40 Years Out: Celebration of Life, Louisiana

Photo from the Celebration of Life in June 1971 (found on the internet)

The Woodstock festival in 1969 signaled a new era in the marketing of rock culture to the youth masses. Of course, before the first note of music was played Woodstock was actually a slick, professionally planned event – they had lots of publicity and even the foresight to hire a movie crew –  but it turned into something else once the fences came down. So after Woodstock every time somebody put a couple of bands together they called it a “festival” and any time four or more acts played together outdoors it was billed as the next Woodstock.

That was how they sold the Celebration of Life, an epic outdoor rock festival to be held in central Louisiana, in the middle of June 1971. Oh man, the lineup looked even sweeter than Woodstock: the Allman Brothers Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Canned Heat, Richie Havens, the Beach Boys, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Johnny Winter and many more over eight or nine days in a Southern paradise right at the summer solstice.

What it turned out to be, though, was a stinking mess. Many of the advertised acts didn’t show or refused to play, kids had to camp out for days before organizers even opened the gates and let anyone in, and once they did conditions were horrid at best and dangerous at worst. I know, because I was there. Unfortunately.

In June 1971 I turned 16 years old and I got my Texas drivers’ license. There was this one dude in our neighborhood who was older and he knew another dude who worked at the local newspaper Port Arthur News – they said they had some “press passes” to the Celebration of Life but no ride to Louisiana. Being young, stupid and in possession of a car, I volunteered to drive; they said they’d book a hotel so we would have some place to stay and they would pick up my food if I paid for gas. So I show up to pick up my two friends and magically there’s a fourth, some dude named Tommy.

This festival was in a place called McCrea, Louisiana, along the Atchafalaya River north of what is known as Cajun Country. Wow, I remember thinking, days along this lazy slow-moving river and nights in an air-conditioned hotel … it still sounded cool to me, even as we encountered the first traffic jam heading to the festival site. As we got closer I could see people everywhere – camped atop the big levees that ran along the river, shirtless dudes laying in the grass and smoking pot. A grim Louisiana state policeman pointed us in the direction of a huge, muddy field that was the parking lot. Kids were hanging out of minivans, sleeping in open car trunks and atop car hoods. We pulled up behind a naked dude taking a piss right out in the open.

Now this was Friday afternoon; the festival was supposed to have been going on for five days before and people there told us there was some kind of “hassle” with lawyers and promoters which kept the gates closed but music was supposed to start once it got dark. We made our way to the ticket booths, and my newspaper man walked up confidently to will call. He came slinking back shortly; “Our passes aren’t there, man.” So let’s go check in to the hotel, eh? Uh, man, we can’t leave … we’re here for the MUSIC. At which point I realized I’d been had. No tickets, no hotel … and no music. Just a long drive back to Texas.

We got back to the car just as the sun started to set, then this bearded hippie approached us. “When it gets dark, man, I’ll help you get in,” he said. This was beginning to sound like a bad idea. So a few minutes later we were following this dumbass through the swamp and we came upon a huge fence. Some shirtless redneck with no teeth was guarding the fence, or rather a large hole in the fence. The press entrance, I suppose.

Once inside, the lights from the stage and the tall sound towers illuminated what seemed to be a fresh battlefield. Mud everywhere, people sprawled on dirty blankets, tents here and there, a campfire smoking off on the side. War (without Eric Burdon) was playing, so I found a patch of grass and stretched out. I remember Chuck Berry played and it seems there was an appearance by Brownsville Station. The music was loud, but not as loud as the mosquitoes buzzing around my head. Music went on all night, and into the early morning’s light.

When I couldn’t take it any more, I got up and staggered around looking for a drink of water. People were handing out apples and bananas and ham sandwiches and I thought I could just dip into the river and get a drink. But when I got there I was shocked – the lazy Atchafalaya I had envisioned was this fast-moving stream, and the water near the bank was filled with naked hippies. This sunburned guy walked past me and smiled. “If you’re going swimmin’ don’t go too far out,” he advised. “The current will pull you out … if the alligators don’t get ya!” Downstream from the bathers, I saw a turd float past. Maybe I could get a drink later.

They really didn’t have music during the day, just at night. Probably because it was so hot and humid. They blasted the Rolling Stones’ new album Sticky Fingers over and over on the P.A. while people sweated under the blistering sun. It rained in the afternoon, but nothing really cooled off – the sun just came back out and made it all steamy.

I wandered back to my car and slept on the back seat. When there was a breeze, which was rare, it usually carried the whiff of pot smoke and the occasional armpit or eau de ass crack. Now I hadn’t seen my trip companions since we arrived, and I was seriously thinking about just leaving the assholes there and bolting back to Texas.

