The 1980 Atlantic Folk Festival and Outlaw Bikers Convention

…Yeah, you read that right… Outlaw Bikers Convention

The recent motorcycle gang violence in Waco,Texas brought back memories of my summer of 1980. I’d finished my second year of college at Mount Allison University, and was working on campus at the Alumni Association and living in “the Monastery” with 10 or so other students.

tough biker

A biker from the 1970s. Image found on Heather Runnion’s MotorcycleMonday on

The Monastery had been a real monastery at one time, but it had been re-purposed by the University as a rather exclusive men’s dorm during the school year. In the summer, it was mixed student housing for those of us who were working on campus.

I made some good friends there – notably Heather and Darlene who lived on the second floor near me. We passed a lot of our time goofing around, and invented a game with a big beach ball that we called Spaz Ball – basically whacking the ball back and forth across the long open corridor upstairs. (we often did this with Billy Joel’s album The Stranger blasting from Heather’s room)

I don’t remember whose idea it was to go to the Atlantic Folk Festival in Nova Scotia that year – maybe my sister’s (who drove us there in her baby blue VW bug) or Heather – who was always organizing things – but the four of us: my sister, Heather, Darlene and I decided to go and we packed up the little VW with a tent and our stuff and drove off for a weekend of outdoor music and folksy fun.

It was held on a farmer’s land – a farmer who in retrospect probably really regretted hosting it. By the last day of the weekend the land was covered with nasty garbage and churned into an unholy mess of mud and yuck. (I will never forget the stink in the air – it will live on forever)

There were a lot of people there and the camping was cramped – tents were pitched inches from each other – literally side by side and many lines deep.

It seemed like the organizers hadn’t anticipated the turnout and the port-o-potties had long line ups and quickly became stinky, messy, slimy sludgy areas. Hygiene was not an option – especially with rain and drizzle adding to the quagmire.

arlo guthrie outlasting the blues

This album came out in June of 1979 before the festival we attended. Arlo Guthrie – Outlasting the Blues

We did get to see and hear some awesome music however – the stage was set at the bottom of a gentle sloping hill, and Arlo Guthrie came out to perform on the last morning of the last day.

The reason I’m reminded of this event was because it was also a North American biker’s convention. I’m not talking about middle class suburbanites who get nice shiny motorcycles and ride them on weekends, I’m talking really mean, tough, criminal bikers from all over Canada and the US. There were A LOT of bikers there – everywhere.

I had the lovely distinction of having one of the bikers in Satan’s Choice follow me around all weekend: I found myself ever so menacingly tracked around the festival site, whispered to from behind in crowds, and intently stared at by him along with a bunch of his terrifying buddies wherever I went.

Hell's Angels by Bill Ray 1965, TIME/LIFE magazine

I’m sure the bikers at the Atlantic Folk Festival were all really sweet guys and loved their mothers. Photo by LIFE photographer Bill Ray, taken for Time Magazine 1965 – article on Hell’s Angels. (

He was pretty scary looking – lean and wiry, with hollow cheeks, long black hair, a bandana around his head, and a Van Dyke beard and mustache. He wore a gang jacket with the sleeves ripped out, showing his heavily tattooed arms (which in 1980 wasn’t something everybody did like they do today – it was a real sign of toughness back then) and he had a pet rat that sat on his shoulders and neck (that part didn’t bother me at least).

But his persistent stalking of me was unnerving  – I quickly realized I couldn’t be alone anywhere for any amount of time.

70s biker

Apparently people think of 1970 bikers with nostalgia – those rough and scary guys really were something. (found on MotorcyleMonday on

There was a lot of drinking going on and a lot of drugs too. One morning we got up early and came upon more than one dead body – probably dead from overdoses (or given the guest list, maybe murdered) – lying on the dewy grass, with their skin a pale shade of blue. Staff and paramedics were in the process of removing them before the crowds got up and moved in…

The four of us stayed away from any large gatherings at night after the stage shut down. We tried to avoid the bonfires where the most out-of-control people seemed to be. And we tried to steer clear of the bikers riding their roaring machines through the tents and crowds. In the end the only violence we directly encountered was from the group tenting behind us.

They were playing their music really loud, they were really drunk and really foul mouthed, and just inches from our heads. It was late at night (like 3am late). We asked them politely to keep it down and they were, naturally, verbally abusive to us. Then, they moved their truck up to our tent and ran the exhaust into it – nice people. I don’t remember what happened next (probably due to carbon monoxide poisoning) but I think we got help from some people, somewhere, and the creeps stopped trying to kill us and moved somewhere else.

It was a memorable life event. It was also the first and last huge weekend music festival I ever went to and camped at… and it was my first and last outlaw biker’s convention ever.



13 thoughts on “The 1980 Atlantic Folk Festival and Outlaw Bikers Convention

  1. Wow cool post. I was there in 1980, less dangerous but equally weird. Never been to such an odd festival.

    Your post brought back a lot of lost memories of that time. And you did it in a really fun way that catches the spirit of adventure you must have felt at the time.

    Love the pix too.

  2. Thanks Eric – there was virtually nothing online about the festival when I began writing the post which surprised me since there were so many people there, and I didn’t know that it was held the following year too – hopefully without the bikers!

