By Julie Muhlstein, Herald Columnist
Forty years ago this weekend, thousands of people descended on a farmer’s field for a three-day spectacle of hippies, mud and progressive rock music.
If you’re thinking Woodstock, you’re off by one year and nearly 3,000 miles.
Think Sultan — no kidding, Sultan. It was actually three miles south of town, in a swampy field owned by “Betty ‘Universal Mother’ Nelson,” according to an Everett Herald article published Sept. 2, 1968.
If you’re a longtime local, and you’re old enough, you know all about the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair. Those who don’t know may have a tough time believing it isn’t some psychedelic dream conjured up by old baby boomers longing for their flower-child days.
Nope, I’m not smoking a thing. It happened. A year before Santana, Country Joe &the Fish, and the Grateful Dead showed up on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, N.Y., for Woodstock, those same bands played the Sky River Festival. It was held over Labor Day weekend, Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, 1968.
Any visit to Seattle’s Experience Music Project will likely include a stroll through the Northwest Passage exhibit. There, among the region’s music artifacts, is a poster from the Sky River festival.
Along with the Dead, Country Joe McDonald and Santana, performers on the bill included Muddy Waters, the Youngbloods, Big Mama Thornton, It’s a Beautiful Day, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Gale Garnett, John Fahey, Sandy Bull, Dino Valenti, comedian Richard Pryor, and the list goes on.
Calls Friday to the Sultan Library and Sultan City Hall were fruitless in finding anyone willing to share Sky River festival memories. Part of the Sno-Isle Regional Library System, the library has nothing commemorating the 1968 festival.
At the Sky Valley Visitor Information Center, Ole Carlson has heard talk of the festival. He wasn’t around town back then. “I’m a relative newcomer; I’ve been here 36 years. There is a young man who’s talked about trying to revive a second coming of this,” said Carlson, adding that a son of Sultan City Council member Ron Wiediger once raised the idea of another Sky River Rock Festival. Wiediger wasn’t available Friday to comment.
Memories of the Sky River festival may have faded in Sultan, but Paul Dorpat of Seattle can’t forget. Dorpat, 69, is a historian, writer and photographer who in the 1960s was editor and publisher of The Helix, an underground newspaper in Seattle. In that role, he became one of the festival’s organizers.
“The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair was created out of another successful event, the piano drop,” Dorpat said. “That happened in the spring of 1968.”
In an article about the Sky River festival on HistoryLink.org, an online encyclopedia of area history, the late historian Walt Crowley wrote that the “Piano Drop” was held April 28, 1968, near Duvall. It was sponsored by The Helix and KRAB radio. About 3,000 people showed up to witness a piano being dropped from a helicopter and to hear a Country Joe &the Fish concert.
Dorpat was an organizer of the piano drop, which came on the heels of San Francisco’s 1967 be-in happening in Golden Gate Park. The Seattle man figured if a piano falling on wet grass could draw thousands, why not put on a bigger event?
Sky River festival organizers met in Seattle’s University District, near the now-gone Last Exit on Brooklyn coffee house. Dorpat, author of several “Seattle Now &Then” books and the recently published “Washington Then &Now,” said others were involved in booking festival bands. Musicians, he said, performed for “nearly nothing.”
Dorpat published an item in The Helix seeking a festival site. He remembers opening the letter from the Sultan area farm of Betty Nelson. “She invited us to use it, and drew a crude map. It was right where the hills start. That was important; it was a natural amphitheater,” he said.
The weekend was a rainy mess, and the festival is remembered as much for mud as for music. “One moment, they were chanting for the sun to come out — and it came out briefly,” Dorpat said.
No single musical performance stands out distinctly in his memory. “It was sort of the total buzz of the thing,” Dorpat said. For the Lighter Than Air Fair part of the event, balloons were in the plans. “One balloon went about 10 feet in the air,” Dorpat added.
Tickets were $6 for the whole festival, or $4 for any one day. Compare that with Seattle’s Bumbershoot this weekend. Once a free arts festival, Bumbershoot tickets are now $40 per day, or $100 for a three-day pass.
Dorpat avoids big festivals these days, both because he can’t afford them and because he’s busy at home working on projects. Time was, things were very different from today’s corporate-backed touring rock shows.
“It was a really wonderful event, despite the rain,” Dorpat said. “There was a lot of good music, a lot of dancing. There wasn’t as much hero worship then, it wasn’t celebrity driven. For a moment, it was sort of a populist culture.”
In the Everett Herald, the Sky River Rock Festival wasn’t even front-page news. The article on page 3A didn’t mention any bands. Instead, it noted the mud, traffic, nude swimming, and a “hairy” crowd of more than 20,000 people.
“Who are they? Hippies,” the Everett Herald reported on Sept. 2, 1968.
At the Experience Music Project, 36-year-old senior curator Jacob McMurray is feeling a little cheated.
“I certainly missed out on that particular scene,” he said.
Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or email@example.com.