Steven Fromholz - FORT MCKAVETT, TEXAS
The Dictionary defines “festival” as a feast or celebration or a series of programmed cultural events.
My first festival experience was in June, 1971 at “The Festival of Life,” deep in the swamps of Louisiana – near Baton Rouge. At that time I was employed by Stephen Stills as a guitarist and vocalist in the rock and roll band he had put together – with which to tour nationwide – his second solo album for Atlantic records. The band consisted of myself, the great bassist, Fuzzy Samuels, Paul Harris on keyboards, and Dallas Taylor on drums...and Stills.
We were in Memphis that June, in rehearsals with the Memphis Horns, when Stephen’s management folks received a request from the promoters of the “Festival of Life” which had turned into a disastrous Festival of Death – huge amounts of rain and several people dying there in the mud and the blood and the beer and the drugs of that swampy event. The promoters wanted us to come down on the final evening to close the show and encourage the fans to get the hell out of there in some sort of orderly fashion.
Stills accepted the invitation and that afternoon we were in a Lear Jet winging our way, without the horn section, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At the airport we were met by a pair of two passenger, bubble-top, Bell Helicopters, which would – with any kind of luck – fly us to the festival site. Stephen went out in one and the rest of the band was overloaded with our instruments – no piano – into the other and off we flew into the deep, dark night that is the Louisiana swamp lands. The rest of the band and I all thought we would probably crash into the swamp, there to be eaten by alligators, and go down in history as a great rock and roll tragedy. We did not crash – as fate would have it, and fate will have it!
We arrived and were escorted to the star’s dressing room where Stills was ensconced, Pasha-like, awaiting our arrival or news of our untimely deaths. We remained in the dressing room for an hour or so, getting high enough to hunt ducks with rakes, until it came time for us to hit the stage and try to close what had become a disastrous event.
I have no idea what time we took the stage but I do remember beginning our set with a jumpin’ version of Stephen’s hit song “Rock and Roll Woman.” The remainder of the set is kind of a blur in my memory but I do recall that because of the lights on stage, not being able to see any of the thousands of people out front – but, I could smell their swampyness with more than just a hint of pot wafting onto the stage. We played five of the six songs we knew as a band and then Stills took to the piano and began his peace and love, brother and sister medley, at which point a loud, male voice at the left front of the stage was heard to exclaim, “Shut-up and play your f----in’ rock ‘n roll.” – which we did!
We then beat a speedy retreat back to the relative safety of the dressing room. I do not know if we were successful in our attempt to end this festive debacle but the boys and I were ready to get the hell out of the swamp and back to our fine hotel rooms and excellent room service of the Commodore Perry Hotel in downtown Memphis. As you can guess, we did not die in a helicopter crash in the swamp on the trip back to Baton Rouge – arriving just in time to see our Lear Jet leave for Memphis without us. We sat in the airport for hours and hours waiting for the first commercial flight to Memphis. I certainly wouldn’t call that experience “a series of programmed cultural events,” but...that is how festivals and I began.
My wife, now of 43 years, and I had only been married a few months when we went to the Celebration of Life. We had both attended the New Orleans Festival in '69 (The New Orleans Pop Festival), but with other people. The crowds, the heat and, of course, the music are vivid memories, but the special one is my gorgeous girl and I going down to the river and shedding clothes....a quintessential rock festival thing to do. Beautiful girl at the river baring her breasts...always remember.
The final location stage and sound system had just been set up when an announcement asked if anyone had any music cassettes since that was the only player available. They started playing two cassettes over and over because that was all available. One album was the Rolling Stones "Sticky Fingers" album and oddly, I can't remember the second.
It may seem the growing crowd would get annoyed listening to the two albums, all of one then all of the other over and over, but instead everyone went with the music and started singing along and shouting during certain parts of some songs.
The raid on the concessions started really close to where I had staked out my spot. Some guy stood up and shouted, "Let's raid the... (I don't remember exactly)," and a few people caught on and very quickly a whole bunch of people were running toward the concessions. I joined in and grabbed some cigarettes; I could go hungry easier than I could without my smokes. It was soon after that someone brought in some big pots of rice and beans. Maybe they were angles... there were a lot of hungry people there.
I think of the event as the end of the Hippie movement. The Hippies started going to school or rescinded into serious drug abuse. A lot of people like me experienced some intense religious experiences while tripping on acid and became "Jesus Freaks" and got their lives together yet they still see and live with the experiences on acid. If I talk to people of that era who claim to have been hippies, I ask them if they have seen their hand. If they look up into my eyes and say, "Yes I have, have you?", it is really cool. Most ask me, "What do you mean?", I know that too.
