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.