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Less crowds, more peace at sixth annual installment of folk festival

Big Sur Folk FestivalBig Sur Folk Festival

Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian, Steve Stills and Joan Baez performing at the Big Sur Folk Festival, California, 1969, from the documentary "Celebration at Big Sur" directed by Johanna Demetrakas.

20th Century Fox/Getty

Big Sur, Calif.—Some of the finest folk singers and musicians in the world positioned themselves on the edge of some of America’s most glorious scenery for a farewell to summer and a celebration of nonviolence in mid-September. It was the sixth annual Big Sur Folk Festival, one of the season’s smallest (in attendance) and loveliest (in mood).

In contrast to many other festivals held this past summer, perhaps only 10,000 or 15,000 attended the two-day event and unlike what happened at last year’s Big Sur gathering, there was no police rousting of festival celebrants as they camped along the shoulder of California’s magnificent State Highway 1.

Most people know that Big Sur, besides the Esalen Institute and the beautiful weather and ocean, offers a couple of shops that just don’t cater to long-hairs. “If you’re unkempt, unclean, and shoeless, your business is not wanted here.” Or, more directly, “No Hippies Allowed.” But the festival has always been kept a compact event, usually held in mid-week days, and it was compatible then, with even the most inhospitable of residents.

The festival, held on the tree-shaded lawns of Esalen, also differed from other recent celebrations in that here the “scene” did not eclipse the music, but merely served as a complement. According to its producers, Nancy Carlen and Paula Kates, Big Sur was designed as a “performers’ festival,” an opportunity for artists to come together after a hectic summer on the festival circuit for some peace and solitude. For the performers it was that. For those out front, even more.

Joan Baez opened the Saturday program singing “I Shall Be Released,” a song which along with “Get Together” and “Oh Happy Day” seemed to represent the mood and style of the fete. Proceeds (tickets cost $4 a day) went to her Institute for the Study of Nonviolence and the hope and joy of these melodies were what the festival, and the Baez-sponsored institute, traditionally have offered.

The Incredible String Band followed, appearing in a vast assembly of instruments, singing their tales of troubadors, one of them about a pig, dedicated to “the Hog Farm people who’ve done a lot for us and for the country.”

A half hour later Sal Valentino, late of the Beau Brummels, accompanied himself in a too-brief set of three songs, then quickly he was supplanted by Carol Caseros, a 17-year-old from Texas, who as quickly brought the audience to its feet following her own three-tune set.

Dorothy Morrison’s portion was interrupted by a boy’s leaping into the Esalen pool – situated in front of the performers, who sang, their backs to the sea – but no one seemed to care very much. Then Joni Mitchell sat at the piano and offered a song she said she had written about Woodstock: “We are stardust/We are golden/We have got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

And so it went – with John Sebastian, Mimi Farina (who was married to Milan Melvin here last year) and Julie Payne next, then Joan Baez again, singing, among others, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “As Tears Go By,” being joined by Dorothy Morrison in a long, joyous sing-along version of “Oh Happy Day.”

Somehow the closing act topped even that, as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played and sang every song in its repertoire. “This is the last one we know,” Crosby said at 7 PM, and half an hour later, for miles north and south along the coast, the swell of voices still soared.

Along the highway, it looked like the Volkswagen company had recalled all its campers, perhaps to have the banners, bumper stickers (“Yea God,” “There’s a Dick in the White House”) and paintings adjusted. Local sheriff’s deputies and highway patrolmen ticketed some, but so few, really, it seemed as if the only way to earn a citation was to park with the wheels touching the white line down the middle of the two-lane highway.

Saturday night the sleeping bags and tents stretched three miles each way, under the pine and eucalyptus tres. Strangers stopped being strangers, gathering around Coleman stoves to smoke and listen to guitars and dulcimers.

Sunday’s program was similar to Saturday’s, beginning with Dorothy Morrison and next a 20-voice Big Sur Folk Choir. The sky was overcast and the choir leader said, “We’ll begin with a moment of silence. For those of you with God in your vocabulary, think about Him for a moment. For the others, if you’ll think about love, well, maybe we can make the sun come out and we’ll all have a great time.” By the time they’d sung their final song, the sun had broken through.

Sebastian returned, sang “Goin’ Fishin’,” “She’s a Lady,” “You’re a Big Boy Now,” “Daydream,” then dedicated another of his songs to the memory of Woodstock and the mood of Big Sur: “I had a dream last night/Oh what a dream it was/I dreamed we all were all right/Happy in the land of Oz.”

When Mimi Farina and Julie Payne appeared, the festival had become a folk “jam.” Backing them were Stephen Stills and Dallas Taylor, both of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Chris Ethridge, formerly of the Flying Burrito Brothers. This same “backup band” next supported folksinger James Hendricks and later, when Joni Mitchell returned, Sebastian joined the band.

Out front, the thousands sprawled on blankets drinking beer and wine, drawing on joints passed from hand to hand, or carefully and slowly picked their way, stepping over bodies and belongings, to visit the refreshment stands to buy hot rice, yogurt, fresh melon, and broth. While thousands provided colorful subject matter for the hundreds of amateur photographers.

Carol Caseros provided her second short set of the weekend, Dorothy Morrison and the Comb Sisters sang “Get Together” again (along with “If I Had a Hammer” and a lively but almost interminable “All God’s Children Got Soul,” among others), and one of the truly fine but sadly unrecognized singer-songwriters, Ruthann Friedman, spun three superb musical poems that nearly topped everything that had come before.

Sal Valentino came out and then Joan Baez, who talked about how her husband David was doing in jail. “It’s a kind of general rehabilitation place, but he hasn’t been rehabilitated one iota.” Cheers. She also sang “I Shall Be Released” again, this time changing the last line to “We shall be released,” then sang “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word.” The high point of her set was a song sung a cappella, displaying in mind-whistling clarity another of the region’s natural gifts — the crystal-clear echo that returned from a mountain a quarter mile away.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played the final set, as on Saturday, repeatedly bringing the thinning crowd to its feet. And for a finale – with the audience pushed forward around the pool, closer to the performers now – everyone at the festival reprised “Oh Happy Day.”

Everyone performed without charge. Some of the best batiks ever made decorated the spongy Esalen lawn. Children danced. Conga drummers gathered to pound the earth. A flower bed was destroyed, but the audience cleaned the trash from the grounds. The hundreds who hadn’t money to get in lined the highway on top of the hill, and didn’t crash the gates – even though there were no “gates.”

“I finally figured out the difference between this and a love-in,” someone said Sunday. “Four dollars.”

In This Article: Coverwall, folk music


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