Documentary features Jimi Hendrix at Byron Pop Festival

It was Fourth of July weekend 1970 in a field about 100 miles south of Atlanta.

Jimi Hendrix was scheduled to take the stage about midnight in Byron at the Second Atlanta International Pop Festival, and there were supposed to be fireworks.

Byron native Tim Thornton, who was 17 at the time, vividly remembers lying in his triangular pup tent to take a nap and wait for the music legend’s performance.

“I was there, but I was a pretty naive 17-year-old,” he said. “I had never seen anything like that. Middle Georgia had never seen anything like that.”

Two and a half hours later, Thornton awoke to the sounds of exploding fireworks and Hendrix wailing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his electric guitar.

Hendrix was playing in front of the largest audience he ever would. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people were packed on land adjacent to the Middle Georgia Raceway, which Thornton has owned since 2007.

Now, Hendrix’s set at the weekend-long festival -- sometimes called the Byron Pop Festival or Southern Woodstock -- will be forever remembered.

The documentary “Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church” premieres on Showtime on Sept. 4 at 9 p.m. and will be available on air, on demand and over the Internet.

Experience Hendrix LLC and Legacy Recordings will release the documentary Oct. 30 on DVD and Blu-ray, which will feature bonus content not included in the broadcast version.

The film documents Hendrix’s performance at what is hailed as the last great U.S. rock festival. It also features interviews from locals, including some who weren’t too happy about “hippies” invading their town, Thornton said.

Despite any animosity the people of Byron and Macon held toward festival-goers, filmmaker Steve Rash said it didn’t stop them from showing kindness.

Rash said because water wells ran dry and because the event’s promoters had not prepared for so many people at the festival, local emergency responders, firefighters and church groups rallied together to supply water.

“It was quite an impressive display of hospitality,” he said.

Rash and Thornton both remember the scorching summer heat.

“Byron itself was as hot as the gates of hell,” which is what made the wells dry up, Rash said.

Thornton was getting paid $50 a day by a Macon businessman to sell Popsicles at a stand about 100 yards from the stage. People begged him to spare a cold treat. He said his parents never would have let him go to the festival, so he turned it into a money-making venture.

“In spite of it being way over capacity, everyone was so peaceful and calm,” Thornton said.

And Rash and his crew of rock ‘n’ roll videographers from across the country caught it all on film.

A substantial amount of the festival footage in the documentary comes from what the film crew shot in 1970, Rash said.

The film explains Atlanta music promoter Alex Cooley’s efforts to pull off the massive event and how he landed such talent as Bob Seger, B.B. King and the Allman Brothers.

But snagging Hendrix was icing on the cake.

“Jimi Hendrix was big enough at that time that he was absolutely the headliner,” Thornton said.

Hendrix’s band mates Billy Cox and the late Mitch Mitchell as well as Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Rich Robinson, Kirk Hammett, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and Cooley were all interviewed for “Electric Church.”

In the film, Cooley recalls Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” against a night sky of exploding fireworks as having “knocked peoples’ socks off.”

Rash said nowadays, people may take this scene as a positive experience, but it wasn’t necessarily.

Rash said Hendrix’s rendition of the song was as “politically incorrect as anything you could imagine.”

Thornton agreed, remembering the feelings it evoked.

“Some people at the time thought it was sacrilegious ... not patriotic” for the national anthem to be played in the rock ‘n’ roll genre, Thornton said.

Hendrix disagreed with the Vietnam War, and the statement he made demonstrated just how much, Rash said.

“The Atlanta Pop Festival was a watershed moment,” he said, because people realized they had the power to change the future.

In 2012 the Georgia Historical Society memorialized the festival with a historical marker at the Middle Georgia Raceway, near where the concert was held July 3-5, 1970.

To contact writer Conner Wood, call 744-4489.