But no – I went back at dark for more music, trying to get a little closer. I managed to sleep through at least part of every set on Saturday night, including Ted Nugent, who bitched at people from the stage for sleeping through his performance. There was one band, I think it may have been It’s A Beautiful Day, playing around sunrise with their flutes and crap. What a fucking nightmare.

By Sunday morning I’d had enough and resolved to make a break for it. When I got to the car I saw my companions sprawled on the hood and trunk. I started up the engine and without a word, they all piled in for the trip back. We rode to Texas with the windows open, the wind taking away only traces of the body smells. A fart wouldn’t have had a chance with the overpowering mixed aromas of armpits and socks. Even though all I had to show for it were mosquito bites and sunburn, I’d been to my first rock festival of the era. I was also determined it was going to be my last.

When we went to the 40th anniversary of Woodstock we encountered person after person who had been to the monumental festival and remembered their own surroundings, but very few recalled a lot of details about the music. I know the feeling – you go there for the MUSIC, but you take away the experience.

Down the road 40 years to the internet age, we get these stats: 50,000 people attended; two drownings in the river, maybe one or two more deaths due to drug overdose; many of the billed performers bailed or didn’t show; 100 busts for drugs; and it was the last time they ever had one of these in central Louisiana. Time magazine said the festival was an “American nightmare.” And to this day, I still get a weird nauseous feeling when somebody plays “Sister Morphine.”

But in the end … I’m glad I went. What a memory.

YouTube: Video from the Celebration of Life festival 1971. (Rare Earth did NOT play).

MP3: “Rock and Roll Holiday” by Brownsville Station

MP3:  “Hot Summer Day” by It’s A Beautiful Day

MP3: “Scottish Tea” by Ted Nugent & the Amboy Dukes

25 Responses to “40 Years Out: Celebration of Life, Louisiana”

  1. Glynda Green Says:

    I was at this festival and I tell my children all the time now, this was when I realized “I wasn’t as cool as I thought.” I need food and a bath!!!! I was 18 at the time. drove from Monroe, LA in a VW with 3 friends. We had 1 ticket, the driver of the VW took the ticket and drove in, the rest of us had to go over the levee and come in the back, only to find out, that there was no gate anymore!
    However, even though it was hot and dirty, it is to this day a fond memory in my life and fun stories to share. I am so glad to talk to people that can share it with me. One of my most vivid memories is being below the stage at night, rolling joints (I was very good at it) and passing them down and listening to music!! I am a 60 yr old grandmother now and I do share these stories with my kids and grandkids now. Can’t help it. Showed them the youtube video and told them, “I can’t swear that one of those skinny, naked, long haired girls in the river is not your grandmother!!!” AHHHHH youth!!

  2. David Jenkins, B.S.B.A.,P.D.,R.Ph. Says:

    I went for the freedom and music, I didn’t mind if it was hot or if some of the bands didn’t show. I had the time of my life. I went alone, but made friends and enjoyed the sights. I was only 14 years old. David A. Jenkins.

  3. Greetings, I was not there but I actually have a poster of the event. It was handed down from my brother who also was not there. Anyhow I was always under the impression that this event never happened. Thanks to the internet and your posting I now know! Thanks so much. It’s stuff like this that keeps Rock history alive. Any idea what something like this is worth? I am considering selling it. Hit me back soon. I may list it in New Orleans Craig s List perhaps?

  4. 30daysout Says:

    Scott, you may actually have some luck selling your copy of the poster to someone who was there. You might get a couple hundred bucks for it. Try Craigslist as you mentioned, and good luck!

