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Sky River Rock Festival

Grateful Dead at the first Sky River Rock Festival in Sultan, Washington on September 2, 1968.

Woodstock might be the most celebrated of historic rock music festivals, but it wasn’t the first: it was preceded by the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, organized in Seattle and staged near the farmland town of Sultan, Washington. The multi-day, multi-act outdoor festival commenced on the date in focus here.

The Sky River Rock Festival was conceived sometime circa May 1968 by several cognoscenti of Seattle’s counterculture, most of whom were on the staff of Helix, at the time Seattle’s reigning counter cultural newspaper. The festival’s main inspiration was the historic Duvall Piano Drop, held the previous month in nearby Duvall, Washington. At that event, a helicopter dropped an upright piano onto a rural pasture to demonstrate for a large audience what the resulting cacophony would sound like.

In true Pacific Northwest style, it rained every single day of the event, though not always a downpour, instead just some drizzle as Washingtonians call it.

While the piano merely made an anticlimactic thud, the event also crucially included a musical act as part of the day’s entertainment: namely, Country Joe and the Fish. The event was enough of an overall success to cause Paul Dorpat, publisher and co-editor of Helix, to speculate aloud, “If 3,000 people come to hear one band, how many would come to hear a dozen, or two dozen, or . . . ?”

Thus, the Pacific Northwest’s first outdoor rock festival was conceived. The planning began informally during private social gatherings in Seattle’s University District (then the home of the Helix headquarters) and culminated when several people gathered at a house in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood to brainstorm the proposed event and decide upon a name. According to Helix co-editor and illustrator Walt Crowley (1947-2007), that group included Dorpat, Crowley, Scott White, Gary Finholt, John Bixler, John Cunnick, Tim Harvey, and possibly the future famous novelist Tom Robbins… read more >

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