If you looked upon the small town of Byron, Georgia from the heavens on the night of July 4, 1970, your eyes would see a sea of glowing lighters held high, piercing through the darkness for miles and miles and miles.
The collective flames outshone the twinkling stars in the sky. If you stood inside the crowd that night, there’s a possibility your eyes didn’t see the stage where the strobe lights illuminated one man. You didn’t have to see him, the guitar riffs that emerged from his 1966 Fender Stratocaster was enough to fill your spirit. Fireworks turned the dismal sky into a radiant red, white, and blue as the guitarist played the Star Spangle Banner for the biggest crowd of his career.
Byron, Georgia is a small country town with quiet country folks, the kind of place where blood is thicker than water and NASCAR is bigger than basketball. A place so small there that the only police officer was the sheriff and the prison was only two jail cells. Yet, in this Andy Griffith-esque setting, half a million people came together for three days of peace, love, and music. All to live in wonder and happiness, all to see and hear Jimi Hendrix. Two months later, Jimi would be watching from the heavens as the people on the ground held on to his music, message and memory.
Nothing extraordinary was ever expected to occur in Byron, Georgia, with a population that doesn’t exceed a few thousand the people there expected to live and die in blissful seclusion.
It was Alex Cooley, a man with a vision, that went to Byron and saw more than a soybean field adjacent to a racetrack. His second annual Atlanta International Pop Festival had to be big. This was before Atlanta was considered this mecca for music festivals and entertainment. New York, Miami, California, these were all the places that attracted the most attractions in the world of music. To put Atlanta on the map, he had to put on the second-coming of Woodstock. He even used the same promotion angle (three days of peace, love, and music).
What the second International Pop Festival had that the first didn’t was a headliner, a hippy event with hippest rock star on the planet, Jimi Hendrix. Once word got around, people drove from all over America into this sequestered part of South Georgia, fueled by their love for music and lust for adventure. Tickets were only $14, with a lineup that was well worth triple if not more. Eventually, the event became free. The legend is that the large crowd began chanting, “Free, free, free. Music belongs to the people” and eventually the overwhelmed security flung open the gates and allowed anyone entrance.
It’s been said that the small town became home to the biggest event to transpire in Georgia until over two million people flooded into the city of Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics. There’s no definite number of how many people were in attendance between the days of July 3 through the 5th. The smallest tally being 200,000 and the most somewhere around 500,000 to 600,000. The legend states that at least 500,000 bottles of Coca-Cola was ordered just for the festival. It was so many people that the natives set up concession areas to feed their guests. College kids, families, hippies, from far and wide they poured in and poured out like an unsuspecting spring shower in the middle of April.
Since there was only one police officer, he hired a biker gang from another town to assist with security. The bikers only ensured that no breaking or entering occurred during the festival and with was paid handsomely in food and beer. Within the festival grounds, there was an unspoken treaty that allowed a sense of freedom. Drugs were consumed, bodies walked around completely unclothed, lakes were swam in, sex was had, it was a bohemian paradise. It blows my mind that without the internet this many people could converge into such a secluded location. A quote from Joe McDonald in LIFE magazine’s special Woodstock edition sums it up perfectly, “These people like to get together and see each other to prove that they are real.”
“These people like to get together and see each other to prove that they are real.”
There was never a third annual Atlanta International Pop Music Festival. Lester Maddox, Georgia’s fun-killing governor, failed to prevent the second from occurring but he was successful in making it impossible to organize a follow-up. Maybe that’s for the better. It became a legend, a moment cemented in history instead of a glorious flame that grows dimmer with each passing year. Popularity has a way of selling the very soul that originally attracted the acclaim.
I think about SXSW, how it has changed as the years go by. Andrea Swensson wrote about the festival in 2013, you get a glimpse at what it was and what it is becoming. It was a place where the unheard had a voice, there’s even a few success stories where careers are started by touching a SXSW stage. Now you see careers that are thriving or in their last days drowning out the young and unknown. All the attention has brought out the bigger promoters who aided in turning a grassroot festival into a commercial, industry event. Andrea’s frustration is the frustration of everyone that got a chance to see the festival before the shift. Before it was cool, to be cool is to slowly die in the mainstream.
Is it possible to gain money and popularity without losing your essence? Festivals now are big business with more and more media, more and more people, more and more corporations changing the secluded secret into a V.I.P clubhouse for anyone to enter, if they can pay the price. The allure I see in the past is the spirit of peace, love, and music wasn’t a marketing ploy.
Alex Cooley wanted a festival that represented the hippie counterculture, it made me question what is it that the festivals of today stand for? I can do drugs, have sex, and listen to music any weekend, what is it that makes these festival special?
I feel the reason I go is just to see people from the internet, living out Joe McDonald's words. Are we really spending all this money, waiting in these long lines, to just say we were there? Are we here to stand in the streets flooded by mixtapes, flyers and business cards? Are we here to take selfies and be on Snapchat? Are the artists on the bill bringing anything other than their popularity? Where’s the magic? Where’s the fireworks? Where are the moments that will be cemented in history? Will Drake’s Coachella performance be talked about in 5 years? Will Kanye at SXSW be a defining moment in his career? Does hip-hop really live at A3C? How can it be when Slim Jesus is on the bill.
Last week I went to TomorrowWorld and found myself engulfed in selfies, paying $20 for a hot dog, the shuttle service stopped, forcing people to walk miles back to their cars, any joy of communal music fading with every exhausted, angry step. Like the Atlanta International Pop Festival the masses that attented TomorrowWorld are now demanding "free," not because music belongs to the people but because they want a refund. Come to a music festival, three days of love, fun and endless financial transactions!
Living in the moment isn’t a crime, but the older I get the more I'm filled with a desire for more than another weekend of fun. I want to feel the thrill of those early days of SXSW, exploring downtown Austin and discovering music that isn’t on the radio or on the blogs. I want to feel the rush of those early days of A3C when it was under one massive roof and I could travel between the three stages with wide eyes. I want to be transfixed by one artist, one person on stage commanding the attention of everyone far and wide. I want to get together, see real people, feel like we're part of something larger. To know that this is the moment we will remember for the rest of our lives.
Maybe that's just naive nostalgia though, maybe I'm chasing a ghost that never really lived. Or maybe, if I could talk to one of those thousands who desceded upon Byron all those years ago, I'd hear the story of a music festival that really did unify people around ideas more meaningful than money and fun. What do we do when things really were better before? If we really have lost something that we can never recapture?
Maybe we really can never go back.
“Free, free, free. Music belongs to the people.”