  5. Carol S. Says:

    I attended with a ticket that was, by then, worthless since there were no gates any longer. I left with a few friends in an old truck that I found out had no headlights. Before finally abandoning the truck, I was holding a big flashlight on the road from the passenger window. Then I hitchhiked and caught a ride with some other hippies in a VW bus. I remember there was a huge hole in the floor that they covered with a small oriental rug. When the pipes underneath got too hot, it would catch the rug on fire and we’d have to stop and put it out, then it would go back on the floor and we’d move on. We had been promised food in the price of the ticket but except for an occasional truck rolling by about once a day tossing watermelons out, there was none. We were starving! I remember finding a chunk of unwrapped bloated cheese in a cooler full of water and eating it. I also remember that the river was full of water moccasins but it was either that or burning from the sun. We all packed mud on ourselves to keep the wicked rays off our skin (I’ve since had 3 bouts of skin cancer, hmmmm), and when it dried, it was a bluish color. It was surreal seeing all these naked blue “mud people” walking around. Sitting on the ground at night, insects would walk by that were HUGE and would part the crowds. Pretty much everyone was nude, but it hit low levels when a group of people would stand around watching someone take a crap. I recall some of the music but not many of the promised bands showed up. I do remember waking up on the floor of an opium tent with huge cash transactions going on right next to me after smoking it and passing out. But my best memory of the festival was one day at dawn. It’s A Beautiful Day was playing “White Bird” and there were these sky divers with smoke jets of different colors slowly gliding to the ground. I was tripping, but I know it happened! Years later I met Billie Gregory who was playing that night with It’s A Beautiful Day in New Orleans and he verified it. Against the pink swirling sky of dawn, it was beautiful. Also, the memory of the guy who posted before me had of us not being able to enter the site is true. Apparently, the locals had the promoters tear down the stage and it was moved to another location. We were all just stuck, not knowing where to go. I didn’t quite have the reaction he did to all of it. I was young and pretty much took it in stride. And I was a hippie chick who was used to not eating a lot and didn’t own a pair of shoes, either, so my standards were lower. The only local person I saw was an old black man sitting on a rocking chair on his front porch. He was kind to all of us and generally amused by something like this happening in his small town.

  6. Carol S. Says:

    oh, and one more thing…. I remember that when we swam, sightseeing locals in motorboats kept coming in dangerously close to gawk at the naked hippies. Don’t know if anyone got hurt from them, but it was horrible to see all these bubbas in their Bud Light caps leering at us.

  7. 30daysout Says:

    Yeah Carol, I remember it that way too … there was some kind of a fence when I got there but it seemed to deter no one. Pretty much everyone I talked to said they slipped in without paying. And sorry to say, most of the guys did their fair share of checking out the naked chicks – some were more cool than others, and of course the rednecks in their bass boats didn’t even try to hide it. I remember there was this beautiful auburn haired girl, naked by the water in the early morning … she looked like an angel. Maybe it was you!

  8. Carol S. Says:

    LOL, not me! But I did run into some friends from Cincinnati who were twin sisters who match that description….very ethereal looking, pale, beautiful. I had long, long hair but dark blonde. The hippie guys didn’t leer as far as I could tell…just those guys in the bass boats. And you are right. They didn’t try to hide it. It was their lucky day. They are probably still telling their great grandsons about it! 🙂

  9. Carol S. Says:

    This is how I looked in 1971. No auburn hair. Nothing ethereal. Just me.

  10. Sheila bonnette Says:

    I’m interested in purchasing a poster if anyone has one for sale.

  11. Dennis "Bear" Abshier Says:

    Worked backstage. It was crazy, loads of artists, drugs, but that was what was going on then. Ended up being a tough time, metthe International Butter Queen as well as many performers.

  12. Carol S. Says:

    Dennis, by any chance are you from Cincinnati? I knew a Denny called Bear and had a bar that was named The Bear’s Den. Is that you by any chance?

  13. I was 17. I had just gotten home from a 3 month, cross-country, hitch hiking trip when I heard about the festival. I bought 2 tickets, found a friend to hitch down there with me from Chicago and headed out.
    While I won’t deny that any of the reports above are false, my memories of it were very different. I must have been wearing rose-colored glasses.
    Somewhere just outside of Detroit, we got picked up by a (honest to God) pink VW van with flowers on it. There were four occupants; two girls and two guys. One guy was obese, but very good-natured; the other must have weighed about 120 lbs soaking wet. I realized why when he started shooting up meth in the back of the van. It feaked me out, but was kind of cool, since I’d never seen anyone mainline before. One of the girls was skinny and homely, but the other was 16 with long dark hair and pretty cute. I figured they were couples…Nope!
    So the brunette and I hooked up for the rest of the event. The first time we “balled” (sorry, I couldn’t resist) was under the stars alongside a field of hops, both tripping. This was while we were in the caravan of vehicles, miles long, camped along the road waiting for the concert to open. Every few hundred yards, someone would have big speakers on top of their van and we strolled up and down the line meeting people, scoring drugs and just have a good time. There lakes everywhere and many of us took advantage of a chance to cool off.
    Once inside, I remember being pretty close to the stage. Stephen Stills came a little late, so a helicopter lowered him onto the stage to join his band. When Chuck Berry sang “My Ding-a-Ling”, my date held on to mine the whole time. I tripping pretty good by the time the Chambers Brothers played, “Time”. I never knew how trippy that song was. But the It’s a Beautiful Day concert at dawn was one of the highlights of the festival for me.
    Another fond memory was at the river. I don’t remember any alligators or water moccasins, but I do remember the “wars” between the water people and the mud people. The water people tried to rinse the mud off of the mud people, while the mud people tried to cover the water people with mud. The mud people had an initiation ritual where they would slide the inductee, naked, through the mud while a line of people slathered their body from head to toe with mud. It looked very erotic, but I was a water person.
    Food was scarce, but the drugs made it tolerable and curbed your appetite. Our VW friends took us back as far as Detroit and we hitch the rest of the way home. I never saw my hippy chick friend again.
    Does anyone know where I can get a list of the bands that DID play?

