Skinny-Dippers, Tommy Guns And Undercover Hippies: Remembering Texas’ Woodstock

Aug 30, 2019

From Texas Standard:

In August 1969, Henry Kissinger met in secret to try and end the Vietnam War. Hurricane Camille struck the Mississippi coast, killing over 250 people. The Manson family went on a murderous rampage through Los Angeles. And amid the turmoil, Billy Kirby was just kind of hanging out.

Kirby had just graduated from high school – one of 13 members of his senior class in Scurry, a small community in Kaufman County, Texas. He didn’t have a job, so he spent much of his time playing music with his best friend, Stanley Jones.

“We did play a couple of what we’d call sock hops,” Kirby says. “We’d get like $2 or $3, $5 apiece. Which was a lot of money when you paid 16 cents for a gallon of gas.”

Kirby and Jones wanted to go to Woodstock, but they heard about it too late to get there. As luck would have it, there was another giant festival planned for just two weeks after the New York festival. And this one was much closer to home – the Texas International Pop Festival, held just an hour west of Scurry, in a town called Lewisville.

Today, over 100,000 people live in Lewisville. The 25 miles of I-35 that stretch between the town and Dallas is now completely developed. But back in 1969, it was a small, rural outpost – home to less than 9,000 people.

Lewisville is not exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find a massive music festival featuring some of the most iconic acts of a generation. I would know – I’m from there. Our claims to fame are few. The 1996 Lewisville Fighting Farmer football team got its photo on a Cheerio’s box after winning the state title game without throwing a pass. At the annual Western Days celebration, we host the World Tamale Eating Championship. That’s about it.

It’s a bedroom community – a pleasant suburb now, a quiet, country town in 1969. But that was just fine for Angus Wynne, one of the festival’s organizers. Wynne ran a concert company out of Dallas called ShowCo, and he partnered with some other promoters from Atlanta to develop the Texas International Pop Festival. The choice of a site in Lewisville only came after a lengthy search.

“We just went out and got away from town as much as we could and started looking for places on major highways,” Wynne says. “I mean we went through corn fields, trash dumps, we went through everything looking for a piece of rentable property that was in good shape.”

The place that fit the bill was a racetrack called the Dallas International Motor Speedway, located at the south end of Lewisville. There wasn’t a lot of shade, but the infield had plenty of grass for concertgoers, and people would tolerate the heat if the lineup didn’t disappoint.

And, it didn’t.

Wynne and his partners booked over 20 bands to play over the three days. The lineup included B.B. King, Santana, Chicago, Rotary Connection, Herbie Mann, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter. The most expensive act to book was an up-and-coming British band called Led Zeppelin. They were just about to release their second album.

The lineup generated excitement among would-be concertgoers. But in Lewisville, the reaction among residents looked more like preparing for a natural disaster.

“I don’t think anybody anticipated even knowing what it might be or turn out to be,” says Johnny Sartain, Lewisville’s city manager at the time.

The festival was expected to draw at least 100,000 people over three days, stoking fears among some North Texans of unwashed hippies, biker gangs and general chaos.

“It’s kind of [dramatic], but some of the ladies were ‘I’m scared to go to the grocery store, I’m scared to go downtown.’ This was a quiet little country town and the people that saw it, they were just shocked,” says Johnny Surtain’s wife, Tommye.

The concern may sound hyperbolic now, but it didn’t feel like an exaggerated response back then. Doomsday seemed to be coming, so Sartain prepared accordingly. Before the festival, he went to a local gun shop called Dave’s House of Guns, and bought several Thompson submachine guns – the kind you might see in an old gangster movie.

“We were five or six people and that was it,” Sartain says. “We didn’t know what violence might come about from it or if there was any.”

Credit Mark Porter

‘You were always on guard, and here you could relax’ 

Admission to the festival was $6 a day in advance, $7 at the door. Richard Hayner didn’t have that, but he caught a ride to the festival anyway.

“I had heard about Woodstock on the radio as it was occurring or I would have stuck my thumb out and been there. But I saw this and I was like ‘I’m not going to miss this one,’” he says.

