By Courtney Haden
July 2nd, 2009
Before there was Woodstock, there was Atlanta Pop. Forty years ago
this weekend, an unimaginable multitude descended upon the Peach
State for a weekend of peace and music that essentially marked the
birth of a new South.
After extraordinary tumult in 1968, one might have expected a
tempering of the national mood. However, 1969 started with more of
the same. Peace talks between America and North Vietnam began in
January, even as President Nixon approved bombing Cambodia. Militant
students made moves at Duke, Harvard, Columbia and other universities
throughout the spring. In music, Bob Dylan retreated to the country
with Nashville Skyline while The Who unleashed the rock opera Tommy.
Cultural fallout from 1967's Summer of Love in San Francisco still
drifted across the country, and so-called "hippie districts" had
taken root in major metropolises. Birmingham had not made the cut,
but in Atlanta, something was definitely happening Midtown,
particularly around 14th Street.
Cheap rents and available space drew devotees of the counterculture
to live and open shops in the area around Piedmont Park, which would
become famous for free music events and frequent hassles by the
Atlanta police. There were head shops, music venues and even a
haberdashery with the self-consciously hip name Kicks and Lids.
The epicenter of the scene was, to many, a two-story domicile on 14th
Street nicknamed The Birdhouse, home of The Great Speckled Bird ,
the first great alternative newspaper in the region, unapologetically
leftist in its politics and quite divorced from the Associated Press
In the pages of The Bird that spring I first spotted an ad for a
wondrous concert planned for the July 4th weekend. Though gatherings
emulating 1967's groundbreaking Monterrey Pop Festival had been
mounted in a few other cities, the Atlanta International Pop
Festival promised "more Blues/Psychedelic/Soul/Jazz/Rock greats than
ever assembled before anywhere."
The instigator was a smooth operator named Alex Cooley. Just turning
the untrustworthy age of 30 in 1969, the Atlanta native had attended
and been fascinated by the Miami Pop Festival in 1968. Cooley
realized he could put on the same kind of show in Georgia with
"It was the height of the Vietnam War and Lester Maddox was
Governor," he said later. "I wanted to do something that would make
people where I lived understand that we could change."
With 17 other investors staking his enterprise, Cooley located a site
near Hampton, outside Atlanta, with room to accommodate an immense
crowd, then started assembling a roster of performers that would draw
The bill was wildly eclectic, from mainstream jazz with Dave Brubeck
to first generation rock with Chuck Berry; from sweet soul by the
Staple Singers and Booker T to the blues of Canned Heat and Paul
Butterfield; from the folk of Ian and Sylvia to the cataclysm of Led
Zeppelin. As an intrepid band of explorers from Alabama arrived at
the outskirts of Hampton prior to the show amid a stupendous traffic
jam, it was clear that word-of-mouth had drawn the crowd Cooley sought.
Independence Day dawned hot and cloudless. Cooley had chosen no
sylvan glade like Max Yasgur's farm, but a flat, arid piece of
property ordinarily operated as the Griffith Motor Speedway. Though
the racetrack offered excellent sight lines to the stage, it afforded
little shade from a merciless Georgia sun. As thousands poured
through the gate and the temperature climbed toward 100 degrees, the
crowd overwhelmed the promoters' logistical preparations. According
to Marley Brant's rock festival history, Join Together , "It was
said there was no ice to be had in the four-county area surrounding
the festival site for three days." Henry County fire trucks sprayed
the throng with water to help cool things down.
Whatever discomfort one felt was mitigated by the music.
Theoretically un-hip performers like Johnny Rivers and Tommy James
played some of the best sets. Janis Joplin delivered a fine
performance, but many thought Sweetwater, the relatively unknown
group that followed her set, actually topped her.
Many performers making their Deep South debut were amazed by their
reception. In her memoir, Lollipop Lounge , Genya Ravan of Ten Wheel
Drive, remembered, "Everyone was colorful, everyone was high… as I
was singing, I watched this massive audience from the stage and it
gave me a rush I've never felt before or after."
It was a diverse audience, too. Though tie-dyed longhairs and
ethereal chicks in mini-skirts were represented, the Atlanta Pop
crowd included a lot of military personnel from bases nearby, as well
as average kids from around the region curious to experience an
alternative lifestyle they'd only read about.
With as many as 140,000 people crammed into an almost literal melting
pot for the weekend, chaos could have erupted. Instead, civility did.
"It was a good thing there were so many hippies," festivalgoer Mike
Flores recalled, "because we all shared what we had." The sense of
communal purpose was nicely put by Jon Pareles of The New York Times
in another context: "This has always seemed to me a non-negative
claim to fame gosh, people acted decently? they didn't revert to
cannibalism in three days? but amid the political, generational and
racial tensions of 1969 it was treated as a major achievement, one
that helped redeem the image of a scruffy younger generation."
As the throng left the racetrack Sunday, sunburnt and satisfied, they
returned to their respective homes having seen something new in the
Old South and passing the word along. As attendee Hugh Fenlon told
Georgia Trend magazine, "I'm not sure what made a bigger impression
on me, the music or the social scene."
In just one weekend 40 years ago, Atlanta joined the national
counterculture, putting a region known for its backward attitudes
face forward again. The hippie ethos vanished shortly thereafter, but
the sense of cultural possibility in the South born at the Atlanta
Pop Festival remains palpable to this day, not just a good vibe, but
a great one.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to