Festival Friday: The Big Sur Folk Festivals (1964-1971)

Running on the opposite coast from Newport from 1964-1971, The Big Sur Folk Festival was a different beast entirely.

 

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BIG SUR, CA – SEPTEMBER 8-9: Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Nancy Carlen, John Sebastian, Stephen Stills and Joan Baez perform on stage during the 1968 Big Sur Folk Festival at the Eselan Institute on September 8-9, 1968 in Big Sur, California. (Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Starting off as a series of workshops and impromptu sets by Joan Baez, Mimi & Richard Fariña and some of their contemporaries, The Big Sur Folk Festival was intentionally kept a small, intimate event with minimal-to-no advertising or invite-only audiences. The idea was to have a festival for the performers, held usually around September, as a relaxing break for the artists after their long summer tours. So the site for the fest was typically a gorgeous retreat that overlooked the sea, complete with baths and saunas for the folk artists to relax in after performing.

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Joan Baez at the 1969 Festival

The audiences only ever grew to 5,000 but the organizers preferred to keep it closer to 3,000 (for the ’70 and ’71 fests, the site was moved to the Monterey Fairgrounds, where the audience was allowed to grow to 6-7,000). For the entire run of the annual event, the founder, Nancy Carlen, kept true to her idea of avoiding commercial success and only charged $5.50 at most and paid the performers union wages, which were around $50. That’s something to be deeply admired, if you ask me.

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Throughout the festival’s eight incarnations, it featured the likes of The Incredible String Band, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell, The Beach Boys, to name just a few.

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The Beach Boys at the 1970 Festival

Perhaps the most famous of these festivals was the 1969 iteration, mostly due to it being captured in the documentary film, Celebration at Big Sur. Held mere weeks after Woodstock, the event and film feels like an epilogue to the much larger festival: Joan Baez sings a new song about her still-incarcerated husband, David Harris, whom she spoke about and sang “Joe Hill” for in Bethel, Joni Mitchell was actually able to appear and debuted her soon-to-be-famous song about the concert and the still tie-dyed John Sebastian plays “Rainbows All Over Your Blues” again while Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young appear far more confident and perhaps a bit cocky in comparison to their “scared shitless” near-debut barely 30 days prior.

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The Cros at the 1969 Festival

Unfortunately, one of the most well known moment of the 1969 festival, was when hecklers called out the fur and expensive jacket-clad CSNY for being sell outs, resulting in Stephen Stills leaving the stage to confront one of these obviously out-of-it instigators, which led to a fight breaking out.

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A more peaceful Stephen Stills joining John Sebastian on stage

“Peace and love, peace and love…kick his ass,” joked David Crosby from the stage while Graham Nash half-jokingly called out “Stephen, if you push him in [to the pool] I’ll never forgive you!”

You can see this fight here: https://youtu.be/CboU0iUefv4?t=239

Watching it happen in the film, it starts off kind of funny (seeing Stills stalk anyone is kind of a hilariously strange sight) and the fight is really just the heckler pushing Stills around a little followed by Stills trying to awkwardly pull the guy to the ground before some people step in to separate the two. However, it does leave you with an odd feeling, knowing that even some of the figureheads of the hippie movement can be goaded into a petty shove-match, if annoyed enough. After playing through a few songs and introducing Neil Young, an embarrassed and almost tearful-sounding Stills returns to the stage to address the situation and plays a solo, apologetic version of “4+20.” The tone seems to be restored after this.

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The rest of the festival featured some strong performances by Dorothy Combs Morrison and The Edwin Hawkins Singers, a gospel group, Dave Mason of Traffic (backed by CSNY) and of course Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell.

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Joni Mitchell at the 1969 Festival

To book names that were as big as CSNY, The Beach Boys and The Chambers Brothers, but successfully dedicating to the idea of keeping the audience as small as possible, no matter the cost, Nancy Carlen and her Big Sur Folk Festivals really stand out in folk and rock music history for being truly one of a kind.

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Mimi Farina at the 1969 Festival

Who Played:

The First Big Sur Folk Festival
Sunday, June 21, 1964

  • Joan Baez
  • Roger Abraham
  • Nancy Carlen
  • Malvina Reynolds
  • Mark Spoelstra
  • Janet Smith
  • Mimi & Richard Fariña

Second Big Sur Folk Festival
September 13–14, 1965

  • Joan Baez
  • The Incredible String Band
  • John Sebastian
  • Delanie and Bonnie
  • Dorothy Morrison and the Comb Sisters

Third Big Sur Folk Festival
Sunday, July 10, 1966

  • Joan Baez
  • Judy Collins
  • Mark Spoelstra
  • Malvina Reynolds
  • Nancy Carlen
  • Al Kooper
  • Mimi Fariña

