Taming the Wild West Festival

tv footage of tom donahue discussing the cancelled 1969 wild west festival.

Tom Donahue and other organizers of the Wild West Festival, Press Conference, 6 August 1969, photograph from Aquarius Weekly.

Alex Cherian, the amazing archivist at the San Francisco State University’s Bay Area Television Archives, unearthed this nugget of KQED TV footage from 1969: it features excerpts of Tom Donahue, DJ and San Francisco countercultural icon, discussing the cancelled Wild West Festival. The goal of Wild West was to offer a free music and arts festival in Golden Gate Park, funded by three nights of paid concerts by rock superstars in Kezar Stadium (a poster for the cancelled concerts exists even though it did not take place; instead, concerts with different lineups were held at various ballrooms around the city). The full story of the Wild West Festival appears in my book, The Republic of Rock (coming out in paperback just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love in 2017!).

Here’s the quick version of the story: various band managers and emerging rock industry leaders in San Francisco wanted to recover and even expand the energies of the city’s Summer of Love counterculture, which had first surfaced in 1966-67. Their concept was to organize a DIY infrastructure so that musicians and artists could themselves put on events for all ages and in all art forms around Golden Gate Park, with big headliners to play in Kezar Stadium (located in the park) to fund the entire affair. Any additional funds would go toward establishing an arts center for musicians and other artists to continue their work. The organizers established a planning committee, hired Berkeley Folk Music Festival director Barry Olivier to oversee various committees of artists, and even established a San Francisco Music Council to include representation from musicians, artists, activist groups, and others around the Bay Area. It seemed like the natural development of the more spontaneous Panhandle concerts and other events in and around Golden Gate Park that had been organized by the Diggers and others in the Haight Ashbury.

Wild West had so much steam by the early summer of 1969 that one underground newspaper article referred to an obscure festival to occur the week prior in upstate New York as “Wild East” (that would be the Woodstock Festival). However, troubles during the organizing of Wild West foreshadowed the dissension, disorganization, and violence that would occur at the Bay Area’s Altamont Festival later that year in December (see Joel Selvin’s new book; in fact, Selvin worked for Wild West during the summer of 1969, putting together a newsletter for the event). The objections to the festival did not only come from “establishment” entities such as the Musicians’ Union and the municipal government of San Francisco; they also came, more surprisingly, from activists within the counterculture and New Left. The SF Mime Troupe, various radicalized hippies, and local community activists objected to the festival’s lack of inclusivity and were suspicious of what would actually happen to the funds generated by the event. And they questioned why staff members for Wild West were paid but artists were expected to contribute for free. In short, Wild West generated a lot of friction. That might seem like a negative thing, and it was, but it was also a sign of something we forget: the fierce engagement with questions of politics, economics, civic life, and more that rock music catalyzed during the counterculture years.

To their credit, the organizers of Wild West made great efforts to include these dissenters, holding forums, community meetings, and expanding the membership of the San Francisco Music Council. Eventually, alas, the organizers were threatened with violence (though none occurred) and called off the event, as Donahue explains at the press conference. But not before the Wild West Festival unleashed a vibrant debate about the use of public spaces such as parks, the role of the arts in political and social activism, what participatory democracy really looked like, how festivity might relate to the creation of institutions and vice-versa, and whether there were economic relationships and transactions that might transcend the existing ones of corporate capitalism in America or whether Wild West was at the cutting edge of a new kind of “hip capitalism.”

All of which is a reminder that the counterculture was hedonistic, adventurous, even reckless, but also a space of robust, vernacular, democratic cultural and political deliberation. And also that sometimes events that do not happen have the most important historical tales to tell.

A few glimpses of the Wild West Festival:

Billboard advertisement for the aborted Wild West Festival, designed by Bob Fried.

Wild West Festival Poster 1969

Poster for “Three Festival Nights in Kezar” for 2-4 August 1969, cancelled at the last minute and moved (with different lineups) to various ballrooms around San Francisco.

“The Wild West Festival is You and Me in a cooperative association…”: Mayor Joseph Alioto’s Office of the Mayor Proclamation of Wild West Week, 18-24 August 1969.

“Stick ‘Em Up ‘Wild West’ This is a Strike!” Protest flier, distributed by the SF Mime Troupe and a collective called the Haight Commune in spring and early summer, 1969.

A Wild West Festival community meeting at the Glide Church, early summer 1969.

Download the PDF file .

Wild West Festival Cancellation Press Conference, Full Transcript, 6 August 1969 (the TV footage only features excerpts from the full press conference; fortunately, there is a full transcript).

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