The article excerpted above from the March 2, 1966 edition of the Delaware County Daily Times proudly announces "Swarthmore College To Rock 'n' Roll For First Time." Swarthmore College is an academically exceptional private college about 20 miles West of Philadelphia. As Rock and Roll creeped into serious culture on the Beatles coattails, serious students who hitherto dismissed rock as "dance music" started to get on board. In the 1960s, many colleges had significant entertainment budgets, and if a few shrewd students could get on the appropriate committees, an act thoroughly unacceptable to the college--had they known who they were--could be paid to come on campus and indoctrinate the youth.
At this time The Blues Project were the hippest band in Greenwich Village, playing swinging bluesy versions of classic folk and blues songs. They were perennial regulars at the ultra-hip Cafe Au Go Go, but their first album (Live At The Cafe Au Go Go) had not yet been released. Shortly after this, the band would head West and conquer the Fillmore and Avalon, but all that lay in the future. At this time, the Blues Project was just another Greenwich Village band looking for paying gigs. Since Swarthmore is only about two hours from the Village, and The Au Go Go allowed in teenagers, I have to assume some with-it students knew about the band and got them booked.
In early 1966, there was no concept of a "Rock Festival" as we know it today. The Swarthmore students must have sold it to the college on the grounds of being similar to a Folk Festival, something the school would have been comfortable with. Events consisted of
- 2:00 pm Friday, March 4, Brown Hall: Festival organizer Chris Brown will play his own records and the harpsichord, to introduce the unitiated to rock and roll blues (really, that's what it says)
- 3:00 pm Friday, March 4, Somerville Hall: Record dance, featuring hits of 1965 or before
- late afternoon Friday, March 4, Somerville Hall: screening the "TAMI Show" movie
- 7:00 pm Friday, March 4: Sharpies Dining Hall: The Myddle Class, a New Jersey folk-rock band (students only)
- 9:00 pm Friday, March 4: Clothier Hall: formal concert with The Blues Project
- The Campus will be quiet until Saturday morning classes are finished (yes, children, they had Saturday morning classes, and if you flunked them you were drafted and sent to Vietnam)
- 1:30 pm, Saturday, March 5: Clothier Hall: lecture and demonstration by Peter Schickele and his band The Night People. Shcickele, a Swarthmore alumni, was widely acclaimed for his "PDQ Bach" concerts (too hard to explain). Schickele would create and perform a rock song at the lecture.
- 5:00 pm, Saturday, March 5: Wallingford Arts Center, Nether Providence: cocktail reception for over-21 students
- 7:00 pm, Saturday, March 5: Clothier Hall: concert with Peter Schickele and The Night People, Swarthmore Scruples, The Side Track (from Montreal) and Philadelphia City Hall Singers
This is pretty far from the Woodstock model. On the other hand, if Woodstock had had a cocktail reception for the 21-and-overs on Saturday night, perhaps the event would have been even better, so who can say (the harpsichord thing, maybe not). In retrospect, Peter Schickele, while kind of "hep" at the time, was hardly rock and roll, and chump acts like the City Hall Singers (unnacompanied singers who sang under the arches at City Hall because they liked the echoes) seem like light fare, the Blues Project were the coolest band for 1000 miles (the distance to the Butterfield Blues Band in Chicago, friends and rivals of The Blues Project). Although I know little about The Myddle Class, supposedly they were a cool New Jersey garage band, so it sounds like all the memorable action was on Friday night.
Other than this article, I know nothing about the First Swarthmore Rock Festival. Intriguingly, I am told there was at least a second Swarthmore Rock Festival the next year, either October 1966 or Spring 1967, featuring the Jefferson Airplane and Woody's Truck Stop (with teenage lead guitarist Todd Rundgren). At the very least, it suggests that the first one went well enough to allow the second to happen. I wonder if there was a third one?