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 common themes were intoxication, breakdowns, theft, long drives, and comedowns.”
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
I went ,rememeber very little ,except no sleep ,cold ,wet and hungry ,great time.Some good music. 70s were crazy.
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.
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.
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
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: mi******@gm***.com.
If anyone else is interested in participating by sharing their stories, please email me.
Josh, great article! Thanks for this.
(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.
I spent decades not being able to get any information on this event. I started wondering if I had really been there or was it just a dream. A friend of mine, who passed away 40 years ago, had just got his driver’s license and offered to drive. None of our other friends were interested or available so it was just the two of us. We concocted a cover story for our parents and left Cincinnati Saturday morning. It was definitely in an out-of-the-way, desolate location. I remember Blue Oyster Cult, the Eagles & New Riders of the Purple Sage performing way off in the distance. The open-air drug market was astonishing! We took way too many drugs. I remember an attractive completely naked girl walking right by us and we were too high to really care. Our 16 year-old minds could only take so much stimuli so we split after 3-4 hours. It took us another 2-3 hours to find our car. There was a strange vibe in the air and we were lucky to get out of there when we did.
Oh man, what a memory Bull Island was. We hitchhiked from Springfield Illinois to Bull Island. No one would pick us up except another freak. We got there on day one. The next three days are pretty much a drug infested blurr. We had a very high time with no trouble from anyone. I never saw one policeman or security guard. Food and water were scarce and those that had some were selling it at inflated prices. We brought our own drugs due to past festival experiences. So we had some bargaining power when it came to trading acid or mescaline for food and water. I was at a festival in Streator IL. and it was 10 times worse than Bull Island. When you get that many people together there are bound to be some problems, you just go with the flow, enjoy the music and freedom. Those were some of the best days of my life and I feel fortunate to have survived it all and tell about it. Long Live The 60’s and 70’s!
I’d just like to add that we saw none of the really bad stuff that the article mentions during our brief time at the festival. It’s just that, as two 16-year-old boys alone, we were in way over our heads. Unforgettable experience but we probably had no business being there and were lucky to make it home without any serious mishap.
I had a good time. The worst rock festival thing is wearing me out. I’ve been to some bad concerts/festivals. Three days of music, weed, and Boones Farm. So hundreds of thousands of young kids got together in peace and had a party. I didn’t see any trouble. Try that today. I say one LEO the whole time I was there. I didn’t see anybody forced to stay if they wanted to leave. But some folks gotta run down everything. Peace to all.
When I talk about my experience at Bull Island ,I am not blaming promoters or anyone for what went wrong for me.I was starting my second year as a sophomore at Western Kentucky university,.I had heard about the concert ,I just thought it would be fun,I blame my self I was totally unprepared ,I did not bring food,I maybe brought an extra jacket ,maybe a jacket and a blanket not even sure about that ,past the money for a ticket which I did not use because by the time we got there the gates had already been crashed.I was suppose to meet friends there so I separated from a friend who had given mearide ,but Iwas never able to find them,.The second day another friend I ran into decided to try to hitch back to Bowling Green my ,but we did not get very far ,so after eating at Ky.Fried chicken we hitched back to Bull Island.The friend I had hitched with and I got separated ,Itwas getting Late and it rained at some point and I was very cold ,In between times I did listen to some good bands ,finally on the last day I found my friends camp but they were not there ,soI helped my self to some of their peanut butter and crackers .I made sure to memorize exactly where it was located,so I could catch a ride back as planned when the concert was over..When people started leaving itwas getting dark so I started walking towards the camp I finally found a couple in the group,The camp was not far but they decided to hop on the back of the car.I didn’t make it so I continued walking ,a young guy started walking with and talking to me,I suspected nothing when he suddenly grabbed me from behind and said he had a knife and if I screamed he would kill me.I started walking ,even though it was dark there were still plenty of people around.I suddenly through my weight forward and screamed he lost hold of me ,someone said what is going on,the guy ran.I did nit stop to explain I ran hysterically to I came upon the camp,Myfriends calmed me down,and we headed back to Bowling Green,happy to just be alive. Tothis day I jump if someone comes behind me,but also after that I was very careful and plan when I go anywhere.
I was there with my friend Jim S. We were there for 3 days. It was too hot and too wet not enough food and drink or bathrooms only 6 or 8 of them I think. The crowd was always yelling for this one or that band that they wanted I remember Joe Cocker was one of them. I watched the people overrun the vendors when they tried to Rip everyone off price wise and take all their goods and give them away to the people they were ripping off. We hitchhiked all the way there and back to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Drugs everywhere hippies everywhere no where near enough good music for sure but some. Not what we thought it would be. Still it was a Woodstock Feel and that’s part of why we went.
I have seen almost nothing pertaining to “Bull Island”.
Now I have to get the book!
I went there in 1972 with a group of friends. Most have since passed.We ditched a 65 Chevy on the expressway, Clung on vehicles coming and going.
Arrived hearing Cheech & Chong singing: Gonna nail my pecker to a tree. Left a day later when things started to “catch on fire”. Met some Super nice people. Got seriously dirty.
Loved some of it/Hated some of it. Thanks for the memories!
