Rock ‘n’ roll’s roster of famous and formative festivals is well-established. Woodstock defined the hippie generation. Altamont’s deadly violence signaled an end of innocence. Watkins Glen drew massive crowds to a New York speedway.
But for 160,000 heartland baby boomers, memories of that bygone era start and end with the Ozark Music Festival.
For three tumultuous days beginning July 18, 1974, the Missouri State Fairgrounds hosted one of the biggest yet least-known rock spectacles of its time.
Promoters assured the state Department of Agriculture that no more than 50,000 spectators would attend its bluegrass and “soft rock” festival. Turned-on music fans knew better.
Lured by a full-page ad in Rolling Stone magazine, entreaties by disc jockey Wolfman Jack and promises of “no hassles guaranteed,” a crowd more than three times that size overwhelmed Sedalia and its 20,000 residents.
Temperatures soared to 100 degrees as Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, the Eagles, REO Speedwagon, Lynyrd Skynyrd (listed on concert posters as Leonard Skynard) and other bands led the way. Concertgoers complied with the sex and drugs part of the equation so willingly that the event triggered a state police investigation and a weeklong emergency hearing by outraged Missouri lawmakers.
The festival’s 35th anniversary is being commemorated at a new exhibit at Sedalia’s Katy Depot.
“It was just a big party,” said Rod Sievers, an assistant to the chancellor at Southern Illinois University who was attending the Carbondale college at the time. “Everybody was there to have a good time.”
Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll
State legislators who formed the Senate Select Committee on the Rock Festival within days of the event’s conclusion took a far dimmer view of the drug-addled hordes who invaded their fair state for an “acid rock” festival.
“The scene on the grounds at Sedalia made the degradation of Sodom and Gommorrah appear to be rather mild,” the panel’s investigation concluded. “Natural and unnatural sex acts became a ‘spectator sport.’ Sex orgies were openly advertised... The fairgrounds’ underpass was transformed into an Oriental Bazaar where all forms of hard drugs were sold. Motorcycle gangs perpetrated acts of extortion, rape and physical violence.”
One concertgoer was severely injured when he refused to pay $3 demanded by a Detroit motorcycle gang member to pass through a hole in the fence and avoid buying a $15 ticket. The gang member swung his prosthetic arm and hook, opening a gash in the man’s face that required more than 300 stitches and surgery to repair his nasal bone, recalled fan Steve Fritz, who witnessed the assault.
Worried about retaliation, “I stayed awake for three days in my apartment near the phone with a loaded shotgun in hand” he wrote in an online posting.
Former Pettis County Sheriff Emmett Fairfax said that local officials were woefully unprepared for what awaited.
Traffic on U.S. 65, the town’s primary road, ground to a standstill for 17 miles. A nearby Pittsburgh Corning factory had to temporarily shut down because its employees couldn’t get to work.
Festival attendees set up camp and hosed down in unsuspecting residents’ front yards. And farmer Harry Lamm reported 30 stolen pigs, two steers shot and butchered and 40 acres of corn destroyed and consumed by ravenous concertgoers.
‘It just got out of hand’
The post-concert tally: one death, an estimated 1,000 drug overdoses and $100,000 worth of property damage. The Sedalia Democrat newspaper described “a mountain of human waste and dirty syringes” in the aftermath.
“There was no way to control this thing,” Fairfax said. “Sedalia wasn’t prepared. We didn’t know what was coming until it happened. It just got out of hand.”
By early September, Sedalia’s city council approved a resolution banning future rock festivals in town. But even the state investigators who attended the festival acknowledged that most of those in attendance were peaceful, fun-loving kids.
State Senate researcher John Hall said he observed “no acts of violence, no vandalism and very little loud behavior.” And the widespread nudity was driven as much by a need for relief from the oppressive heat as any acts of defiance or social commentary, he told the special committee.
“No one made a production of their nudity, and the heat apparently limited those in the nude to strolling rather than streaking,” he testified.
Thirty-five years later, memories of the good vibes far outweigh the sordid details of rock 'n’ roll excess for those who have visited the commemorative exhibit or discovered Sievers’ Web tribute page.
The town’s ban on long-haired “acid rock” acts has also been relaxed. Both Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Charlie Daniels Band performed at the Missouri State Fair in recent years.