How a $25 Steinway made history, blew hippie minds and almost squashed them flat.
Folks around Duvall still talk about the Great Piano Drop of April 28, 1968, when the hippies decided they wanted to hear what such an instrument sounded like dropped from a great height. It happened at a pioneering rock concert in a small ravine off Cherry Valley Road.
“On one side was Larry Van Over’s unfinished barn-sized mansion, which, still without a roof, resembled an Elizabethan theatre,” recalls Paul Dorpat — now an award-winning historian, then the publisher of the alternative newspaper Helix and emcee of big local hippie events.
“On the other side a stage was improvised for Country Joe and the Fish. In between was a postage-stamp wetland with a woodpile. The spectators formed a narrow horseshoe with the pile of logs at the center.”
As arriving concertgoers clogged Duvall’s narrow roads, Country Joe performed his hits “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine” (about “their manager Ed Denson’s not very sweet ex-wife”) and “Janis” (about his romance with Janis Joplin). As Country Joe sang, “The only way you’ll ever get her high / Is to let her do her thing and then watch you die,” Dorpat pondered the excellent chance that he was about to watch the hippies die by crowding so close to the woodpile where the piano was supposed to land.
“I began pleading with the crowd to step away from the log pile. The vision of the piano hitting its target and exploding into wooden shrapnel made me acutely nervous.” A helicopter hovered above, the piano swaying beneath it. Dorpat recalls, “It headed up and over the crowd and then hovered above the pile. And it kept hovering. Perhaps to wait for the piano to relax. Later I learned that the pilot was not relaxed.”
While Dorpat pleaded with the hippies, Van Over pleaded with the terrified pilot to drop his perilous payload. “They’ll move,” said Van Over. “Trust me, man, it’ll be like the Red Sea all over again!”
At about 3:30 p.m., the pilot attempted to come to a stop about 150 feet overhead. “But bodies in motion tend to remain in motion, and the five-hundred-pound piano dragged the helicopter forward,” wrote Walt Crowley in his memoir Rites of Passage.
“It started to wobble and the pilot released it,” recalls Country Joe, “probably to avoid a crash as it seemed quite a precarious load.”
“The pilot panicked and hit the harness release,” wrote Crowley, “but nothing happened. He then hit the emergency cable release, and the piano snapped free.”
The $25 St. Vincent de Paul upright was airborne for about five seconds. “It was a long few seconds,” says Dorpat. “I lost my breath, because my heart — or stomach — seemed caught in my throat.” Providentially, the piano missed both its target and the hippies, landing in the soft grass between. “The piano did not seem damaged in any way when it hit the ground,” says Joe. Dorpat remembers: “We were lucky. Like Maenads descending on Orpheus, the crowd broke for the broken piano and carried away the pieces.”
“I was amazed that they could damage an upright piano with their hands,” marvels Joe. “All in all it was quite fun and I thought very creative.”
The ostensible point of the Piano Drop was to determine scientifically what sound the instrument would make upon impact. “Sproinnnng? Charrrownnng? Brrrannnnggg? Kashwonngagaga?” wondered Crowley. In fact, it was something like “Plop.” Dorpat pronounced it a “Piano Flop.”
And yet the event was anything but a flop. Every ticket sold raised a dollar for Helix and extravagantly alternative radio station KRAB. “It was the joyful time that a few hundred (although we claimed thousands) had at the Piano Drop in Duvall that encouraged us at Helix to try a multi-day outdoor festival,” says Dorpat. Later that summer, a year before Country Joe played for half a million at Woodstock, Northwest hippies converged on Betty Nelson’s Strawberry Farm in Sultan for the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter than Air Fair.
And we may not have heard the last from that piano, the pieces of which have dispersed like the Grail. Says Dorpat, “I have a note somewhere which will, it is claimed, lead me to the sounding board.”
Illustration by Andrew Saeger for City Arts