Hippies in Dixie! The birth of a freaky New South at the Byron Pop Festival, 40 years ago

This article appeared in The 11th Hour.

Recollections of the Second Atlanta Pop Festival tend to begin one of two ways.

Attendees either talk first about the music, notably the Allman Brothers Band and Jimi Hendrix — homecoming kings because of their Macon ties — and others who provided the ecstatic, note-bending soundtrack of a revolutionary era when jam sessions carried real consequences.

Or their nostalgia starts with the nudity, that tableau of bare bodies, capering, skinny-dipping, and rutting unselfconsciously among the pecan trees. “This was the only time I’ve ever seen a naked, pregnant woman riding a motorcycle – looked about eight months along,” someone calling himself “Papa” marveled on one of the many chatboards that have sprung up about the event.

Either way, the party known locally as the Byron Pop Festival, which marks its 40th anniversary July 3 to 6, was cataclysmic.

A crowd ranging from 200,000 to 600,000, depending on the source, converged on the Middle Georgia Speedway for an event billed as the “Woodstock of the South,” the largest public gathering in the state’s history before the 1996 Olympics. Traffic was backed up for more than 100 miles, all the way to the Varsity in Atlanta. Tickets for the festival were priced at $14, but organizers eventually shrugged and threw open the gates after the crowds started tearing down the plywood fences. Drug bazaars and O(ver)D(ose) tents reportedly lined the pathways, with bemused Georgia State Patrolmen looking on, realizing they were simply, overwhelmingly outnumbered, albeit lovingly. The answers were not so much blowing in the wind as suspended in the soup-like humidity, so revelers took to the creeks, and a water-truck, manned by “some ol’ naked guy in a fireman’s helmet” helpfully hosed everyone down, says Michael Pierce, a festival volunteer, adding, “I don’t think he was a real fireman.”

Fittingly, in a town named for poet Lord Byron, in the “Peach Capital of the World,” the Summer of Love ripened in a 104-degree miasma of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll — Southern style.

byron pop

The Allman Brothers Band

“It was a new world,” says Pierce, an artist still reeling from the experience. “It was a new day. When you see half a million people peacefully gathered in one place, not giving a shit, that’s a whole, huge nation of people.”

And their agape-oriented priorities are easy enough to spot in the old photos that show glassy-eyed, beatific faces trailing corn-silk hair and, well, just “trailing.” These images from the sweaty navel of Georgia happily counteract others in the region’s “They Shoot Hippies, Don’t They?” slide-show of paunchy sheriffs and Klansmen; the “Easy Rider” gunman with the goiter blossoming poisonously on his neck; and the state’s bantam-rooster, segregationist governor who decried the festival as “one of the worst blights that ever struck our state.”

“You have to understand the context,” says Alex Cooley, the festival’s primary organizer who had convened the first Atlanta Pop Festival, headlined by Janis Joplin, the previous year at a Henry County speedway. “It was the height of the Vietnam War, and Lester Maddox was governor. I wanted to do something to make people where I lived understand that we could change.”

Message received, loud and clear at 200 decibels.

That transformation was heralded by the Macon-based band that opened and closed the festival, the Allman Brothers, a proudly integrated outfit that earned a standing ovation just by tuning up. In keeping with the established fertility rites of such occasions, moments before the Brothers commenced, a woman in the crowd gave birth. (The naked one riding the motorcycle? Who knows? If you were born at the Byron Pop Festival, please contact us.) During one set, rain began to fall, and the roof over the stage collapsed. Instead of stopping the show, the group’s indefatigable rhythm section plunged into a drum solo.

“The thousands of kids greeted them like heroes,” writes Scott Freeman in Midnight Riders. “It had started out as a sort of homecoming; it ended as a coming of age for the Allman Brothers Band.”

Thus was the world introduced to a newly minted category of music called “Southern Rock,” which united the yin-and-yang sounds of its long-divided birthplace.

The lineup also included Terry Reid, B.B. King, Procol Harum, The Chambers Brothers, Grand Funk Railroad, Captain Beefheart, Ravi Shankar, Ten Years After, Johnny Winter, John Sebastian, Mountain, and Spirit, among others.