We got there early. Two had tickets, 4 hid under camping stuff in van. Woke up in a small city. Came with a bunch of homegrown. Soon gone. Found hash on one end , tripled it on the other. Only time in my life I was a true capitalist. Like many say, no food, no toilets no water. But then!!! I know other folks may claim this. I ran into Black Oak, they cleaned me out and gave me a Golden ticket. It got us backstage where food and everything was plentiful, We swiped beer & sold it under the fence. If you saw a kid selling cigarettes out of an old suitcase during Canned Heat. It was me at 14. We left in a near riot as they burned the stage. I was poor but came back loaded, with Hashish. Time of my life, one anyway.
I went to Bull Island. We picked a couple up hitchhikers. in our Van, they were going there too. The strange thing about that was what the pregnant woman said she was going to name her baby” Winnebago” I remember we were walking down the road going in and all of a sudden people were naked. It was very embarrassing because of my sister and brother-in-law who I was with, my sister Debby had never been with anyone but her husband Dan before.
Well, her husband got mad at Debby because that was the first time, she got to look at other men naked. We were from the small town of Martinsville Ind. Something else strange happen at least it was strange for me Of course we were on Acid “Sunshine’. The female friend and I started to walk around. We people swimming nude. I wanted swim nude bad, but I couldn’t because my sister was there with her husband. Teena and I did get in the water, and I did undo the of my halter top. The two other guys that road there with us wondered around by their selves. One of them was Earl Collier. Teena ended up getting together with him years after that and married him. To be honest I haven’t even thought of Bull Island for many years because it was such bust There was one other thing when we were walking into Bull Island there was a man who stole my Heart. He kissed me a long passionate kiss and I never saw him again. But I won’t forget him
Right on brother I was there too and of course it wasn’t ran perfectly a lot of it because of some of the permit chaos that was going on with a couple of young entrepreneurs. But this clown that wrote this article almost acts like he’s got an extra grind or is trying to be controversial to raise his profile. But your povs are spot on, if someone’s looking to find the negative in it just like you could do the same thing with Woodstock or so many of the other giant concerts you could have done it with this and this asshat that wrote this piece AKA Josh Jones has a different view of those of us that were there. It was tough the walk from the highway was an adventure of its own. Naked people swimming in the Wabash lots of party favors for those who indulged and great music to be had for those who hung on.
I was there and had just graduated high school. It’s funny how some people take experiences or other’s memories to form a story to fit their narrative to try and sell a story. I knew two people who were at Woodstock, so I wasn’t going to miss this. I bought my ticket months before, but never needed it. I think it cost $18 or $20. Three friends and I in my 1962 Studebaker Lark pulled off the interstate on Friday afternoon at Griifin IN to find traffic backed up as far as the eye could see. We we stop/started all night long to finally ditch the car and walk another couple of miles or so carrying a wash tub full of Boones Farm Wild Mountain Berry wine and some Dinty Moore beef stew. I remember digging a trench around my pup tent and it rained very hard through the night. A friend who had to work told me before I left to meet him stage right on Sunday morning. Remember, this was before cell phones. He convinced his parents to drive about 75 miles and let him out on the interstate where he hiked in. I found him early Sunday morning all clean with pressed cloths sitting in the middle of a bunch of stoned out hippies. He had a backpack full of food and water that he shared and we sat there through the night listening to the music. I would guess that at its peak there were over 200k people there. My best memory was when YES came on in the middle of the night. I remember the food trucks burning, but it seemed of no conscience to us.
I never saw the other guys who came with me. I couldn’t find my keys when we headed out until I got back to my car only to find them still in the trunk latch. 10’s of thousands of people must have passed by there and they were not touched. It was probably the longest stretch in my life of going with sleep, but it is also an experience that I do not regret and will always remember.
I was there, came down from northern illinois. A 15 year old at the time. It was a wild festival and felt like I was lucky to make it out a live. The high ( literally) points I remember were the traffic jam on interstate , we drove down the median to get there. Children walking around with sandwich boards advertising drug sales. Taking a bath in the river there& my friend cut his eye open waiting for me on a car door, should of had stitches, still has a scar from it. No food or water, I was able to secure a backstage pass and had 1 good meal. Slept outside in sleeping bag and someone stole my purse with all my money and a friends car keys in it. They had to Hotwire the car. The only band I remember was the doobie brothers. Last memory was seeing the stage and a semi start on fire. I was able to get a ride out of there and the ride home wasn’t any better! Thank God for His protection.
My sister and I drove over from Bloomington where we were students at IU. I also remember parking along the Interstate and walking forever to get in. Passing through drug alley was scary. I had never seen anyone shoot up before. We were cold and wet. I remember sharing a can of beans with 2 spoons, in the rain and seeing the camera crews filming us. We finally left by walking and standing on a car bumper. The last thing we heard on the way out was a group singing “oh, oh, oh, Listen to the Music.” We had never heard of them so continued on out! We saw the smoke from the fire. A month later we were at our home in northern Indiana when our Dad asked us to sit down at the table. He had been at a state wide meeting of the Indiana State Police who showed everyone videos of the Bull’s Island Festival and everything happening there. We were about to crap our pants, thinking Dad saw us in those videos. Thank heavens he only wanted to talk to us about such events and tell us to avoid them at all costs. “Yes, Daddy”! Whew!!!
Debbi, my Dad worked for the IN State Police and I remember he went to a “meeting” to watch the films that the police took. I am glad I didn’t go to Bull Island (I was still in high school.) He would have given me a talking to for sure. It was bad enough in 1970 when we drove through San Francisco. He went on and on about those damn hippies and their g-damn love newspapers that seemed to be on every street corner. I laugh about it now- he was a great dad who truly loved our mom and their children.