    • No bikers that I could see (or remember) but the musical acts were not as good according to those who were also there in 79. Maybe the mayhem scared them off.
      It is odd that so little is online about this festival. Really glad you shared your experience.

      (Btw, I’m also from NB,, queens county, via upstate New York , and now living in the American West. Small world. )


  3. Wow. Just read your blog. Blew me away as i was there also and had almost the exact experience as you which i shars periodically with people. I too was 19. I too was a student in Halifax. My boyfriend and i went to meet up with quite a few friends from Cape Breton. I remember all the bikers heading there, the RCMP at checkpoints. The first nite was Crazy withall the goings on, and it was eextremely intimidating going to the outhouses as bikers wers always around them. But the next morning was also life changing for me. My boyfriend had overdone it the night before and was still crashed when myself and about 6 friends headed down the hill with coolers to watch the acts. We had planned on staying put most of day. There were 3 guys and 3 girls.As soon as we arrived, we were immediately surrounded by bikers, They opened our coolers and emptied them. We couldn’t protest of course cause we were scared shitless. The ” leader” of this group was a very tall long haired guy with a bandana, torn jean vest and a RAT on his shoulder. He told me i was going to be hiswoman for now on. He wouldn’t let me move without one of biker friends following me. I was so scared. I had a camera and he asked me to take a picture of him with the rat on his shoulder. I still have it somewhere around. All day i couldn’t leave. My friends were scared and couldn’t help. I remember whispering to my friend Betty to go get security but she was also too scared to do anything. Finally, it was getting dark and i knew i had to do something. So i said i had to go to the port a pottie which were just beside the stage. The guy with rat wouldn’t let me go unless 2 of his guys came with me. So i promptly locked myself in and wouldn’t come out for about 2 hrs, They knocked over the first hr and half then nothing. When i thought it was safe, i came out and not a soul was around. I high tailed it back to my camp. I was so scared of running into the rat man .That nite was wild, Heard screams and yelling all nite. Felt sooo lucky i was unscathed, It must have been the same biker. I will look for photo of him. Unlike you though, i have continued to go to great festival camping all over the country. Just am super conscience of my surroundings. In closing, i feel an affinity with yours and my experience, as it was almost exactly alike. Wow again. Thanks for sharing. Yours truly, Kathy. X0

    • Kathy – that’s just amazing that you had the same experiences of the festival – though it sounds like you had it a lot worse than me – I wasn’t held captive by Mr. Rat guy, yow! Glad it didn’t ruin your ongoing festival experiences – I just couldn’t go back to that crowd scene and all the filth again – not enough fun in it for me!

  4. The summer of 1979 I had finished my first year at Mount A, working on campus, and also lived at the Monastery. I lived on the first floor, the door closest to the kitchen and right by the pay phone. I made great use of the sauna upstairs — if you remember that. Alas, that summer I went to the wedding of a Mount A friend that week in O’Leary. But it was the only Atlantic Folk Festival I missed.

  5. Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger played in 1980 not 1979. I have the framed singing cow poster on the wall. I think that may have been the year with all the bikers. That or 81 which was the last year. I know it wasn’t 79 as I didn’t go that year.

  6. I remember as kid laying in my bed rm at nite with the window open listening to the music and the bikes and the traffic, From my house in Shubie as a crow flies to Moxom’s farm where it was held is’nt very far..
    There was also the Atlantic jam out at Motor Sport park in Mill Village in the mid to late 70’s..I’m not finding any history

  7. I was there for this same weekend. I do recall the bikers. They had a huge tent area set up
    with a bar and were definitely an intimidating presence. A guy I know from Bedford actally was dumb enough to try to pick a fight with one of the bikers. They smashed a beer bottle across his face, he was badly cut though lived to tell about it. I had just finished high school and drove out from Bedford after work on Friday. I remember it being a very hot weekend. I had brought along a gallon of Chip man’s Golden Glow. It was an apple cider made in the Annapolis Valley, cheap and horrible, but got the job done 🙂 I remember Arlo Guthrie; Buddy and the Boys, Stan Rogers, Rita MacNeil, 1757. It was a crazy weekend but in the end a lot of fun. I’ve gone to many more festivals over the years in Alberta where I now live, but none as wild as that.

  8. I went three years in a row and the year of the bikers was my last. It was bad. I too have the poster from 1980 on the wall.
    One year Valdez headlined! Another John Prine. I have wonderful memories of the first two festivals I attended. Seemed peaceful but the biker year just had a bad scary vibe all weekend.

  9. Hey thanks for posting this. I was searching, trying to remember time lines myself.
    That summer I was given the opportunity to take over the “Space” in Halifax. I immediately commissioned a sign-writer and changed the name to the Grafton Street Cafe, where we featured folk music for lunch and evening shows. It was a lot of fun and a great summer, 1980.

    When I heard that Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger were playing the Atlantic Folk Festival, I just had to be there. Sandy Greenberg and I were partners back then. She was on the roster as well, so I couldn’t miss it.

    The memory of listening to Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger singing and the bikers swaying to their music certainly sits well… While I’ve always enjoyed drinking and partying, fools and drunks I learned to hate. Yes, they were not the expected nor appreciated audience, but they settled down when Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger were on stage.

    And I did get to meet Arlo. He said he like my Grafton St Cafe tee shirt, asked where he might get one. I took mine off and gave it to him, I hope he wasn’t offended.

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