The Horrors of Bull Island, “the Worst Music Festival of All Time” (1972)

It’s maybe a little unfair to compare 1972’s “Bull Island” Festival to Fyre Fest, the music festival scam so egregious it warranted dueling documentaries on Hulu and Netflix. But “Bull Island” — or what was originally called the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival — was an epic catastrophe, maybe the worst in music festival history, and well deserving of its own media franchise. Still, its organizers had every intention of following through on the event. What happened wasn’t entirely their fault, but partly the result of a campaign to route thousands of hippies out of the state of Indiana.

Promoters Tom Duncan and Bob Alexander had previously staged a successful festival, the Bosse Field Freedom Fest, in Evansville, an event featuring Tina Turner, Edgar Winter, Dr. John, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker. Eager to top themselves and bring a “bigger-than-Woodstock”-sized happening to the Midwest, they booked “a blockbuster collection of artists” for their next event, writes Patrick Chamberlain at Everfest, “including Black Sabbath, The Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Ravi Shankar, The Eagles, and even Cheech and Chong.”

Before securing all the permits, they placed ads and started selling tickets. The two eager 20-something organizers both suffered from the tragic flaw of youthful overconfidence, which blinded them to the fact that there was no way their next festival was going to happen in Evansville, or anywhere in Indiana, for that matter. The error led to what may be, as Bandsplaining explains above, the worst music festival of all time. “The lack of preparedness, the lawlessness, the desperation of the crowd; it’s like the bad-acid trip version of Woodstock where [spoiler] everything burns down. [/spoiler].”

Although reports from locals mostly characterized the duo’s previous outdoor festival at Bosse Field as peaceful, Evansville Mayor Russell Lloyd vowed it would never happen again. Yet Duncan and Alexander plowed ahead with planning the Eerie Canal Soda Pop Festival, as Sean Mcdevitt writes at the Courier & Press:

Contracts were signed, helicopters were rented, and holes were being dug for some 500 portable toilets. More than 30 rock groups were booked, and tickets went on sale in several cities around the country.

Oblivious to their fate, the organizers sold almost 9,000 tickets. “Just eight days after its announcement, a restraining order was issued against the event,” followed by a string of similar ordinances in neighboring counties as other locales got wind of the projected 50,000 to 60,000 attendees expected to show up. Soon, those numbers swelled to the hundreds of thousands. Alexander and Duncan went on TV and begged authorities to let the show proceed to prevent mass civil unrest.

Forced to move the festival out of state, they settled on a place called Bull Island, “not in fact an island, but rather a collection of swampy fields,” Chamberlain notes, “under the legal jurisdiction of the town of Carmi, Illinois, but only accessible through Indiana.” When 200,000 hippies arrived on Labor Day weekend, it caused a traffic jam 30 miles long, and they were forced to abandon their cars and hike for miles on foot, resembling “a defeated army,” NBC Nightly News reporter Edwin Newman put it.

Some of the acts — including Ravi Shankar, Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, and Black Oak Arkansas — did make it, choppering in to play a set, then swiftly leaving. “Cheech and Chong were helicoptered in, performed for fifteen minutes in a deluge of rain, cut their set short,” and got out, surely sensing bad vibes everywhere, caused by strychnine-laced acid. Big acts like Rod Stewart and Black Sabbath had already canceled, leaving long stretches of silence between sets.

For most festival attendees, the open-air drug markets stood out most in their memories. “The dope district looked like double rows of fish stands at the county fair!” one remembers. “It was easier to buy drugs than it was to buy water,” recalled another attendee. The police, vastly outnumbered, left well enough alone and stayed outside the fence. Jemayel Khawaja at Ozy paints the scene:

Inside, chaos was already in full swing. The stage was half constructed, and the campgrounds — crammed with over four times as many people as expected — were lined with open drug markets. Hawkers set up stalls selling marijuana, mescaline, LSD and heroin. “I never saw so many drugs in my life,” attendee Ray Kessler recalled to local newspaper The Mount Vernon Democrat. With only six outhouses and half-dug wells to serve as sanitation, thousands instead took to relieving themselves en masse in what became known as “The Turd Fields” and bathing in the Wabash River.

What happened was surely inevitable. Price gouging caused attendees, rabid with hunger and thirst, to attack vendors. Some caught pneumonia in the torrential rains on the third day. One attendee drowned in the Wabash, another was run over by a truck but survived, many were beaten and robbed, one overdosed, one gave birth. By that evening, “the crowd had endured enough,” Chamberlain writes. “The lasting image many have of the festival is the crowd setting the stage on fire. It was a fitting ending. By this point, the populous turned to mass exodus, during which commons themes were intoxication, breakdowns, theft, long drives, and comedowns.”

