Atlanta International Pop Festival 1969, Part 2

Things got better once Artigue and friends arrived at the Atlanta International Raceway – a place where like-minded outcasts gathered and, for one weekend only, cops turned a blind eye to unscrupulous behavior.

“That was the first place I ever really got high on pot. I was trying hard in New Orleans, but that was kind of a tight thing there. We heard about it following the hippie scene. Everybody wanted to smoke pot back then. We met a guy with a Volkswagen van, and boy did we get high!” – Artigue

“If you were into that scene, you were a weirdo and a freak and everything else. Back then, if you were smoking weed, you could get a life sentence for a nickel bag of weed. It was cool because people were smoking weed in the open. I’m sure there were a lot of people doing LSD at the time. I had done it, but I didn’t do it at the festival because I was 100 miles away from home and wanted to make sure I could deal.” – Ratliff

“If a person was alienated in their hometown because they grew their hair long, listened to weird music and dressed in strange clothes, the festivals were a place where they could come together. I’ve had so many people tell me that once they got there, they said to themselves, ‘I’ve found my people.’ I’ve found people I can agree with and get on with. It was almost a liberated zone. People could do or say whatever they wanted. People were openly using and selling drugs right in front of police officers because (the police) realized, if they had moved in and started making arrests, it would have been a bad situation for police. It might’ve been a riot.” – Sprayberry

That’s not to say a racetrack outside of Atlanta served as an ideal spot for a festival.

“There wasn’t a spot of shade anywhere. It was kind of a terrible place to have a festival in an oval track where the sun was beating down on people, radiating off the asphalt and the red Georgia clay.” – Sprayberry

Even if they were weary of outsiders, locals benefitted fiscally from their visitors.

“The businesses strung out on U.S. 41 between Atlanta and Griffin never had it so good. At each place, hundreds of kids milled around and quickly emptied the soft-drink machines. One guy made a killing when he drove up near the entrance to the raceway with a truck load of watermelons. Restaurants all the way to Griffin, maybe 15 miles away, had more business than they could handle. And the service stations could have used a dozen mechanics each, because stalled cars littered the roadside like beached whales.”–  Paul Hemphill from the June 6, 1969 edition of the Atlanta Constitution

 Not even a free spirit like Janis Joplin faced too much resistance from locals.

“There was no pushback as I remember. If Janis had her mind set on playing there, then we did. She just wanted to spread peace and love through her music.” – Brad Campbell, bassist for Joplin’s band

Most narrators’ clearest and most interesting memories involve the bands themselves.

“We were just about to leave, and we saw some guy with a jacket. He’d written on the back, ‘I came here from England to see Led Zeppelin.’ We thought we’d better stick around and see what they’re like. From the first bowed guitar strings out of the darkness, we were going ‘Wow!’” – Edmondson

Johnny Winter, a relative newcomer to the top of the ‘rock pile,’ also put in an admirable performance. Winter plays what is probably the gutsiest blues guitar in the country.

“Winter, essentially a solo performer, was obviously hampered by the incredible heat. Though he frequently had to shorten numbers, and sometimes stop and rest, he also managed to bring the fans to their feet in numerous explosions of applause.”– Jim Knippenberg, from the July 6, 1969 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer

“I was particularly knocked out by Ten Wheel Drive because I had never heard of them before. Sort of the same with Chicago. Of course, sort of horn-driven rock ‘n’ roll was brand-new at that time, so it was all exciting and peculiar all at the same time.”– Mankin

“Spirit played the second day right about sundown, and they just blew everybody away. To this day, I’ve never had a musical experience like that. I’d never seen a crowd react like that.” – David Michaelson, Atlanta musician

“As far as new bands, I had not heard Chicago, for instance. At that time, they were Chicago Transit Authority. Shortly after that, the real Chicago Transit Authority sued them over their name. They blew me away, and Grand Funk was just unbelievable. I had not heard a peep out of them. It’s the festival that established them.” – Ratliff

Bands sounded their best in part because of a crew of future Woodstock contributors, including stage managers Chip Monck and Steve Cohen and the “father of festival sound,” Bill Hanley.