  14. 30daysout Says:

    Thanks Bob … that’s a great story. I didn’t see any alligators either … I think those “water people” may have been pulling my leg.

  15. 30daysout Says:

    I’m really sorry we left early and missed Stephen Stills, too. But I’ve seen him many times since then (with and without C, N & Y) so I caught up. And karma has caught up with me in my old age because now I even like It’s A Beautiful Day. A little.

  16. Debbie Ball Says:

    I was there and I just now turned 58. Pretty unreal how time flies…You can go online to order the poster…i was a mud lady…LOL I remember the Hell’s Angel’s being security…then getting kicked out by state patrol…and waiting in miles of lines of cars to get in…It was something i’ll never forget..but will never do again. Stephen Stills was great…took some risks with doing those drugs and all..but times were different then..I remember mooning the bass boats….I sure had fun in New Orleans for a month after the fest….I live near the area where Bonaroo happens each year..times are different now..a hippie is not a real hippie anymore..I know..my son is 29 and we’ve experienced bad so called..hippies. Guess im a baby boomer now…so God Bless us all…peace *
    Deb from Tennessee!

  17. I was there. I was 17 and drove there with my young husband and another couple. I remember a lot of milk jugs of Koolaid laced with LSD. I remembe being naked most of the time and swimming in the river. We drove in on top of a levee and I think ended up just stopping and sleeping in the pickup on top of the levee. It was a good time in my life that I would not trade for anything and just glad I survived to talk about it.

  18. I was there too!. I had just graduated high school. I was 18 and free to travel around the country. I had just bought a used 1960 VW camper van with the sliding roof. Many nights I’d drive around Bay City, Michigan with my hippie friends stoned with our heads out the roof enjoying the summer stars. I had bought a ticket through the mail and was ready to go. I also took 3 friends who had no ticket but didn’t care. They figured it would be free admission at some point. Somewhere in Ohio at night cars would pass me blinking their lights at me. We realized we had no brake lights so we stopped and just drove in the day. We stopped in Nashville to drive around and check it out. (Later I would move there in 1990 for 22 years.) Nashville is very hilly and my clutch didn’t last. We had to abandon the VW van just outside Nashville on I-40 by Kingston Springs, TN. We decided to hitchhike the rest of the way. When we arrived at the festival site, they wouldn’t let us in for about 5 days so we just hung out and partied with everyone else, getting high and listening to music. We didn’t ever think it would not take place! We just stayed until we finally were allowed in. I walked in with my friends and I just sat in the field in front of the stage waiting for the music to start. Bad Idea! It was noon and very hot and I got sunstroke just sitting in that hot Louisiana sun. So I had to spend the next few days lying under the shady water trucks out of the sun drinking water from an empty wine bottle. It was OK, people would see me and come over and talk and smoke joints. Really there wasn’t much to do until night time when the music started. As far as the music goes, these are the groups I remember. First day had some Indian guru tell us how great we were for sticking it out and not doubting it would happen. Then John Sebastian played, War, Brownsville Station, People were so tired they would be lying there sleeping, then wake up for the music and then go back to sleep in the time in between groups. I remember being woken up at 3 AM cuz it was time to party with CHUCK BERRY! He was awesome! At this time he had a #1 hit “My Ding-A-Ling” In the day they had a circus act doing their thing near the stage and I remeber the name of the lady high wire act was Molly Cova. They also played records on the PA like Sticky Fingers and Sgt Pepper. The 2nd evening was Ted Nugent who was from Michigan too. Now there were several food vendors there selling sandwiches and snacks and drinks. I had brought enough money to pay for food but had to pay for my friends too who had no money. Until the people with no money for food just over ran the food stands and stole it all so the vendors left. Ted Nugent mentioned from the stage that that was very revolutionary to do, and power to the people! Sounds great but now we were hungry and no food to eat. So some people sent out the word and some free food was brought in. I remember someone mentioning brown rice and I thought Oh yeah its time to eat vegetarian now so that was the first time I had brown rice! Also playing was Melanie. No one had heard of her before but she was the best! She sang Brand New Key & Candles In The Rain, a very beautiful performance. Also a new group to make it big later was Black Oak Arkansas. Also Bloodrock played. The next day I decided to leave and hitchhiked back to Tennessee to look for my VW van that I had left on the side of I-40. It was gone! Someone must have towed it away. I walked to the nearest exit and called the State Police but they said they hadn’t towed it. I was sitting there by the side of the road wondering what to do when the local Sherriff drove up and askedme, “Are you a hippie boy? You had better get walking back on that Interstate and out of my town!” Wow, now what do I do? I thought he might arrest me if I started hitchhiking again so I was starting to get very worried as I slowly walked toward the onramp as the Sherriff in his patrol car was creeping along just inches behind me. All of a sudden a semi came along and stopped, asking me, Is that Sherriff hassling you? Get in! They were going to Indianapolis but they took a wrong turn and drove me all the way into Michigan. I never found my VW van and when I moved to Nashville years later I thought I might see it up in the hills somewhere but never did. By the way, years later when I met the girl I would marry, she had been to the Celebration of Life festival too. We grew up just several blocks away from each other never meeting and never hooked up at the festival either but we are still married after 35 years and love to reminisce about it.

