The Non-Festival Festival

One of this blog’s more popular posts is about the Atlanta Pop Festival, held on the July 4th weekend of 1969, which was inspired by a collection of evocative photos of the event posted online. Retronaut, a site that collects marvelous old images, has a set of photos from another forgotten festival.

The Powder Ridge Rock Festival was scheduled for a ski resort near Middlefield, Connecticut, at the end of July 1970. The three-day festival was to be studded with Woodstock veterans, including Sly and the Family Stone, Mountain, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, and Ten Years After, along with Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers Band, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Chuck Berry, and even (it was rumored) Led Zeppelin. But as so often happened in the festival era, the good people of Middlefield took steps to keep from having their town taken over by an army of hippies, getting a court injunction to stop the festival. Two days beforehand, signs were put up along the state highways leading to Middlefield saying, “Festival prohibited,” but by then, it was too late. On July 29, 1970, the day before the festival was to open, the number of people already on the grounds was estimated at 15,000.

Headliners, contracted or rumored, were understandably not eager to violate the injunction against the festival and stayed away. But when it became clear that there would be no show, the crowd began to create its own. The New York Times reported, “The youths provided their own music—from guitars, chants sung to the beat of tin cans and elaborate stereophonic equipment set atop psychedelic buses and mattress-lined hearses.” Folksinger Melanie, who had been on the original bill, risked arrest by performing on the night of July 30. (The sound engineer hired for the show was arrested after ordering his people to get the PA system ready for Melanie.)

At its peak, the non-festival festival attracted anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people—and dozens of drug dealers. Festival medical director Dr. William Abruzzi, who had filled the same role at Woodstock, said that there were nearly 1,000 “bad trips” over the course of the festival, telling the media at one point that the heavy use of hallucinogens was causing a crisis. Abruzzi credited the eventual appearance of musicians with keeping the number from being greater. “The whole spirit of the place changed when the kids heard there would be music. Drug use went down precipitously.” A news report at the time claimed there had been 73 arrests; a later count put the number at 237.

The photo set at Retronaut does not depict a scene quite as dreamlike as the one at Atlanta. Nevertheless, the iconography of hippiedom is strong: American flags as clothing and decoration, long hair, beards, and flowers, macrame, campers, hitchhikers. and public nudity. We cannot tell how many of the people in the pictures were enjoying a weekend away from college or a job, and how many were true denizens of the road, turned on and dropped out from Nixon’s America. We can only guess about the people themselves, whether the couples had lives beforehand or met at the festival, and whether they stayed together for a long haul or parted after three days out of time. Unless they uncloak themselves, we cannot know the stories of the young and beautiful people, or whether they are still beautiful today, now that they would be in their sixties, or far older.

Despite the heavy drug use, the communal ’60s vibe that inspired so many festivals manifested itself at Powder Ridge in positive ways. The festival-goers left thousands of pounds of trash behind, but many stayed to help clean it up. The communal vibe even touched the citizens of Middlefield. Even though the town had fought the festival, many residents helped feed the people who had come by selling or giving away food, or contributing money to help kids buy it.

The law eventually came down on the owners of the Powder Ridge Ski Area for violating the court’s order that the festival not be held, although it’s difficult to see how they could have stopped it. Many attendees who had bought $20 tickets wanted their money back. Promoters said the tickets would be good for a substitute concert at Yankee Stadium in New York City, or RFK Stadium in Washington, or somewhere in North Carolina. But no second concert ever happened, and no one ever got a refund. The half-million dollars in ticket-sale money ended up . . . well, nobody knows.

(See many more photos from the event, and buy prints if you’d like, at Brill Gallery; post rebooted from my WNEW.com archives.)

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