Editor’s note: Real Thing: A Sonic History of Seattle is a bi-weekly series looking back on hallmark performances and artist releases in the region.
If you’ve ever passed through Sultan, Washington, you probably remember the town for one of three reasons. It’s either the sweet delights of its unassuming bakery, the jaw-dropping Mt. Index that crowds your windshield not long after passing through, or the hated traffic lights and dreaded backups. What you might not realize, however, is that not far from Highway 2, tucked away in a raspberry field, some 20,000 spectators once gathered for the 1968 Sky River Rock Festival: the United States’ first rock festival held in a rural setting.
The idea for the festival originated in the spring of 1968, when “Helix,” an underground Seattle newspaper, and the radio station KRAB attracted 3,000 curious onlookers to Duvall, Washington to witness an important musical event. While San Francisco’s Country Joe and the Fish did provide a performance, the audience arrived mainly to experience the dropping of a piano from a helicopter.
While most describe the piano drop as resulting in a less-than-spectacular thud, the audience’s curiosity and willingness to flock to rural Snohomish County inspired “Helix”editor Cyrus Noe to begin organizing a rock music festival somewhere nearby.
With the assistance of future Bumbershoot director John Chambless and his wife Dorothy Chambless, an ensemble of counterculture trailblazers began the process of assembling the festival. The group decided on the name after a candlelit communion in a Wallingford living room, convincing sympathetic raspberry farmer Betty Nelson to provide her 40-acre Skykomish River property as a “venue” for the festival, according to HistoryLink.org.
Officially billed as the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, the event experienced its fair share of hiccups once Labor Day weekend rolled around.
The architect of the infamous piano drop, Larry Van Over, intended to offer free rides in his helium balloon, but the contraption accidentally floated away. Two of the crucial billed acts — Big Brother and the Holding Company and Indigenous singer Buffy Sainte-Marie — never even showed up. Thousands of attendees illicitly entered the festival, resulting in a $5,000 loss for its organizers, according to The Seattle Times.
Still, the event can hardly be described as anything but a success. Even with several acts failing to perform, the music lasted 18 hours for all three days of the festival. The lineup included popular rock bands like Santana and Country Joe and the Fish, as well as rhythm-and-blues pioneer Big Mama Thorton and the folk revival group The New Lost City Ramblers. The Grateful Dead even gave an unexpected and unplanned performance.
Trapped inside this winter, watching the drizzling rain, it’s tempting to dream of sublime crowds dancing in the summer sun. But it wouldn’t be Washington without unexpected rain; and as it turns out, a late-summer storm pummeled the festival on its first two days, transforming the raspberry field into a vast, muddy expanse.
But the festival-goers remained undeterred by the weather, frolicking throughout the muddy pool, chanting for the arrival of the sun with the backing of percussionists onstage. And the sun finally did make an appearance, blessing the final day of the festival with brilliant sunlight.
Whether the copious amounts of cannabis and LSD reportedly enjoyed by the attendees are to blame, or whether it was simply the result of inadequate documentation and recordings, the festival has become somewhat of a myth in the Pacific Northwest, with conflicting reports as to who actually performed.
Here you’ll find a Spotify playlist with studio and live recordings from the bands and musicians who graced the Sky River Rock Festival’s stage. Selections include the Grateful Dead’s spectacular 1972 performance at Ken Kesey’s Oregon dairy farm and recordings of Country Joe and the Fish from Woodstock and The Grateful Dead’s Fillmore West — though I can’t say I advise 18 hours of continuous listening.
Reach columnist Henry Zing at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ZingHenry
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