“For me, the most memorable performance was Richie Havens greeting the sunrise with ‘Here Comes the Sun,’” says Atlanta resident “Big Al” White. “We all were groggy and exhausted by that point, dawn was breaking, and it was just a beautiful, peaceful moment.”

The scene that most indelibly entered the era’s iconography, though, was Jimi Hendrix doing his hair-raising take on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a declaration of independence that Francis Scott Key never would have dreamed of. It seemed to announce: God bless funky, freaky America!

According to music lore, Hendrix had “people” in Middle Georgia, relatives he visited, as well as his one-time bandleader, Little Richard. The comet-like entertainer, who would die of an overdose a couple of months later, reputedly learned his pyrotechnic guitar moves from Macon’s Johnny Jenkins, who also was prowling the Byron festival, decked out in American Indian garb — one of the many marketing ploys of promoter Phil Walden.

Not everyone hailed from the counterculture. An article dated July 5, 1970, from The Athens Banner-Herald reports: “There are plenty of ‘long-hairs and hippies’ in establishment terminology, but it appears that by far the vast majority of the persons around the festival are representative of middle class-and-up Americana. Most of the guys could easily fit into a River Road or South Lumpkin Street fraternity in Athens. … And, among those with shirts or blouses on, there’s a good sprinkling of fraternity and sorority letters.”

White remembers the gawkers with annoyance.

“The only thing that seemed a little ugly to me was the rednecks who turned out to leer,” he says. “Some people came just to nail a hippie chick or take their picture, but overall it was a lovey-dovey atmosphere of peace, fun, and music, with no violence.”

A few guys in John Deere caps hovered around a creek, placing bets on “who was a natural redhead,” recalls Don Robbins, then a naive optometry student who thought he “somehow had landed on the French Riviera, but it was…Byron? Anyway, I never sensed any animosity toward the long-hairs. The farmers were in awe of the hippies.”

Adds Pierce, “It was a strange mix of all kinds of people — hippies, rednecks and wannabes. I was just out of high school and was one of the wannabes then, with very short hair.”

Some social workers had recruited him to work in the O.D. tents.

“They stayed full,” says Pierce, who grew up in Macon. “Mostly it was a matter of comforting people by sitting with them. Sometimes we had to physically hold them down. I asked one of the volunteers, ‘Why are people flipping out like this?’ He told me to walk over to the purple tent and find out. The guy there asked for a dollar and then handed me a pill. Before I even left his tent, I was airborne.”

The pecan trees filled up with cats, he says with a laugh. “And there were guys in Army fatigues, like Castro. Firecrackers went off, and I thought: THE REVOLUTION HAS BEGUN! Then I heard Jimi Hendrix. I became ‘experienced,’ you know? That was the lift-off date for my life.”

Pierce eventually found his way to San Francisco, where he worked in a tofu kitchen.

So the Byron Pop Festival produced a new archetype: the Southern hippie. These magnolia-petaled flower children combined their flair for backwoods hell-raising, honed at honky-tonks and juke joints, with progressive ideals of social justice, all packaged — most of the time — in genteel manners. They did not have to go “back to the land” because they had never left, and, just as Gregg Allman ate soul food to lube his vocal cords, they usually rejected macrobiotics in favor of pork.

“Such decadence!” says Bobby Whitlock, a keyboardist who played with Eric Clapton and lived for awhile in Macon to record at Capricorn Records. “We drank a lot of beer and ate a lot of barbecue and greens — the barnyards were not safe from us. I once made a B.L.T. sandwich with psilocybin mushrooms big as my hand. Might as well have eaten the cow patty.”

It proved a seductive way of life.

“As the scene grew, just about every redneck grew his hair long,” says Pierce, whose smoke-colored hair grazes his collar today, “until it became hard to differentiate between them and us.”

All of those Byron-inspired, Samson-like strands combined probably would stretch around the globe.

“We may have felt like freaks, but now we knew we weren’t the only freaks,” writes Mark Kemp in Dixie Lullaby: a Story of Music, Race and the Beginnings in a New South. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but the feeling of community … was the beginning of a healing process – in me and in many Southerners of my generation – that continues to this day.”

Or, as Pierce points out, while tinkering with his didgeridoo, “There are plenty of people still experimenting with the experiment that began then.”