“Death, Discord, Despair,” read one newspaper headline. “A cursed event” was another apt description. In June 1971, tens of thousands of hippies descended on the isolated, unincorporated municipality of McCrea, Louisiana, to attend the Celebration of Life, an ambitious, eight-day rock festival that boasted an impressive lineup of scheduled acts, one that included Pink Floyd, The Beach Boys, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal and B.B. King.
But things went awry from the get-go. The organizers failed to nail down a location before marketing the event, and it had to be re-located several times at the last minute. Then a worker was impaled while setting up the stage. And due to the unexpected delays, many scheduled performers had to cancel their appearances, including all of the aforementioned acts.
Predictably perhaps, food, water and shelter were in short supply. Making matters worse, there was little relief from the oppressive Louisiana heat and humidity, except for those who chose to get naked and wade into the Atchafalaya River, which has famously dangerous currents that likely played a role in the drowning deaths of several concert-goers.
Strangely, the Celebration of Life is not well-remembered, unlike several other festivals of that era, including Woodstock and the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. But thanks to the critically-acclaimed documentary, McCrea 1971 (Brilleaux-Caro Films), music fans now have a chance to get a sense of what the Celebration of Life was all about.
“It’s strange that this went on down here [in Louisiana] and we had never heard of it,” says Scott Caro, one-half of the filmmaking team that made the documentary, referring to himself and Nicholas Brilleaux. “There was very little about it on the Internet, which told us right away that we had a pretty good topic,” he continues.
In the following Failure Interview, Caro discusses the film and the festival, the former an objective look at an event that most people consider a failure, though some who were in attendance might have fond memories of the sex, drugs and rock & roll.
Why was the Celebration of Life held in McCrea?
They wanted a southern setting and one of the guys who put it on, Stephen Kapelow, was from the New Orleans area. He picked a location in Mississippi but that fell through. Ultimately, he found a location elsewhere in Louisiana and it was supposed to happen there but the locals rose up and got the license for the festival revoked. That sparked a string of attempts to relocate. It’s my understanding that Kapelow & Co. relocated to another spot where immediately the same thing happened. The third option [in Louisiana] was a field owned by a farmer in McCrea, this little unincorporated area in Pointe Coupee Parish.
By the time they found this property, it was the location being publicized and people from all over the country started traveling there. The locals tried to block the festival, but everybody showed up anyway. They realized that the safest thing to do—since the roads were congested and people were parked alongside the road for miles and miles—was to let people on the property. So they erected the stage and started the festival.
The consequence of that was that instead of the eight days that had been advertised, the festival started four days late and ended up being only four days long. The schedule change caused a lot of bands to pull out, which was not a good situation.
Which bands played at the Celebration of Life?
It’s a Beautiful Day, John Sebastian, Chuck Berry, Ted Nugent, WAR, the Chambers Brothers, Bloodrock, Black Oak Arkansas, and Delaney and Bonnie. The Stephen Stills Band was the big closer. [The other musical acts that performed were: Melanie, Boz Scaggs, Potliquor, Ike & Tina Turner, Country Joe McDonald, Brownsville Station, Jimmy Witherspoon with Eric Burdon, Glass Harp, Stoneground, Ballin’ Jack and Ruth Copeland.]
What was the atmosphere like at the festival?
These were people in almost a disaster-type setting. They were stranded on the road for days and when they finally got in the festival it was poorly equipped to handle this flood of people. The conditions were really bad. It was miserably hot and they had mosquitos and other bugs that were an issue. There was not adequate shelter, food, water or medical supplies. There was one store, visible from the festival site, which sold everything on its shelves.
In addition to the physical discomforts, there was also the disappointment of many of the bands not showing up. So the Celebration of Life wasn’t exactly as advertised. Still, many of the people who were there seemed to have had a great time.
Tell me about the accident that occurred when workers were putting up the scaffolding.
They were rushing to get everything ready and erecting the big sound tower when a storm came in and caused the tower to collapse. One of the big scaffolding poles pierced a worker right through his torso. No one knows the guy’s name but we interviewed two people who saw the incident and they claim that the individual survived.
Did people drown at the Celebration of Life? There is a scene in the documentary where a boat is dragging a dead body.
Yeah, people definitely did drown. There were three people, at least, who disappeared at the festival, and in the film we have the footage of that one body being recovered. What’s interesting is that someone from Texas sent us that footage. We didn’t realize what we had until we interviewed a history professor who was there and he recalled a boat dragging a body. The Atchafalaya River is known to have dangerous currents. It’s not a river in which you want to swim.
I understand there was talk of holding a second Celebration of Life festival. Why did it not come to fruition?
In the immediate aftermath there were legal issues. Stephen Kapelow wasn’t located in the immediate aftermath of the festival to take care of all the trash on the festival grounds and his production company was on to the next gig so the trash was left there, including abandoned cars. The residents in the area said it looked like a battlefield. I’m told there were abandoned cars sitting there up until about ten years ago. So coming back to do another one wouldn’t have been possible legally because Kapelow would have been held liable for back expenses and the garbage pickup.
Did the field where the festival was held really begin producing marijuana in the wake of the event?
That’s what the locals say. The individual who owned the festival property has passed away, but we talked to the property owners on either side. Their memories are those of twenty-somethings and they enjoyed the festival. They look back on it as a fun experience.