Warren Suggs - HOBOKEN, NEW JERSEY
I worked at Woodstock and then in and out of the Army, and I was looking forward to the Celebration of Life. I hitchhiked with a friend from New Jersey down to South Carolina to see my father's home town and then across to New Orleans. We had no clue that the festival had been moved but got lucky when we were picked up by a group headed there.
The heat and humidity was unbelievable, but the kids were great under the circumstances. As much Peace and Love as Woodstock. One memory that stands out was an Ian Anderson lookalike (at least in my memory) walking around with a large jug full of wine, vintage June 1971! Anyone who had some wine would help fill the jug, and it was shared by hundreds if not thousands. Musically Bloodrock, Black Oak Arkansas, and the Amboy Dukes were the highlights, working their arses off for a crowd that high expectations. I'm still a music fanatic, even seeing Jim Dandy and Black Oak Arkansas last year. Great memories and great times!
CHUCK RADER - TORRANCE, CALIFORNIA
For those of us that missed Woodstock, [The Celebration of Life] was the best news possible. From the Boston area, six friends and I loaded up a 1964 Chevy van and made the trek down south. Long hair and the South didn't mix that well at that time, and every food stop or rest area south of Jersey was filled with taunts and jeers. The closer we got to Louisiana, the more our kind were seen and this brought safety in numbers.
Time blurs exact locations, but we all assembled on a giant levee to spend some time while the concert area was supposedly being readied. It was quite overwhelming and exciting to be amongst all our new mates. We'll never forget our outgoing friend Eddie, who bellowed out "people on the hill" in the dead of night a few times. Perhaps several thousand people responded, each time louder and louder, with yells and screams. It's one of those defining moments that will live in our memories forever.
Cops on horses would constantly patrol the main street and quite a few of us were jolted back to reality by their presence.
After being relocated to the final concert location in McCrea, we were able to settle down and couldn't wait for the start of events. This was one of the hottest and dustiest places imaginable. Fire ants didn't help either. Man, those bites burned like a match head. The local river provided the only relief from the heat and covering ourselves with mud and watching couples making love in the water became a common site. A pickup from Texas filled almost to the top with peyote buttons pulled in next to our campsite. Natural mescaline was most interesting! I witnessed a few guys getting beaten by the "Galloping Gooses," a local biker gang. This wasn't supposed to happen at a "Celebration of Life."
The music would start way too late at night. Most of us were pretty burnt out from just trying to survive during the daytime. Of course we were looking forward to the music, but half of us were asleep from exhaustion and missed most of it. I can't even recall the bands that played. Lack of water and food, and the fact that this started almost a week late, made it impossible for my group to stay for the full event. We packed up our dirty camping equipment and left McCrea for our trip back to Boston. We look back and with less than fond memories.
DJ MAJORS - MELVILLE, LOUISIANA
I was only 10 in June of '71 and lived in Melville, Louisiana (where the little ferry was). My daddy was a builder, farmer, preacher, and airplane pilot. Being a worker for the Kingdom - he had these little capsules made with flyers proclaiming that Jesus Saves rolled up inside.
We got to fly over, be just amazed out of our minds, and "spread the gospel" by dumping these little yellow capsules. I also remember my father feeding what seemed to me were thousands of folks before and after the festival. We had friends, Oscar and Doll Brooks, who were in their 60s and lived next to the store, which started out by selling tons of sandwiches and water jugs for lots of $. Then when things turned bad, they just gave away items until everyone was gone.
My uncle Dan Boudreaux was the ferryboat captain and although we heard of the drownings, he always spoke of folks they picked up floating down the middle of the Atchafalaya River! FYI, I live here now, just a mile south of where the ferry crossed - and man, the Atchafalaya is treacherous! He said they picked up this one guy multiple times over several days.
The experience left such an impact on me, especially because I was only a child! I hardly remember the first couple of decades after I turned 18. I want to say thank you to all who have shared memories. We seem to all be in one accord. Blessings to each and everyone!
I was really young, and I got involved in the festival with a friend. We drove to New Orleans, met some people involved, then learned the festival had been postponed. We were, asked to join the caravan to travel to Baton Rouge.
I admit I stayed a good part of the time, and I was standing guard at the back stage gate for 1 or 2 hot dogs a day. I could see Ted Nugent and his Amboy Dukes enter the musicians tent.