  19. Deborah Royer Says:

    Awesome story..thanks for sharing!

  20. I (the proverbial 60s White Punk on Dope) hitchhiked from NJ for the festival along with a girl named Barbara who was way more hardcore than I was. She lifted a jug of thousands of uppers from her doctors office to help finance the trip. We were wetting our undies when police started trailing us in Darlington, SC (a side trip we made because I had family there). Fortunately someone picked us up before the cop decided to stop us.

    The festival itself was a mixed bag, not as awful as a lot of reporting, but certainly no Woodstock (which I attended also).

    One memory that stands out (other than the miserable heat and humidity) is an “Aqualung” cover lookalike (at least thats the image I have of him 41 years later!) with a wineskin that he would fill from anyones bottle and share with anyone who had a taste for such a blend!

    We caught a ride for virtually the whole way back in exchange for a share of the uppers, few or none of which were sold at the festival. I wound up doing almost all of the driving, almost losing it on the side of the rode a few times.

    Ahhhh, memories!

  21. We are currently producing a short documentary on the Celebration of Life to be released in mid-2013. If anyone has anything to contribute (photos, videos, stories), please contact us or visit our website: mccrea1971.com

  22. Darrell Adams Says:

    I was there….our band was supposed to play, and we did get an afternoon on a ‘side’ stage….I think 10 people heard us. Our drummer called it the Celebration of Dog Shit. We saw a turd in the river, too.

  23. That is too funny!
    Sounds like my band’s luck…LOL

  24. John Armstrong Says:

    I was there, don’t remember much. I was 23 at the time. I remember stopping somewhere in Mississippi and buying a nickle plated, ivory handle .38 for $2.00. Did not need it but could not pass it up.

    We snuck in across some little swamp. Totally unprepared, carrying nothing but the clothes we had on. I think someone told me about it and I just grabbed a friend and jumped in my car and left. The first night I was in the field out from the stage and just dropped and went to sleep where I was. I woke up just before dawn with a car running over my foot. Fortunately the ground was soft from rain and I was not hurt.

    I remember one night being right in the middle , maybe 20-30 ft from the stage and apparently 50-100 people were doing the same acid that I was because none of us could move, much less stand. So even though I was sitting the view was not blocked. It was great. I think I even slept in that same spot after the music stopped. And I still wonder how I went all that time and never took a piss.

    At that same time at dusk the sky turned black and the tarp behind the stage started blowing and I thought it was Earth, Wind and Fire started playing. And here I was tripping my brains out! Guess that is why that is one of the few things that I remember.

    During the day it seemed like they played the Stones Sticky Finger album constantly.

    One morning a maharichi(?) type guy was on stage trying to lead a meditation type thing and down below a biker looking guy was screaming and cussing at him.

    All in all, even though there is negative feedback about the event, I thought it was an awesome adventure.

  25. Stephen Patterson Says:

    Lived it, loved it…thanks for the memories. Murray, Dale and our bosses 16 year old daughter. He never knew. Hot but we prepared with a tent, station wagon and food. But the water was running low and no ice to keep the food. Local law enforcement was terrible and rode their horses over people’s camp sights and destroying them. Met hundreds of people and shared life. Swimming at the river was a must if you were to survive. So crowded it was sometimes hard to find our camp site…especially after dark and other impediments.

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