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What a splash: Recalling Georgia's `Woodstock'

"There were so darn many of 'em, they ran the alligators and the water moccasins right out of the Echeconnee Creek," is how Byron Police Chief James Barbour explains the holiday weekend 25 years ago.

It was July 4, 1970. U.S. Secretary of State William P. Rogers was in Saigon attending talks with foreign ministers trying to negotiate a settlement in the Vietnam War. A British airliner had crashed into a mountain in Spain, killing 105 passengers.

And in the tiny central Georgia town of Byron - in a pecan grove and on the adjacent Middle Georgia Raceway - 350,000 to 500,000 people swarmed in for the second annual Atlanta International Pop Festival.

Like Woodstock the previous summer, the event was promoted as "three days of peace, love and music." On the bill were Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, Jethro Tull, B.B. King, Ravi Shankar, 10 Years After, Johnny Winter, John Sebastian and others. Tickets for the music fest were $14.

"We were expecting maybe 100,000 people," says Atlanta promoter Alex Cooley, 56, who organized the festival and the first one at Atlanta International Raceway in 1969. "I remember going up in a helicopter on Friday afternoon before the first act went on. Traffic was backed up 90 miles to Atlanta. I was scared to death."

While the Atlanta festival never garnered the national attention of the festivals near Woodstock, N.Y., Altamont, Calif., or Monterey, Calif., it provided Southerners with a last - and for many, an only - glimpse of Hendrix before his drug overdose in London 10 weeks later.

"It was our Woodstock," says R. Palmer Marsh, who drove down from Atlanta with friends. "Most of us here didn't go to New York in '69, and Byron brought it south to us. It was a phenomenon, a once- in-a-lifetime event. I didn't even really go for the music. The scene was the attraction."

The three-day weekend turned out to be the talk of Byron for 25 years. As the counterculture youth - disillusioned by the prolonged war and the violence at Kent State that spring - piled into Peach County, water supplies slowed to a trickle and 50-cent bags of ice went for $5 as temperatures soared.

"It was miserably hot," 47-year-old Marsh recalls. "We finally found a camping area by 5 a.m. and fell off to sleep. When we woke up at 10 it was over 100 degrees. . . . Everything is pretty hazy after that."

Barbour says Byron's police department had one officer, two dispatchers and "maybe a part-timer." No arrests were made that weekend, he recalls. "There were just too many of 'em."

J.B. Richards, 17 at the time, was busy at the converted circus tent, "O.D. Tent One," where he helped to treat hundreds of people on bad trips.

"I was a member of a communal group, the Lighthouse Family, and we had come down with some doctors from Grady to help out," says Richards, a 43-year-old Atlanta carpenter. "It was a constant stream of paranoid people until about midnight each night. Then it would slow down until about 9 a.m . . ."

Somehow, he managed to slip in a musical moment: "I'll never forget seeing Richie Havens play `Here Comes the Sun' as the sun rose on Sunday morning."

Not everyone was excited, though, about being thrust into the middle of music history.

Mary Marsh, a local artist and mother of two teenage girls, remembers being less impressed. "I had just graduated from high school and was still living with my parents in Macon," she says.

"It was all pretty overwhelming. I wouldn't look when he [her date] told me there was a naked man painting himself with Campbell' s Soup. It was real hot and nobody was selling Coca-Colas, only Kool- Aid with LSD in it. We didn't stay long."

She and her date missed the hottest moment of all.

"We had it all set where Jimi Hendrix would play his `Star-Spangled Banner' right at midnight on the Fourth," Cooley says. "We told him to signal us when he was about 10 minutes from being done because we needed that much leeway to set off the fireworks above the stage. Jimi got so into his solo he just forgot. . . . Apparently Jimi also forgot about the fireworks because when the first one went off, he jumped about 10 feet!"

When it was all over, Cooley told The Atlanta Constitution that huge outdoor festivals such as Woodstock and Byron were finished. And 25 years later, he stands by that statement: "It was a time, an era that is now frozen in history. Thomas Wolfe said it best: `You can't go home again.'

"They tried it last year with that Woodstock event," Cooley says. "It was a horrible travesty."

Twenty-five years later, Hendrix and Duane Allman are rock history deities. The company hired to document the festival went bankrupt a week later; and the film remains in a vault somewhere in Philadelphia. The Byron music scene came - and went.

But Cooley, who went on to found Atlanta's Music Midtown festival, says the man he hired in Jacksonville to put up festival posters all over South Florida that summer of 1970 is keeping the Atlanta International Pop Festival alive - in his own way: "He never put [the posters] up. Now he's making a living selling them for $250 a pop."

Richard L. Eldredge FOR THE JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, Arts & Entertainment: What a splash: Recalling Georgia's `Woodstock'., The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 07-04-1995, pp E/07.