“The sound was un-fucking-believable. It was Hanley Sound, the same sound company that did Woodstock. This Bill Hanley was from Massachusetts. He designed the first big outdoor festival sound systems. Back then, people would get stoned, sit on the floor and listen through headphones. It sounded like that outdoors.” – Michaelson

Even richer tales of backstage shenanigans reveal the rowdier side of Joplin.

“I had a funny backstage encounter with Janis Joplin in my one day of being backstage. I was hanging out back there, and at one point was standing around with a small group of guys – like, four people. Janis Joplin walked up, and a conversation ensued. One of the guys in the group was a guy who had a cast on his arm. He obviously was a raging Janis Joplin fan, so he stuttered and fumbled and stammered and said, ‘Janis, will you autograph my cast?’ She said, ‘Honey, if you whip out your cock, I’ll sign that.’ He was so flustered. As I recall, he may not even have gotten her to sign his cast because he did not know what to do with that comment.” – Mankin

“That was my and Janis’ first time to meet each other. She was that big, hot, white blues singer, and I was the other one. We just got in an ambulance, drove to the nearest liquor store and filled her up with vodka. Brought it back, and we had the sirens going.” – Bonnie Bramlett of Delaney & Bonnie. Audio via Mick Thrasher of Thomaston, Ga.’s Fun 101.1

Spirit, Delaney & Bonnie and Chicago Transit Authority stuck around until Monday to play at free show at Piedmont Park, headlined by The Grateful Dead. Conant calls this thank you gift to Atlanta proper “one of the more meaningful things that happened” involving the festival.

“It was in the pavilion, which has this railing around it. When we were setting up, Pigpen, who was a roadie for the Grateful Dead at the time, asked for a couple of cases of canned beer. I went and got it. He sat there, opened every single one of them, dropped in a tab of acid, and then lined them up on that banister. People came and started drinking. By the time the Dead went on, the place was, to say the least, electric.” – Conant

“It was wonderful, really. Everybody played all of their best songs. The kids and everybody had such a great time. Bonnie (Bramlett) and I still remember… Whenever we see each other, the conversation goes back to that particular show. It was really special for the people participating.” – Spirit bassist Mark Andes

“Over the years, I’ve had people come up to me in Atlanta and say, ‘Robin, I was there!’ I knew exactly what they were talking about. They weren’t talking about the festival. There were only 500, 600 people that saw that show.” – Conant

While planning the festival, promoters faced biases against the South. Some suited the region fresh off the Civil Rights Movement, while others unfairly separated bands from a hungry and open-minded audience.

 “I’d been playing in teenage bands, and the South had a very bad reputation among promoters. There would be a black player in a band, and they’d show up in Georgia and they’d be kicked out of restaurants and hotels and have their lives threatened and stuff like that. People kind of gave Georgia a sidestep. Rock bands hardly ever came to Georgia until after the festival. Cream had come, and Hendrix had [toured the South] with The Monkees and then came back [to Atlanta] on his own, but not many people would book here in Atlanta.” – Edmondson

Outside perceptions changed after the two-day Atlanta International Pop Festival and the free show at Piedmont Park. The long weekend proved that a large, peaceful, and paying rock audience existed in a stigmatized region of the country.

“It kind of cracked the egg in terms of perception. A lot of people who had perceptions, from officials to people in New York and California who thought they knew who liked what kind of music and also everybody in Georgia. Everybody’s perceptions were changed as a result of that festival. It was a successful festival during which there were no disasters. Even the Atlanta papers say it all worked kind of well. No politicians came down hard on it. There was nothing to rebel or react against by officials or politicians against the heathen hippies doing crazy things. That didn’t happen until 1970.” – Mankin

An informal 50th anniversary “reunion” of surviving attendees of the first Atlanta International Pop Festival and/or subsequent free show at Piedmont Park will take place on Sunday, July 7 at Smith’s Olde Bar, beginning at 5 p.m. The event is free, all are welcome, and guests are encouraged to bring memorabilia, photos, home movies, stories to share, etc.

Crowd shot by Fred Peters.

Go Back to Part 1