(Second of two parts. Part one here.)
Wadena was—and is—a town in Fayette County, Iowa, population about 250. It’s located approximately as far from Dubuque as it is from Waterloo, northeast of one and northwest of the other. Forty years ago this week, it was the flashpoint for a conflict between concert promoters planning a rock festival and local and state officials trying to stop it. On Friday, July 31, 1970, while bands loitered in hotels and fans waited at the site, attorneys argued in front of a judge. Late that afternoon, the festival got grudging permission to go ahead, and the first band, Fuse, hit the stage.
The festival crowd was estimated at 40,000. From Friday night through Sunday night, their every need—for food, drink, souvenirs, and drugs—was met by vendors on the site. And all the while, there was music. News stories appearing in Iowa newspapers that weekend did not usually mention the performers, perhaps believing the names would mean little to their adult readers. And as was the case at other festivals of this type, not all of the publicized acts appeared—the Who didn’t make it to little Wadena, as advertised at the beginning of the week—but the Everly Brothers and Little Richard did, with Little Richard going on at 4AM Saturday morning. Johnny Winter, Rotary Connection, Buffy Ste. Marie, Mason Proffit, Chicken Shack, Luther Allison, and Albert King also played that weekend.
When the music ended Sunday night, most of the attendees cleared out, with only a few hundred hanging on into Monday. They, too, eventually dispersed, leaving only trash behind. The general consensus of local residents was that things were not as bad as they could have been. That, too, was part of the pattern from earlier festivals. But so was the post-festival legal retribution.
On Sunday night, Sound Storm, Inc., was slapped with a million-dollar lawsuit by Fayette County, claiming that everything the promoters had done was “illegal from start to finish” and seeking restitution for the county’s expenses as well as damages. The Fayette County attorney noted that there were only a dozen-or-so drug arrests, and he criticized law enforcement officials for “turn[ing] your heads not to make arrests.” Iowa Governor Robert Ray, who had attended the festival on Saturday and mingled with the kids, joined in the criticism. (Pundits would wonder whether public reaction to the festival would have an impact on Ray’s reelection bid that fall.) Officials of the Fayette County Fair, which had been going on over the weekend, blamed the festival for cutting its gate receipts by 25 to 50 percent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even got involved, to determine if the festival had violated any federal regulations.
After the jump: The festival aftermath keeps lawyers employed for years.
By the late summer of 1970, rock festivals were busting out all over, and local government officials across the country found themselves playing defense against them. They passed ordinances to make mass gatherings difficult, and they sought court injunctions against those that planned to go forward anyhow. In July, the same promoters who had put on the Sound Storm Festival in Wisconsin during April planned another festival for Galena, Illinois, but when it was stopped by injunction there, they picked Fayette County, Iowa, as their alternate location, specifically the little town of Wadena, population 251. They bought a 220-acre farm from a local family on July 20, and announced the festival for the weekend of July 31 through August 2.
The immediate reaction from officials was familiar to observers of other festivals, such as the one that had been held near Iola, Wisconsin, in June. “I am against the festival and I think it is an underhanded deal,” one Fayette County supervisor said. “They ought to keep the whole damn thing in Chicago.” He added, “We’re going to do everything we can to get the festival stopped.” There was hand-wringing over the bad example an influx of hippies would set for local youth. In defense of the locals, officials of Chicago-based Sound Storm, Inc., had said nothing about a rock festival to the owners of the farm they bought. All they said was something about building a resort, so the residents’ anger about being blindsided was legitimate. Iowa Governor Robert Ray said that local concerns were justified.
Reaction to the reaction, from the promoters, was also familiar: “Some fine citizens still don’t believe that our culture can get it together for a few days in an air of peace and mutual responsibility,” a press release from Sound Storm, Inc., said. “We’ve tried to rid ourselves of the shortcomings of previous music festivals in the Midwest.” They had arranged for fencing, medical care, parking, food, and security at the site, and promised to issue every attendee a garbage bag to carry out what they’d brought in.
Promoters also announced their list of prospective performers, which featured a mix of superstars and lesser-known acts, as well as local and regional bands. Among those mentioned in news coverage leading up to the event: the Who, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, REO Speedwagon, Poco, Tim Hardin, Buffy Ste. Marie, the Guess Who, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Rotary Connection, the Chambers Brothers, Mason Proffit, Ian and Sylvia, the Youngbloods, and Oz.
After the jump: Both sides bring on the lawyers.
(Edited to modify a link.)
As I have noted here before, 1970 was America’s rock festival summer—kids wanted to frolic in the sun (or the rain, or the mud) for a weekend like the Woodstock Nation had, and promoters in all corners of the country were ready to take advantage of their desire. The first festivals, such as Sound Storm, brought a third player into the mix—state and local officials, who feared that festivals would cause a general breakdown of law and order in their communities, or an environmental or public-health catastrophe. So by summer’s height, rare was the festival that wasn’t preceded by a great deal of legal jousting. And often, once the music stopped and the garbage was picked up, the action moved back to courts and government hearing rooms, as after the Iola People’s Fair.
Near Middlefield, Connecticut, a festival scheduled for the Powder Ridge Ski Area was stopped by injunction only a couple of days before its scheduled start on Thursday, July 30, 1970. It was going to be a monster, starring several Woodstock veterans and a rumored appearance by Led Zeppelin. After local residents got the festival stopped, signs were posted on the roads to the site saying “festival prohibited,” but no matter—between 30,000 and 50,000 people showed up anyhow. Scheduled bands that had made it to the site could not perform under pain of arrest, although Melanie eventually did. Most of the music that weekend was provided by the attendees themselves, either on instruments they had brought or through stereo systems and car radios, amidst a blizzard of drug use that made Woodstock veterans blanch.
On the very same weekend half-a-continent away, several days of court hearings left fans, bands, promoters, and public officials hanging until the very last minute on Friday to learn whether a festival scheduled for the Iowa hamlet of Wadena that weekend would be allowed to proceed. On Thursday and Friday of this week, we’ll tell the story of the Wadena Rock Festival, so be sure to stop back for that.
This week is also the anniversary of the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, a massive 1973 show held at a racetrack in western New York featuring the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, and the Band. I can remember hearing about that one when it happened—the news coverage it received was on-par with Woodstock four years earlier, but the difference was that in 1973, I was paying attention. But where Woodstock was a quintessential event of the 1960s, Watkins Glen was much more of the 1970s—it was a weekend’s diversion for 600,000, and not an event that galvanized a generation. You can read more about Watkins Glen in my post at WNEW.com.
More Recommended Reading: I’m pleased to see that Kevin, a longtime friend of this blog, has started posting again at his site, Got the Fever, after a life-enforced hiatus. Few bloggers write about their music with as much passion as Kevin does, so we’d all best get back in the habit of heading over to his place regularly. Also recommended: At Popdose, Rob Smith pays tribute to REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You,” and 30 Days Out goes searching for Robert Johnson.