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Southern-fried Woodstock: Byron Pop Festival memories vivid after 40 years

40 years later, memories of concert still vivid

By CHRIS HORNE - Telegraph correspondent - Reprinted from The Telegraph article of 7/4/2010

Thousands of feet above Middle Georgia, where the second Atlanta International Pop Festival was in full swing, its creator, Alex Cooley, was stunned by what he saw from his helicopter.

“My God, what I have done?”

As if Dr. Frankenstein were looking down at his monster, Cooley was flying overhead, up Interstate 75. Below, he saw a line of vehicles stretching mile after mile from Byron, where the music festival was being held over the long Fourth of July weekend 40 years ago, toward Atlanta.

In fact, people had started showing up two weeks before the festival. Three days before, reports said 6,000 people were already camping out at Middle Georgia Raceway, the staging area.

But that was before waves of young people descended on what was then a tiny town of about 1,500 people, coming by car, motorcycle, RV or van, often piled high with hitchhikers.

This was going to be unlike anything Middle Georgia had ever seen before — or since.

In 1969, pop festivals were still fairly new. After Woodstock, the seminal gathering in New York, music festivals became a new beast, and the unexpected was happening in Middle Georgia.

Cooley estimates that the crowd at the Byron raceway swelled to 400,000 to 500,000 people at one point. Other estimates ranged as low as 250,000.

Either way, it was a lot of people for little Byron.

Clippings from The Macon Telegraph archives about the event, colloquially called the Byron Pop Festival, stack about 6 inches high. Much of the coverage focused on how many groups — from Peach County to Macon — did not want the festival in their backyard, and especially not the drug use.

“It was really nasty,” Cooley said. “People became hysterical.”

In some of the meetings he held with area groups, he said, people thought there would rampant lawlessness at the festival. He said it was hard to change their minds because he himself “looked like a hippie.”

One group called the Save Our Youth from Drug Abuse Committee was extremely vocal in its opposition.

One Warner Robins alderman, Jack Humphrey, called the anticipated concert-goers “hoodlums.”

Other newspaper coverage referred contemptibly to the “long hairs” that would be arriving in droves.

But when the actual festival started, many people in the area warmed to it — and its attendees.

Mingling with the locals

Harry Lucas was a 24-year-old, managing a nearby gas station, at the time. The festival sparked his entrepreneurial spirit.

The crowds of “hippie girls,” he said, helped him embrace the counterculture, too.

Not only did he carry merchandise down to the festival to sell — including peaches at $1 apiece — but he rented out space on his family farm for people to camp out.

“We must’ve had about 400 hippies there,” Lucas said, adding that he had no problems with the crowd, which he said was largely nonviolent.

He said he didn’t mind some of their quirks, either.

“They’d get all naked down there swimming in the creek,” he recalled.

Aside from making a little money and new friends, Lucas said he also got to experience some of the music.

He’s especially glad to have heard Jimi Hendrix, who died two months later, and Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band, who died the following year. On the night of July Fourth, Hendrix played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“Overall, it was really a great time. We were in hog heaven,” Lucas said, pausing to reflect. “I wish they’d come back.”

Though Cooley said he was impressed that so many festivals, particularly in the South, have remained viable, he was initially convinced that the Byron Pop Festival would be the death knell of festivals. He didn’t think they’d work.

At one point during the festival, once the crowds had begun to swell, chants of “free, free, free” rang out outside one of the ticket gates. Motorcycle gangs had gathered at the front gate, threatening to take it down. That’s where the box office was, and the box office was where the money was.

John Nixson, an 18-year-old volunteer for the Bibb County Health Department at the time, was riding by the promoter’s office in an old Cadillac ambulance when one of Cooley’s men commandeered the vehicle to rescue money the festival had made.

“We took a stretcher inside the box office and loaded the bags of money on it, then covered it up with a sheet,” Nixson recalled. “We took it out the back of the venue and I got off. I suppose they went to sneak it into the promoter’s office.”

Shortly afterward, the gates came down and the festival was open to one and all.

As powerful a memory as that was, Nixson walked out of that weekend with more than a story to tell. He found a career. He started working with local bands and ended up managing Grinderswitch on Capricorn Records. From there, he managed Capricorn’s recording studio for four years before the label went under. After a bit of a break, he moved to Nashville to work with Phil Walden again and started working with Hank Williams Jr., Lynyrd Skynyrd and Gov’t Mule. Now he builds custom buses for touring acts.

He said he’d been heading toward a life in the music industry when the Byron Pop Festival came around, but “the festival was that final push.”

“There was no turning back after the festival,” Nixson said. “My fate was sealed.”

What a lineup

Though John Chalfa has been a professor at Mercer University for 26 years, he was just a kid from St. Simons in 1970.

His car, like so many others, was overheating on that hot July weekend — temperatures topped 100 degrees — and limped into the campgrounds. From there, he was carried away by the momentum of the festival. He said he isn’t sure if they ever went back to the campsite.

“The music was terrific,” he said. “It was a nice mix of new folks you’d never heard of and the big-name folks.”

The first band he heard playing was a band he’d never heard of, Goose Creek Symphony, which has been a favorite of his ever since. It was also the first time he’d seen B.B. King, who is now music royalty but was still coming to know mainstream audiences as a 44-year-old in 1970.

“It was like he was conducting lessons for the younger musicians,” Chalfa said. “He was one that you’d see the other musicians watching.”

And like Harry Lucas, Chalfa was grateful to see one of Hendrix’s last shows. In fact, Chalfa said he was grateful for getting to see that kind of lineup in his home state.

Other acts on the program were a who’s who of the popular music scene: Procol Harum, Rare Earth, Jethro Tull, Johnny Winter, Richie Havens, Mott the Hoople, the Chambers Brothers, Ten Years After — and more.

Before the Byron Pop Festival, major acts “skipped Georgia for sure,” Chalfa said. He said he and his friends would have to go to Jacksonville, Fla., to see a good concert.

That changed after July 1970.

“The festival seemed to open up an awful lot,” he said. “I guess it showed those bands that you could survive a gig in the South.”

If anything, that’s what Alex Cooley takes away from his experience with the two festivals: They opened the door for the South to be a player in the greater scheme of things, musically speaking.

“When I tried to book the first one, the agencies up North only wanted to send me people on the Chitlin’ Circuit,” he said.

In the years that followed, which also included a run as the head of the Music Midtown Festival in Atlanta, Cooley opened venues and did “one-nighters” with some of the world’s greatest musicians. The festivals had given him many more connections and proven to them that they had an audience waiting in the South.

In 1971, the Allman Brothers, who opened and closed the Byron Pop Festival, released “At Fillmore East.” Then their star rose, and with it Macon’s and that of the whole region, as they turned music on its ear with Southern Rock.

Cooley, who admits he’s had “mixed relations” with the Allman Brothers Band, said the band was phenomenal at the Byron Pop Festival. “They were like a juggernaut.”

It took a week to get all the festival goers out, Cooley said. That included an encampment of about 20 people who just wanted to linger behind. He said they tried to start a commune there.

When Cooley first told them it was time to go, that they had to leave, one of the campers looked up at him and said, “No, man. We’re going to wait for the next one.”

The people may be gone, but the impact — and the memories— from the Byron Pop Festival remain.