Ugly Things – a national magazine covering “the overlooked music of the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s & beyond” – has published an article by Frank Uhle about The Fifth Dimension, a downtown Ann Arbor teen nightclub that operated from 1966-1968. From the article: ”In contrast with most venues of its type, it was an architect-designed psychedelic showplace with trippy pulsating lights, a huge spinning op-art wheel at the entrance, splatter-painted wall panels, carpeted sitting mounds, a sunken (soda) bar, and a mod clothing store.” [.pdf of Fifth Dimension article cover page] The print edition of Ugly Things is sold locally at Wazoo Records and Literati Bookstore.
It’s a warm, breezy afternoon in late March. On the University of Michigan’s Diag – a grassy square in the center of campus crisscrossed by sidewalks – students are tossing Frisbees, strumming guitars, basking in the sun, and generally enjoying the promise of spring after a long, cold winter. The clothes and hairstyles change, but for the most part the scene remains the same, year after year.
Except that if you could somehow step back in time exactly four decades you would be greeted by a very different sight: students shouting, marching, and picketing; classes disrupted, canceled, or being held in nearby churches; angry voices calling for the deployment of the National Guard; a campus and community pushed almost to the breaking point. If the events of the Black Action Movement strike of 40 years ago had unfolded only a little differently, today people might speak of “Michigan” rather than “Kent State” as marking the tragic and deadly end of the sixties.
Instead, the BAM strike became one of the few protests of that era in which the students could make a valid claim of victory.
Forty years ago this month, a great crowd of young people converged on a small, unsuspecting middle-American town for an incredible three-day celebration of peace and music. They sat on the cool grass of an open field, grooved to the tunes of a dizzying array of legendary performers, smoked pot, drank wine, and generally had a blast. It was a landmark event that is still spoken of in hushed tones of awe and reverence among music historians.
No, it wasn’t Woodstock. It was something similar, yet very different, something smaller yet in some ways bigger.
It was something called the Ann Arbor Blues Festival.
In early August 1969, two weeks before the mammoth fete in Bethel, N.Y., approximately 20,000 eager spectators came to the Fuller Flatlands on the banks of the lazy Huron River to hear an absolutely astounding lineup of living legends of the blues – B. B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Big Mama Thornton, Son House, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and on and on – at the first major blues festival in the United States.
Although the Ann Arbor event has been almost completely overshadowed by its big brother in New York, to many serious music fans – especially blues enthusiasts – it is by far the more important of the two. Writing in the October 1969 issue of Downbeat, critic Dan Morgenstern made his preference plain, dismissing Woodstock in favor of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, which he declared was “without doubt the festival of the year, if not the decade.”
Ann Arbor, like many college towns, is usually a quiet place during the summer months. Most of the students are away on break, the university goes into hibernation, and a calm descends upon the city as residents sit back to enjoy a few months of peace and quiet.
During the turbulent 1960s the summer break was even more eagerly anticipated, offering as it did a brief respite from the regular succession of student-led sit-ins, protests, demonstrations, and strikes that occupied the fall and winter months. But the influx of large numbers of non-student “street people” (i.e., hippie youths) in the closing years of the decade made those last few summers of the ’60s decidedly less peaceful.
Forty years ago this week, the normally sleepy summertime streets of Ann Arbor were violently awoken by a series of violent and occasionally bloody clashes between police and a motley crowd of hippies, radicals, teenagers, university students, and town rowdies. Ostensibly at issue was the creation of a pedestrian mall, or “people’s park,” on South University Avenue – a four-block shopping district adjacent to the University of Michigan campus that caters primarily to a student clientele.
Even in those “interesting” times, the violence in Ann Arbor attracted national attention – including that of J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. After the fighting was over, the national press lost interest and moved on to other, juicier topics. But on the local scene the repercussions of that summer would reverberate for years after.
The Detroit Free Press would refer to the four nights of conflict as “The Battle of Ann Arbor.”