Related Content: 

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Legendary Protest Songs from Woodstock: Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & More Perform Protest Songs During the Music Festival That Launched 50 Years Ago This Week

Revisit the Infamous Rolling Stones Free Festival at Altamont: The Ill-Fated Concert Took Place 50 Years Ago

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Jerry says:

    I went ,rememeber very little ,except no sleep ,cold ,wet and hungry ,great time.Some good music. 70s were crazy.

  • Dave says:

    We had fun, we survived. We were free. Few people today can say they even know what they is like, let alone judge it for being good or bad with any sort of first hand knowledge.

  • Dan Davis says:

    I think that one of the reasons that it has been called one of the “worst festivals” is because a large part of the crowd left before Monday, which is when the most bands played. Only about 6 played on Saturday, and about 9 on Sunday, but about 13 of the most famous bands played on Monday. That is probably why people say there were long periods of silence. There certainly was on Saturday and Sunday, but not on Monday. Compare that to Woodstock when Jimi Hendrix played. Of the half million people, only 200,000 stayed to hear him because it was the last day, but he is still considered the top performer of that event. I was at Bull Island and I had a good time and don’t think it deserves a “worst festival” labeling. I published a book about it last year, with photos and my and other attendees stories. If you google “the Bull Island rock festival book”, it will pull it up. Peace.

  • Bill Winters says:

    We didn’t know the location was changed until after we drove up from Tennessee, went to a record store in Evansville, bought tickets, and then tried to figure out where we were going. We drove as close as we could, then walked and walked, following the crowd. There was something of a fence where we finally went in, but by then, the fence was being torn down, and people were crashing through without paying. We set up a tent not too far from the stage, crashed, and woke up to a helluva lot more people around than the night before. The people behind us didn’t seem to like that we had a tent, and they didn’t, so from the first night, trash piled up against the back of the tent, and a lot of folks pissed on the back of it, too. I remember telling my buddies that this wasn’t peace and love anymore, but we had a great, high old time, even with the ugly announcements about the bad acid, etc. Survival of the fittest. We stole food, we stole beer, alot of beer. The guys near us didn’t seem to notice that their cases of Miller High Life were disappearing fast. My group drank well over 50% of it, and we never had a conversation with any of those guys, we just stole their beer, openly. My buddy, Mike and I went searching for food daily. A couple of girls near us gave me about $20 total before one of these foraging trips, asking me to bring them back anything they could eat. We found a truck, or van that had somehow come in with coolers full of all kind of ice cream treats. Huge crowd pushing each other, getting pretty ugly. Couldn’t push our way through the crowd. Mike was bigger than me, so he got behind me, put his head down, and literally drove me through the crowd to the front, all the time with me yelling ” Hey man, this ain’t cool, wait your turn!!!!!” We scored a bunch of treats, nobody we shoved out of the way seemed to notice we were actually “working” together. After we got our stuff, we dropped down to the ground, and crawled under their tables and truck, and got the hell out of there with our treats. We’d have never made it back through the crowd with our ice cream if we’d tried. Mike and I ate all of it before we got back to our tent, told the girls that some guys took it all away from us, so we didn’t have their money or ice cream. They didn’t notice all the ice cream I had all over my shirt. Things were getting rough by then, so getting ice cream hijacked was very believable. We stayed so stoned every day, and drank a ton of beer, too. The low point was people going into our tent to shoot up heroin without asking. Some of my friends did, too, but I couldn’t stand to be around the folks shooting junk. I was a drug sponge and vacuum in those days, except for junk. Walking miles out, past the row after row after row of Indiana State Troopers, parked nose to tail, all standing by their cars with rifles or shotguns pointed up to the sky, silently watching us stagger by, was surreal as hell. Thanks for letting me share this. Lots of stories in my memories. Bill

  • Adam H says:

    Hi DAN DAVIS !!! Your book is wonderful. Thanks for writing it. I’d love to speak with you about your experience at Bull Island. I’m the executive producer of a documentary about the rock festival at Bull Island and we are currently in production. Several key interviews have already been filmed, including those that helped facilitate the event and I was able to film their recently! We also have unseen footage. Please contact me! Email:

    If anyone else is interested in participating by sharing their stories, please email me.

    Josh, great article! Thanks for this.

  • Doc says:

    (First posted on a Soda Pop Festival Blogspot years ago)

    We drove up to the Soda Pop Festival from Nashville, Tenn. (Vanderbilt University). There was four or five of us in this nasty light blue Gremlin. We were wasted for three days. I only remember Foghat and Cheech and Chong when it was raining. We were using a biker (we thought he was dead) for a mattress. The girl I was with changed her underwear out in the open every day. When we left the festival on a dirt road we let some people ride on the hood of the car. It forced the front end down and we hit a tree stump with one of the car’s cross members. The cross member cut into the oil pan and we lost all the engine oil on the road. A mechanic at a nearby truck station fixed it for us for $200.00. We didn’t have enough money so a drug dealer gave us the rest. It was a miserable night. I drove everybody back to Nashville wasted.

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