war activities, to be held at the same time as the convention. Law enforcement at all levels, expecting massive numbers of protesters on both sides, were concerned about large-scale violence—an FBI report estimated a potential crowd of 25,000 Legionnaires and 50,000 anti-war protestors, and suggested that the result could be worse than the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago which had been very heavy.

A loose association of Portland counterculture groups (is there any other kind?!) banded together to devise a strategy that would highlight the best parts of the newly-evolving peace community. Koinonia House, a peace-activist Christian group hosted a public meeting and from there the idea of a "Biodegradable Festival of Life" called Vortex 1 came into being. Man, I tell you this, we need some biodegradable festival’s of life today.

In order to keep the peace, Gov. Tom McCall acted on a suggestion by staffer Ed Westerdahl who had been meeting with the Vortex volunteers and made an agreement with representatives of local anti-war factions to permit a rock festival to be held in a state park at the same time as Nixon's scheduled visit, and to turn a blind eye towards behaviour that had been widespread at the Woodstock Festival, like nudity and use of marijuana. Shocking.

The festival was held from August 28 through September 3, concurrent with the American Legion convention. Between 30,000 and 100,000 attended. It was held at Milo McIver State Park, near the city of Estacada. Admission was free of charge. On the busiest day of the festival, a line of automobiles ran 18 miles  from the park gates to southeast Portland. The festival became known as "The Governor's Pot Party".

The music at the festival was primarily performed by local acts. Oregon bands featured at the concert included Brown Sugar, with Lloyd Jones, Jacob's Ladder, and concert openers Tutu Band. The media reported that many prominent national acts of the time would appear, including Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and Grateful Dead, but none actually did. Ginger Baker and Cream came to visit the event but did not play. This did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the attendees though, which is beautiful.

The Vortex 1 festival was essentially divided in two areas: the first at the higher elevations of McIver Park, held a huge home-built stage made of huge Oregon timbers; and the second, below by the Clackamas River held a sprawling encampment. The Portland community-based activist groups tended collectively to the various needs of the festival. The food co-ops and organic restaurants put together a facility that provided free food for the tens of thousands of attendees. The community free clinics (Outside In and LookingGlass) provided medical care. The motor heads parked the cars. The rock and roll halls from Portland ran the stage. Yoga groups held classes. Peace activist groups sponsored teach-ins and so on. It was truly a community-based, non-commercial event. The early pioneers of the Rainbow Gatherings worked there making an information booth, helping with security, lost children, supply trucks, stage building and that is where they took the name Rainbow Family.

Though no doubt aided by a last-minute cancellation by Nixon, the event had its desired effect. Both the American Legion convention and the anti-war activities of the Jamboree were carried out without any major incident. The concert was considered by many to be an excellent means of preventing violence. Far from committing political suicide, McCall won re-election that November, defeating opponent Robert W. Straub handily which just proves being groovy can pay off big.

McCall later said "It was the damnedest confrontation you'll ever see. We took a park, twenty miles south of Portland, and turned it into an overnight bivouac and disco party.…There was a lot of pot smoking and skinny dipping, but nobody was killed."

Because the event was non-commercial and had no commercial backers and no performers other than local bands, the mainstream press largely ignored it as a music event, focusing instead on the political aspects.

But regardless, it was one of the largest rock and roll festivals of the era.



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