The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fifty years ago a music festival redefined what was possible. No it wasn’t Woodstock.

The Wild West Festival should not be forgotten.

Rock music impresario Bill Graham is pictured in his San Francisco office in 1982. Graham was one of the forces behind the canceled Wild West Festival in 1969. (Tom Strickland/AP)

This past weekend was filled with nostalgia for Woodstock, which took place 50 years ago this month. The event is celebrated as a momentary Garden of Eden, a symbol of how capitalist greed and social ills gave way, for a few days at least, to communal fellowship and maybe even a kind of utopian politics. Woodstock still captivates some imaginations with what a popular music festival might do, but it is another rock music festival from August 1969, far less widely known, that might actually be the better one to remember for how it sparked political engagement.

The Wild West Festival was to be held in San Francisco one week after Woodstock. The excitement about the event — which included three nights of ticketed performances by Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, as well as a range of free events in Golden Gate Park, including art, theater, dance, hayrides, happenings, talks and children’s activities — made one underground newspaper call Woodstock “Wild East.”

So why have you probably never heard of the Wild West Festival? Because Wild West never happened. The festival was canceled at the last moment. The reasons for its cancellation, however, are precisely why it is as significant as Woodstock.

Wild West was not canceled because the city government of San Francisco blocked it or local citizens protested it or it ran out of money or it was poorly organized. Rather, intense debate and dissension within the Bay Area counterculture itself caused the festival’s demise. At meetings leading up to Wild West, participants ardently fought over the nature of the event, who it really benefited and on what terms it was taking place. The appearance of these conflicts might seem like evidence of failure, of too much democracy, but they in fact reveal how large, festive get-togethers catalyzed a more robust civic life during the 1960s.

The idea for the Wild West Festival started in the early spring of 1969, when financially flush Northern California rock impresarios and band managers sought to revive the original spirit of the 1967 Summer of Love. They hoped San Francisco could once again model how music and art could foster community, fellowship and more fulfilling ways of living together.

Forming a nonprofit San Francisco Music Council as a vehicle for their concept, the rock industry insiders believed the draw of admission-only rock concerts at night would provide the means for holding free events throughout the park. Artists themselves would donate their time to design activities during the day, with guidance from the Music Council. Any leftover money would seed the creation of a community arts center in San Francisco to continue the effort to build a better civic life out of artistic activity.

As the summer of 1969 dawned, all seemed to be going well. The Music Council organized community meetings, held news conferences, published a newsletter and attempted to develop a working infrastructure for Wild West’s community arts vision. Participants formed subcommittees for everything from a light show pavilion to children’s events to an “ecology” group that would create happenings in Golden Gate Park about environmental issues.

Very quickly, however, trouble began to brew over questions of community, capitalism and control of public spaces. A number of artists objected to the fact that the staff of the San Francisco Music Council was paid while they, as the artists, had to work free. At a Wild West planning meeting, R.G. Davis of the San Francisco Mime Troupe objected to the ways in which “rock music was sucking money out of the community.”

Other disputes highlighted the lack of inclusivity during the planning process. Arnold Townsend, an African American activist, called on the organizers to more effectively include the city’s communities of color in the festival. Promoter Bill Graham cantankerously defended the organizers. They were, in fact, quite willing to expand membership in the San Francisco Music Council. They also reassured protesters that the money from the ticketed concerts would go toward the common good and not simply into their own pockets.

Nonetheless, the protests continued. A “Haight Commune” formed, consisting of the Mime Troupe, Los Siete de la Razas (a Latinx activist group), the White Panther Party (modeled on Oakland’s Black Panthers), the High School Union (radical high school students), the Berkeley Liberation Communes, the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society and others. Fliers from the Haight Commune described Wild West as a “rip off” and called for a strike against Wild West. Seeking to push the counterculture toward substantive transformation rather than superficial style, they wrote, “Long hair is not enough! Is your soul shaggy too?”

Despite the rancor, it still appeared as if Wild West would occur. It even seemed to presage radical changes afoot in urban civic life when San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto (D), the antithesis of counterculture, issued an official proclamation declaring it Wild West Week leading up to the festival. “The Wild West Festival is You and Me in a cooperative association,” Alioto announced, “which recognizes that through the gift of music and art, people of all ages and backgrounds can share a beauty of communication.”

Alas, when the intense debates about Wild West started to include vague threats of violence against the organizers, they called off the event.

While the festival died, the robust dialogue continued. In People’s World, Judy Baston wondered: Could rock inspire better “exchange between culture and the community”? Or was the problem, as Sam Silver noted in Good Times, that “you can’t take the revolution and package it for the bourgeoisie masses and expect Bobby Seale and Joe Alioto to both dig it"? Numerous articles registered the ways in which Wild West became more than just a music and arts festival; it also allowed everyday people to engage with pressing questions of economic and social justice, with public life and politics. Befitting its name, Wild West admittedly made for rather wild politics, but it also generated a sense of what the deepest possibilities and challenges were for what the era’s New Left activists fondly called participatory democracy.

In a funny way, because Wild West did not happen, it was oddly among the most successful of 1960s rock festivals. Instead of contributing to the consolidation of counterculture into corporate consumer culture, as Woodstock ultimately did with its multimillion-dollar-earning soundtrack and documentary film, or dashing the dreams of the counterculture on the rocks of chaotic planning and violence, as the Altamont Speedway Free Festival did a few months later in December 1969, the Wild West Festival unleashed an unruly, if temporary, atmosphere of fervent questioning: How might communities better manage economic resources for the common good? How could they balance differences with solidarity? How might they expand opportunities for radical freedom and creative liberty while still providing some semblance of sustainable and functional structures?

These questions of democratic life still haunt us. Wild West’s fraught collision of art and politics, commerce and community, freedom and obligation, the threat of violence and the dream of peace, the emergence of a counterculture and a polyphony of noisy voices protesting what it was becoming, offers a more realistic history than any simple celebration or cynical refutation of the tie-dyed past at Woodstock and Altamont. Wild West shows instead how sometimes when the show doesn’t go on, its deeper significance does.