Oregon Experience

Vortex I

Oct. 29, 2010 4 a.m.
One of the thousands of "hippies" that attended the Vortex festival.

One of the thousands of "hippies" that attended the Vortex festival.

Cameron Bangs

In the summer of 1970, some tens of thousands of people converged in rural Clackamas County for an event called Vortex 1. This “biodegradable festival of life” celebrated freedom -- freedom from violence,  from drug laws and from clothes.    It also served as an elaborate ploy to lure young people away from Portland.   And to this day, Vortex remains America’s only large-scale rock festival ever sponsored by a Republican governor. 

Summer, 1970.  Richard Nixon was president and the Vietnam War raged on.  The preceding months had seen the shooting of war protesters at Kent State University and the beating of demonstrators in Portland.  Now anti-war activists were planning to converge on Portland during an American Legion convention.  The FBI was forecasting 50,000 people and a violent outcome.

Governor Tom McCall's solution?   A "biodegradable festival of life."   

Vortex I is the only state-sponsored rock festival in U.S. history. It was, in fact, a diversionary event to lure young people away from planned -- and potentially violent -- anti-war protests at an American Legion convention in Portland. And by most almost every measure, it succeeded.

The festival took place at a state park near Estacada.  Some now-unknown person created the name "Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life," and it stuck.  And many people came. Estimates range from 30,000 to 100,000.

On the surface, Vortex appeared much like hundreds of other counter-culture music events of that era: Young people listened to mostly local bands, wandered about in little or no clothing and partook of illegal substances.

But Vortex was different.

Entry was free. Private businesses in Portland contributed much of the food, supplies and building materials. Law-enforcement officers kindly escorted hundreds of young people to the festival location at McIver State Park. Yet no laws were enforced on the park grounds themselves. And all of this was endorsed and underwritten with state money and services by the Republican governor, Tom McCall.  

OPB's "Vortex I" portrays the political environment which spawned the festival and shares many stories from the people who were there.

To compile the imagery for the show, producer Eric Cain worked with the Oregon Historical Society's Moving Image Archives.  "Vortex I" includes film footage and photos from many photographers, amateurs and professional, who were there.  (Cain himself went the festival as an 18-year-old, but neglected to take pictures.)   Author Matt Love, too young to have gone to Vortex, has written the definitive book about it and shares his research in the program.  Ed Westerdahl, executive assistant to Governor McCall, maintained a low profile during the event, but he was probably the person most responsible for Vortex I.  In an interview from his California home, he reveals some unique insights. Several bands that played -- or almost played -- on the Vortex Stage have provided some of the show's music and include the Portland Zoo Electric Band, Jacob's Ladder, Notary Sojac and Brown Sugar.




Matt Love, The Far Out Story of Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life

Web sites

Vortex author and historian Matt Love still collects Vortex stories and invites contacts from people who were there.

Matt Love's online slideshow of Vortex 1 photos

Valerie Brown has written a piece for the Oregon Historical Society Quarterly about the local rock bands of that era.

Another history of local bands

An interesting site about the band Notary Sojac, one of the best bands of that time. The band tried but failed to play at Vortex, and our program “Vortex I,” features several of their tunes.

The Portland Zoo Electric Band performed at Vortex, and their music also appears in our program

Broadcast Date: October 28, 2010