I was standing prior to that night at the same location in the afternoon when that badass rain and wind came. Usually daily at 4 pm. The Bear Brothers were building those 50 ft sound towers on each side of the stage. That rain came and they were putting the last level of those towers up when the wind blew. It rocked the towers and they started to move downward. When the next wind came it blew the whole thing over. I believe a helicopter came and took the brothers away. It was a sad time. I wish I knew more about those guys, what happened to then, and where they are now.
My friend and I left about 5 or 6 days later. I often think about that experience and all those people there.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS - SEATTLE, WASHINGTON
I was there. Hitched from Dallas with a buddy (both 16 years old). Arrived in the evening, no money, no ticket. Managed to wade the swamp at night. They had security waiting for us, took what little money we had and let us enter.
Somehow with the grace of God, I survived the four days though it is a little foggy. Maybe 10,000 people skinny-dipping at one time. That should be some kind of record. There were a few trees to hide in along the river. Raided a watermelon dealer, think he was charging $5.00 each. He lost his stock to the crowd. My friend woke up one day and his shoes were gone. We found drugs and money laying on the ground... saved our lives. First time they turned on the big stage lights at night it seemed to draw every winged bug in Louisiana.
CATFISH CATHERS - LOCKPORT, NEW YORK
When Woodstock happened I was in Navy basic training in Orlando, FL. In 1971 a bunch of my Navy buddies and I heard about this festival that was being held somewhere in Louisianna so we decided to go. We rented this huge military tent from special services, packed our stuff (I have no idea what we took along) and headed west on I-10.
I remember it was dark when we arrived, and I guess we got there after they opened the gates because I do not remember having to wait outside for the gates to open.
Anyway, it's dark so we park our cars with the headlights shining on the tent and we have no clue what we are doing and we were pretty messed up by this time. All I can remember is guys tripping on the ropes, the tent falling down. But the part I remember vividly is one guy sticking his head inside the tent and yelling ,"Guys it looks like a cow's udder in here." We then became aware of the laughter going on around us from our fellow campers. Seems we were the evening entertainment because we were so into trying to get this tent up that we were oblivious to anything outside the car's headlights.
I wish I could remember the names of the guys I was with. I remember the heat, the bugs, the river, the drownings, the locals coming up in their boats to ogle the ladies skinny dipping, but what I remember most is putting up that damn tent. What a hoot!
Myself, J. Dolsen (R.I.P.), and D. Bolin jumped into the concert late one afternoon, 30 second freefall from 7500 ft with smoke grenades on our feet. We never got paid. Though they did pay for the airplane rental, it was an illegal jump. We had a ball, and we smoked out the festival promoters' hotel room with a smoke grenade when they didn't pay us.
Keith Shields - Indianapolis, Indiana
I took off with my friend, Mike Biggs (may he rest in peace), in his early 1960s orange Ford Econoline van from Dayton, Ohio. We were both 18 years old and recently graduated from high school. We had played in a rock band together and while many of our friends said they wanted to attend the Celebration of Life with us, we were the only ones that actually went.
I share many of the memories of others but especially rocking to Chuck Berry after midnight singing "down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods, among the evergreens" to Johnny B. Good. We raided a watermelon stand for food (sorry, man, we were hungry). We swam naked in the Atchafalaya and watched helplessly as one dude drowned. We met two women who claimed to be witches and said they "threw the tarot sticks that told them to attend and they would meet people who would help take care of them," which of course turned out to be us. They were older women and had some association with a famous university near Boston.
We had been pulled over in Prentiss, Mississippi on the way down. Mike was told he ran a stop sign, so they "fined" us all the money we had and confiscated a hunting knife and a bottle of Southern Comfort. When asked about the liquor, and I pointed to the unbroken seal. The county sheriff looked at his buddy sheriff and said, "That looks broken to me. Does that bottle look opened to you?" as he twisted the cap off and poured some out on the ground. They called us "naked hippies" and told us to never enter Prentiss again. We obliged.
We met another classmate, Marvin Applegate, who saved the day by selling his bus ticket at the Baton Rouge bus station which financed our gas to return home.
As far as the actual festival, I recall huge crowds. It seemed way larger than 50,000 to me. Listened to the Beatles' Sergeant Peppers on the PA and seeing the guy that was playing a wooden flute, who we all thought was Ian Anderson of Jethro Till. Lots of great memories. I still have the original letter about the festival from the promoters. Thanks for keeping this memory alive.