Wadena Rock Festival, Iowa 1970

Wadena Rock Festival, Iowa 1970
Authored By John Nicholson

Wadena Festival 1970. They called it Iowa's Woodstock. Of course they did. Every state seemed to call its 1970 festival its Woodstock. It wasn't.

This festival was initially supposed to be held in Galena, Illinois, but an injunction against Sound Storm Enterprises Inc of Chicago, sponsor of the festival, put a stop to that. The Man didn't want no hippies getting their groove on, but $89,000 had already been invested in this gig so the search was on for somewhere else.

As was often the case, The Man underestimated The Freaks. The Wadena Development Co. bought 220-acre farm two miles west of Wadena, Iowa on 25th July, just 6 days before the festival was due to start. Clever. This company was an associate firm of Sound Storm - basically the same people under a different name. Wadena was tiny - about 250 people lived there and all of them collectively shat their pants. My god, there'll be naked hippies on the lawn pleasuring each other. 

Yes, of course the local straights got in a total panic when they heard of this, fearing they'd have a weekend of nipples, general exchanging of bodily fluids and invocations to Satan, or whatever and, as the uptights always did in this era, they tried to get another injunction to preserve their morality.

"We are not crotchety old men - instantly opposed to rock festivals - but we have no alternative other than to take action against the one planned in Wadena" said a Fayette County Attorney, Walter Sauer on July 28th, sounding very like a crotchety old man who didn't like hairy people with guitars doing their thing.

It made no difference. Even while the straights were still trying to stop the festival, the festival started happening. 40,000 were there by 1st August, having seen ads in the rock press and in local alternative newspapers.

Legal writs were fired off, as per usual. For a country that professes how much it hates lawyers, they always seem to default to using them very quickly. But the freaks were not easily intimadated by such things, not least because they didn't really respect the law as the ultimate arbiter of all human existence and they understood that for anything to change, someone has to cross the line, push the envelope and stand their ground. So they did.   

In an almost cartoonish way, it all came down to pooping and parking. If the organisers could get enough toilets on site, and enough parking space, it could go ahead. OK, then. Sound Storm rushed 100 portacrappers to the gig and some local farmers rented land for parking and the festival was on. Yay. Get the bong out, we're gonna have a good time. 

So what happened? Mmmm...drugs. Good drugs. There was an appeal across the PA system for dope for the stage crew. Donations were made. Of course they were. you're welcome, we can spare it.

Even the doctors in the medical tent said the quality of the dope and the acid was excellent and they had less bad trips than usual to deal with as a consequence. There's your lesson right there. 

After it was all over, there was more legal bollocks and the farm was eventually sold in 1973 against unpaid taxes. The guy that bought it found two sacks of marijuana in his barn from back in the day. Far out. Did he dig it? Probably not. 

OK so that's the politics but we're here for the music, right? So who played? Johnny Winter tore it up, Chicken Shack from the UK played too as did the Flying Burrito Brothers, Buffy St. Marie, The Everly Brothers(!) Luther Allison, Albert King and, weirdly, Little Richard came on at 4am. I mean, Little Richard in a field in the middle of Iowa in the middle of the night? Really? An early incarnation of REO Speedwagon was there, as were redoubtable hippies, The Youngbloods.

The Wadena festival is still the stuff of legend in Iowa, though further afield, it made little impact. It was just another freaks v straights battle that the freaks won. Yeah! Go freaks!



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