Before there was Woodstock, there was the Atlanta Pop Festival. It happened over the July 4th weekend in 1969, six weeks before the more famous festival in upstate New York. What Woodstock purported to be—a gathering of the tribes in a spirit of peace and love—Atlanta Pop was too. What Woodstock had—shortages of food and drink—Atlanta Pop had too.
One thing Atlanta Pop had that other festivals did not—general cooperation from the authorities. The show didn’t have to move at the last minute due to legal challenges, as Woodstock did; once a final location was set, locals did not agitate to shut the festival down, as would happen at many of the smaller festivals that proliferated in the wake of Woodstock. Promoters chose a racetrack near Hampton, Georgia, that could accommodate the crowds, although attendees had to navigate an enormous traffic jam to get in. As concessions dwindled and the temperatures rose, local fire departments came to spray the crowds with water.
The egalitarian spirit of the early festivals brought about eclectic musical lineups. In 1969, Atlanta Pop featured acts ranging from Led Zeppelin to the Staple Singers to Dave Brubeck. Two of the festival’s best sets were played by Johnny Rivers and Tommy James and the Shondells (!), and the group Sweetwater, with the unenviable task of following Janis Joplin, was said by some to have topped her.
A year later, promoters put on a sequel at a racetrack near Byron, Georgia. They expected 100,000 but got upwards of a half-million, which backed up traffic all the way to Atlanta proper, 90 miles away. The 1970 bill was less eclectic: it included Jimi Hendrix (this was the largest crowd Hendrix ever performed in front of), the Allman Brothers Band, Procol Harum, Spirit, Ten Years After, Grand Funk, Mountain, and other festival mainstays. Jethro Tull was booked, but didn’t play because Ian Anderson got laryngitis.
Some fans recall the 1970 festival as a pale copy of the 1969 event. The disaster at Altamont had happened the previous December, and that festival’s dark vibe was on the minds of many people who came to Atlanta. But others remember the 1970 festival as the time of their lives. Some people who were there probably don’t remember it at all.
By 1971, the festival spirit had dissipated. There was no third annual Atlanta Pop Festival.
The 1970 event is noteworthy to me because it’s remarkably well documented in photographs. Not so much of the performing acts, although there are a few of those, but of the people in attendance. Retronaut posted a set earlier this week; my research into the festivals led me to this magnificent collection of black-and-white photos and memories of people who were there.
Look at the pictures, especially the black-and-white ones. There’s a dreamlike quality about them. As you look, you begin to think, “Could this really have happened just this way?” Then you read the memories of those who were there, and you find that yes, it did happen just that way, a weekend out of a dream, all the more vivid for having persisted in memory so long. The color photos, even with their remarkable lack of the patina of age, depict a time and place we can no longer completely fathom. In these photos, it’s the mundane details that seem dreamlike. Who goes to a concert today carrying cans of pork and beans and tuna?
Forty years later, we document everything as it happens to us, snapping photos or video with our cell phones, narrating our experiences in real time on Facebook and Twitter. Festivals and other events are lived and shared online and they become inescapable—I knew this past weekend, for example, that Lollapalooza was interrupted by a huge rainstorm, even though I didn’t know that Lollapalooza still existed until people on my Twitter feed started talking about the storm.
But will such events be better or more fondly remembered in years to come than pre-social media events such as the Atlanta Pop Festival? I suspect not. There’s a difference between documentation and memory.