Fourth Big Sur Folk Festival
June 28–29, 1967

  • Joan Baez
  • Judy Collins
  • Mark Spoelstra
  • Jade the Mad Muse (?)
  • Chambers Brothers
  • Mimi Fariña
  • Al Kooper

Fifth Big Sur Folk Festival
September 8–9, 1968

  • Joan Baez
  • Judy Collins
  • Mimi Fariña
  • Arlo Guthrie
  • Charles River Valley Boys

Sixth Big Sur Folk Festival
September 14–15, 1969

  • Joan Baez
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
  • John Sebastian
  • Johanna Demetrakas
  • Dorothy Morrison & the Edwin Hawkins Singers
  • Mimi Fariña
  • Julie Payne
  • Ruthann Friedman
  • Carol Ann Cisneros
  • The Comb Sisters
  • Chris Ethridge
  • Flying Burrito Brothers
  • Struggle Mountain Resistance Band

Seventh Big Sur Folk Festival
Saturday, October 3, 1970
Held at Monterey County Fairgrounds

1:00pm Concert:

  • Beach Boys
  • John Phillips
  • Joan Baez
  • Merry Clayton and Love Ltd.
  • Kris Kristofferson
  • John Hartford

8:00pm Concert:

  • Beach Boys
  • John Phillips
  • Linda Ronstadt, with Swamp Water
  • Mimi Fariña & Tom Jans
  • Mark Spoelstra
  • Country Joe McDonald
  • Tom Ghent
  • Joan Baez
  • Taj Mahal

Finale: All sing You Ain’t Going Nowhere

Eighth (and final) Big Sur Folk Festival
Saturday, September 25, 1971

  • Joan Baez
  • Kris Kristofferson
  • Mimi Fariña and Tom Jans
  • Mickey Newbury
  • Big Sur Choir
  • Lily Tomlin & Larry Manson
  • Taj Mahal
  • Blood, Sweat and Tears
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Taj Mahal at the 1971 Festival

Video:

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As I previously mentioned, there was a documentary film made of the 1969 festival, entitled Celebration at Big Sur. It features many highlights of the event, including Joni Mitchell playing with CSNY, Stephen Stills playing with John Sebastian, a moment when a whale sighting interrupts CSNY’s performance, the Stills-altercation, etc. For a while, this film was out of print and hard to find (yet would still get the occasional play on HBO, late at night) and even now, it’s only available on Region 1 DVD. Luckily, it’s all on YouTube. It’s a very entertaining viewing, especially shortly after you watch the Woodstock documentary. The camera work and editing is especially (and unexpectedly) creative and very much of its time (even utilizing some of the split screen views that were pioneered in Woodstock).

It’s currently uploaded in segments, so here’s part one:

Weirdly, I can’t find footage from any of the seven other festivals. My guess is that in the intimate and relaxed spirit of the festival, the organizers didn’t want film crews onsite all that much.

The only other bit of film that I can find is this silent homemovie footage of the 1968 festival:

Audio:

There are a few places to find some official audio from the various festivals (believe it or not). The first being Celebration Recorded Live Big Sur Folk Festival Monterey, California 1970 (phew). This features Joan Baez, Linda Rondstadt, Merry Clayton, The Beach Boys, Country Joe McDonald and Kris Kristofferson.

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Some of the best moments from this record would have to be Merry Clayton’s touchingly soulful rendition of “The Times They Are A Changin…’”

And a surprisingly raw vocal performance by Linda Rondstadt:

Then a selection of the 1971 festival was released as Big Sur Festival – One Hand Clapping. This record featured Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal, Mickey Newbury and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

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Highlights from this album include Baez and Kristofferson singing John Prine’s “Hello In There” together:

…and Taj Mahal’s masterful adaptation of “Corinna”

Kris Kristofferson’s 1970 complete performance was very recently officially released. Perhaps the most important part of this performance is hearing Kristofferson playing an emotional “Me & Bobby McGee” the same weekend that he was informed on the death of his former friend and lover, Janis Joplin.

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Of course, there are many bootlegs out there from the various festivals. Perhaps the most interesting and popular ones include the complete set by The Beach Boys from the 1970 fest…

…and the complete CSNY performance. Luckily this is on YouTube in two parts:

Part one includes the Stills-altercation, one of the best versions of Neil Young’s “Birds” (with great harmonies with Nash) the whale interruption as well as the portion with Dave Mason.

Part two features some killer electric material, including an early version of “Bluebird Revisited” which is announced as being a track from CSNY’s upcoming album, even though it only saw the light of day on Stills’ second solo album. Actually, a highlight for me is hearing the little children, that seem to be hanging near by the microphone all through the performance, applauding with excitement in response to the announcement of “Down by The River.”

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