Hayner was a young hippie from Arlington, already out on his own at 16. More or less everything he owned was on his back. But as luck would have it, another kid just happened to give him a ticket while he was waiting outside the gates. He came by himself, but he wasn’t alone. People had crowded into the shadeless track, some huddled close to the stage, others hanging back on blankets. It was crowded, and so hot that the fire department came out to spray folks down along the fence line. Despite that, people seemed to get along, by and large.

“To me it was so overwhelming that I was among friends in a place where, leaving and going down the highway you got back to, you better be careful,” Hayner says. “Because I had friends who, sitting at a stoplight you had guys who would pull you out of a car and cut your hair off. You just never knew, so you were always on guard and here you could relax.”

Much of Texas in the late 60s was a world made for crew cuts, not headbands and bangs. Jeans were meant to be creased, not patched. You smoked brisket, not pot. But over Labor Day weekend, the outside world ended at the festival gates. And the soundtrack wasn’t bad either.

On the first day, Sam and Dave and B.B. King got the crowd moving despite the heat. Chicago played. They were still called Chicago Transit Authority back then. But the act that got the crowd’s biggest ovation was one of their own: Janis Joplin. She closed out Saturday’s show with a set Hayner remembers as electric.

“Texas had been pretty hard on her and so what I remember her saying is that she had really felt kind of nervous about being there but we really made her feel like she was welcome and part of us,” he says.

And she was part of them. Janis Joplin had to leave Texas to become the Janis Joplin everyone now knows. For most of her career, she stayed away from her home state. Texas was a place where she was bullied, ostracized for who she was. That experience left her, like so many in the crowd, caught between worlds that were often at odds with each other. But now here she was – an icon of the counterculture. The crowd clapped her and the Kozmic Blues Band back on for two encores. And then, as concertgoer Billy Kirby remembers it, she had something to say.

“Her band was walking off the stage, she was walking off the stage. The lighters were up, people were screaming ‘Janis, Janis, encore, encore.’ Well she comes out and everybody goes crazy again and she just kind of quiets the crowd down a little bit with her hand movements,” he says. “And she leaned to the microphone and said ‘Thank you very much. But what I want to know is where the fuck were you motherfuckers when I needed you a few years ago?’ And left.”

“All of it goes back to those three days”

But they did have to go. On Labor Day, the last day of the festival, organizers bumped the start time from 4 p.m. to 11 a.m. to avoid the slew of late-night noise complaints they’d received the first two nights. When the festival ended, locals like Johnny Sartain were relieved, and happy to quickly forget it had ever happened.

“Probably six months after it was over with, it was kinda water under the bridge, so to speak,” Sartain says.

Sartain didn’t have to use his Tommy guns, but that doesn’t mean he was eager to relive the festival. He and Police Chief Adams took heat for what some in the public saw as an egregiously low number of arrests. Discussion of a second festival was quickly quashed by a movement to ban any such events in the future. And then, nobody really talked about it.

It seemed like a seedy family secret – an unsavory blip in an otherwise buttoned-up history. I grew up in Lewisville, and I don’t remember ever hearing about the festival until I ran across an old article about it, as an adult. This seems to be the exception, not the rule.

“Most people in Lewisville don’t even know this happened,” says concertgoer Richard Hayner. “It wasn’t as big [as Woodstock], and Woodstock had just happened. And the fact that it was in Texas probably helped bury it a bit.”

As Lewisville grew, there were fewer people in town who experienced the festival firsthand. It faded from memory, and it wasn’t until 2011 that Hayner got a historical marker erected to commemorate the event. For some of those who attended though, the experience was impossible to forget.

“It had a positive social impact on me that affected me pretty much the rest of my life,” says Billy Kirby. “It was like I got a big shot in the arm at that thing. It all became part of who I was. And all of it goes back to those three days.”

The festival helped Kirby figure out who he was and shaped him into who he is. At heart, he’s an old hippie – still playing in bands, still trying spread peace and love. A year later, he married his girlfriend Gloria. He wanted his friend Stanley to be his best man, but there was a problem. Stanley had grown his hair so long after the festival that Gloria’s parents refused to have him in the wedding.

“So [Stanley] told me not to sweat it,” Kirby says. “He said ‘brother, I love you, you love me, don’t worry about it, man.’”

Stanley skipped the ceremony, but he and Billy got together the next day. They had big plans: Jimi Hendrix was playing a concert in Dallas, and they had tickets.

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