By Junior Johnson
Growing up in the 60s and 70s was a remarkable experience for those of us who can still remember it. The 5th Dimension were singing Age of Aquarius and Scott McKenzie was telling us to wear flowers in our hair as we made our way to San Francisco.
A historical musical event took place in August 1969, billed as “An Aquarian Exposition – 3 Days of Peace & Music.” For young people like myself, it was simply called Woodstock.
I was a student at Northwestern State College at the time and heard all the stories about how awesome the music festival was.
I had some regrets about being unable to attend Woodstock, but a couple of years later I was fortunate to be part of another historic concert in my home State of Louisiana.
In June 1971, promoters put together a program similar to Woodstock. It was to be called The Celebration of Life and had over 70 big name acts such as The Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Ted Nugent, Fats Domino, Sly and the Family Stone, just to name a few. The concert was to last 8 days.
This event was to be held near the little town of McCrea, in Pointe Coupe Parish, across a levee, in a large field bordering the bank of the Atchafalaya River.
The concert was doomed almost before it began. There was a number of legal issues that were trying to be resolved as people began arriving a couple of days before it was set to begin.
Heavy rains passed through the area just days before the crowd began arriving and soon the entire area was nothing more than a huge field of mud. The heat and humidity of Louisiana summer weather began to settle in as the crowd grew larger. In a matter of hours the number of people had doubled the size of the entire Parish. Estimates range from 60,000 – 100,000 by the third and last day of the historic event.
By the end of the first day there was no food or water at any of the few stores in the area. The promoters decided because of the heat, the musical groups would perform at night when it was a bit cooler; however, the air was infested with mosquitos.
Most of the acts scheduled had already pulled out when the show began, but those who did show up included Chuck Berry, Stephen Stills, War (without Eric Burton), John Sebastian, Ted Nugent, and Black Oak Arkansas.
During the day the crowd rummaged for food, water, and drugs. Many went swimming in the treacherous Atchafalaya River to get relief from the heat. Two deaths were reported from drowning and one from a drug overdose.
At that time I had a summer job working as a route supervisor for Walker Farms Dairy in Alexandria. When management heard of the hardships that this large group of young people were experiencing, they decided to send an eighteen wheeler filled with plastic bottles of fruit punch as a humanitarian effort
to provide relief.
I went with two other supervisors in a van following the big truck loaded with supplies. We were directed to an area that was easily accessible to the crowd. Black Oak Arkansas took the stage and made the announcement that we had free drinks, and played throughout the time we were passing the refreshments out.
Standing in the back of the trailer as we passed out the bottles of juice I was in awe at the mass of humanity. Most were covered with mud, many wore no clothes at all, and all were covered with mosquito bites.
I was amazed at the orderliness of these desperate kids and how they acted. It did not take long to empty that huge trailer, but it did seem to provide relief as the kids began retreating and we drove from the place. We were told that the next day that everyone began to leave.
A couple of young students from Southeastern Louisiana University, Nicholas Brilleaux and Scott Caro put together a documentary called McCrea 1971: The Story of Louisiana’s Forgotten Rock Festival www.mccrea1971.com
Woodstock has been remembered for its Peace, Love, and Music, while the Celebration of Life is remembered for Mud, Mosquitoes, and Death.
I am happy that I was able to be a part of that bit of Louisiana history.