SKY RIVER – 40th ANNIVERSARY (plus one week)

Last weekend – Labor Day weekend – while thousands (for forty dollars a day) were reflecting on the condition of the arts in our contemporary failing democracy at the three day gated seminar named Bumbershoot, some of us may have paused to recall what happened in the mud 40 years earlier on a strawberry farm – Betty  Nelson’s Strawberry Farm – a few miles south of Sultan, Washington, off of HIghway 2, on the way to Stevens Pass.   (The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair was the reason – it will be argued, with conditions, in the forthcoming video “Sky River Rock Fire” – Bumbershoot was founded.)  Sky River, for short, was the first three-day outdoor rock/jazz festival staged where nothing had been staged before – in this case an about 40-acre farm.

It rained most of that Labor Day weekend, although it was not a cold rain and the estimated 40 thousand who showed up made the most of it by dancing in the mud and periodically chanting for the sun in circle dances which to the Christians, who from a small plane were dropping pamphlets reading “Christ Is Coming,” must have seemed like a pagan ritual.   The music was pretty much non-stop.  The “lighter than air fair” part of it was an inflated balloon of about eight feet in diameter that could get about as far off the ground as it was wide — but with a running jump by an athletic person.  (I may be wrong in this for I did not ride the thing.)

The cost of admittance was $6 for the three  days or $4 for a single day, but a large minority paid nothing, for aside from the flimsy farm fence there was no security.  Still the bands appeared for next to nothing and the reputation of the event, even while it was underway, was sufficient to inspire the Grateful Dead, for instance, to fly up from San Francisco on their own and appear late on Monday, the last day.   I remember that County Joe and the Fish, then a very popular Berkeley band, flew in from a concert in New Orleans.  Joe was wearing a rather nifty white suit that, I believe, he purchased there.  I also remember setting the microphone for a relatively unknown comedian, Richard Pryor.  Santana was resounding across the Skykomish valley at 3 a.m., and although we must have slept, I do not remember it.

I was interviewed about SKY RIVER a few days before the 40th Anniversary by Everett Herald columnist Julie Muhlstein for their Aug. 31 offering of Heraldnet. Here is the Everett Herald link.

One of the two photos included here was also printed with the August 31, Heraldnet piece with caption included.  Fred Bauer (long since moved to the wild California coastline west of Garberville) took the camp life detail from the festival.  The other is a record of both covers from a Helix published the following spring.  It was not unusual to use the covers to promote an event, in this case a benefit concert (although that is too puny a description for those Eagles Auditorium all-day events) for Helix and KRAB radio.

One thought on “SKY RIVER – 40th ANNIVERSARY (plus one week)”

  1. I had not thought about Sky River for a long time, until today when I ran across the Herald article via Google News. Another 40th anniversary and here I had plumb forgot about it until now.

    Oh, so many mixed memories. I remember sleeping under the station wagon that belonged to the women who gave us a ride–I knew one from Seattle Community College but just barely and, as it turned out, she and her friend did not trust us to sleep inside. So, we scooted under that big old Ford and tried to escape the rain. I remembered rolling over into a stream of water which I could feel running inside my sleeping bag. That was one of my most miserable nights ever.

    Now I do remember I saw Santana at that unGodly hour. I seem to recall they had a young woman in a silver lame majorette’s uniform twirling a flaming batom–but did that really happen ?

    Man, I looked at all the names on one of the posters at the Herald and History Link and see all sorts of names that I do not recall every made it to the festival. John Fahey ? Sandy Bull ? Did they make it ? I sure don’t remember them. Nor the New Lost City Ramblers. And I know for a fact that Muddy Waters did not make it.

    But I do remember I got to sit on a blanket with Robin Leavy, upon whom I had the hugest crush, and hearing Ramblin’ Jack Elliott sing 912 Greens, which I thought was one of the most wonderful songs I had ever heard up until that point. And I remember him tapping me on the back and saying ‘Excuse me…’ when I was blocking his way backstage the next day.

    (Because I was one of those Security guards that Roger Downey had recruited, I had a back stage pass…)

    I interviewed him for the Rocket sometime in the 90s and brought that tap on the shoulder and he apologized! As if I minded even at the time…

    But, man, did he light up about Sky river. He recalled how Rolling Thunder, the Indian chief, was going to do a ceremony to stop the rain but did not, as the ceremony involved sacrificing a chicken, an act to which some people had objections.

    I remember hearing the Dead–that was the first time I saw them with two drummers–and Contry Joe and the Fish, Floating Bridge and, from a distance, in our campground, the voice of Big Mama Thornton. And I remember the Mud People…

    And don’t forget the Congress of Wonders–‘Ee-yaw-ki!’

    But I don’t remember any balloon rides.

    I do remember, in one of my few offical acts as a security guy, escorting a couple of guys who were going to set off some fireworks the second night, as it was starting to sprinkle. They set a off a couple of fireworks, the second of which went off in a stand of alder, which was when they called it a night. Which was probably a good thing. I seem to recall they had been drinking.

    Elliott’s 912 Greens–which was a sort of talking blues that was one of maybe two songs he ever wrote–began

    ‘Round about 1953,
    I went to New Orleans,
    or should I say
    a long time ago…’

    As I was 4 years old or so in 1953, that seemed so-o-o long ago to me at the time and it sent chills up and down my spine.

    Well, it still does, for that matter, for all sorts of other reasons now.

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