The History and a List of Important Music Festivals
The Early Origins of Music Festivals
For music fans, the summer is a time for music festivals. There is no shortage of music festivals that are currently taking place. It should also be noted that music festivals are by no means a new development.
Back in the 6th century BCE music was featured prominently as part of the Pythian Games. It should be noted that the artistic and dance competitions predated the athletic portion of the games. These competitions would include live music which would feature different musicians playing flutes and Kithara (an ancient Greek string instrument, and at times it may have been accompanied by singing). Also during the middle ages music festivals where frequently held as competitions.
During the 20th Century (especially during the 1960s) many of the definitive moments of music and pop cultural were closely linked with music festivals. Attempts were made to revive some of these festivals, but they generally lack the magic of the original.
In recent years there have been a number of music festivals worldwide which attract many big names and huge crowds.
We will consider a few of the more historically significant festival, both past and present.
The Newport Jazz Festival
The Newport Jazz Festival which takes place in New Port, Rhode Island has been actively running since 1954. It may arguably be the most historically significant Jazz festivals, and it has featured many notable moments.
Among the festivals highlights included a number of memorable appearances by Miles Davis. One of these was highlighted on the 1964 album Miles & Monk at Newport.
The 1958 festival was highlighted in the 1960 acclaimed documentary film, Jazz on a Summer's Day. That film featured festival performances from Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson.
Not only did the festival continue to showcase the leading jazz and blues artists of the time, but by the late 60's it started to include then newer rock groups such as Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and The Allman Brothers. The festival was becoming too big for Newport and many issues were starting to arise because of being unable to control the size of the crowd. In 1972 it transported to New York under the name Newport Jazz Festival-New York. That year included 30 different concerts, including venues such as Yankee Stadium and Radio City Music Hall.
The Newport Jazz Festival moved to couple of different locations before moving back to Newport in 1981. Even though it may no longer have the same significance, it continues to be a popular festival draw.
The Newport Folk Festival
The Newport Folk Festival began in 1959 as a counterpart to The Newport Jazz Festival. The festival ran until 1971, until it was revived again in 1985.
Even though it may not have had the same long history as The Newport Jazz Festival, it has had its share of significant historical moments. The festival helped introduce Joan Baez and Bob Dylan to a wider audience. Speaking of Dylan, his July 25, 1965 Newport appearance is one of the most notorious in music history. Dylan created a lot of controversy when he chose to go electric. This resulted in a loud chorus of boos and a backlash from folk purist who felt that he sold out.
Bob Dylan - Live at Newport Folk Festival Teaser (Video)
The Monterey Pop Festival
The Monterey Pop Festival was a three day music festival which took place on June 16-18, 1967. This was considered to be the first major rock festival and it served as a template for future rock festivals such as Woodstock.
The festival lineup included the first major US appearances from The Who, Jimi Hendrix & Ravi Shankar, along with the first major performances of Janis Joplin. The festival was also notable for introducing Otis Redding to a prominently white audience. One of the defining moments of the concert was when Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire during his performance of "Wild Thing".
The festival also spawned the acclaimed 1968 concert film, Monterey Pop, directed by D.A. Pennebaker.
Monterey Pop Official Trailer (Video)
Magazine Advertisement for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair
The former location of Max Yagur's Farm, the location of the Woodstock 1969.
The Woodstock Music & Art Fair which took place on August 15-18, 1969 may just be the most famous music festival ever. It was definitely a defining moment in music and pop culture history.
The event attracted 32 acts that performed in front of over 500,000 people. The festival was generally meant to be a profit venture, but when 500,000 people showed up (organizers sold tickets for just under 200,000) and they didn't have adequate fencing, it became a free concert. Considering the sheer volume, poor weather conditions and inadequate facilities it was amazing that the festival goers were able to peacefully co-exist (especially in contrast with later revivals).
Just like with Monterey two years previous, Jimi Hendrix had one of the defining moments of Woodstock. This time it was with his radical reworking of the "The Star-Spangled Banner". The festival also spawned the acclaimed film which won a 1970 Oscar for best documentary.
After the original festival there has been a few revival events that have took place:
- Woodstock 1979: A concert took place in Madison Square Garden. It featured appearances from Richie Havens, Canned Heat, Country Joe and the Fish, Johnny Winter, among others. Also in 1979 was a reunion concert which took place at Par Meadows racetrack in Long Island, New York. It had a similar line up and it was attended by over 40,000 people.
- Woodstock 1989: Often referred to as the forgotten Woodstock, it was a concert which took place on the original Woodstock site. It featured mostly performances by unknown musicians, but did feature appearances by counter culture icons Wavy Gravy and Jimi Hendrix's father Al Hendrix. It was attended by more than 30,000 people.
- Woodstock 1994: Took place on August 12th-14th and is quite often referred to as the "commercial Woodstock" or "mudstock". Over 350,000 attended which was more than organizers anticipated which resulted in some issues with security. One of the notable performances at Woodstock 94 was Green Day's set. They started a mud fight with the crowd (which helped coin the term mudstock) which spiraled out of control when mud covered fans hopped on stage, and one of the security guard accidentally tackled Green Day's bassist Mike Dirnt. There was also an "unofficial" free concert which took place at the original Woodstock site. It was organized partly by Richie Havens (who also performed at the original) and it was attended by approximately 130,000.
- Woodstock 1999: It took place on July 22-25. It was attended by approximately 200,000 people. Unfortunately instead of being about peace and love it was marred by rapes, fires and violence.
- Woodstock 2009: It was billed as the Heroes of Woodstock Tour. To mark the 40th anniversary many of the original participants toured across a number of different venues.
Video of The Band Performing The Weight Live at Woodstock 1969
Isle of Wight Festival
The Isle of Wight Festival was a music festival which took place on the Isle of Wight in England. It originally took place during 1968-1970. It has since been revived in 2002 and has been taken place continuously ever since.
The 1970 Isle of Wight was by far the biggest which according to some estimates approached 700,000 people attending (more that Woodstock). It included a diverse group of performers which included The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Moody Blues, Free, Leonard Cohen and Jethro Tull (all of which have been released as separate concert films).
One of the individuals in attendance was Andrew Kerr, who was heavily involved which the formation of the Glastonbury Festival.
The unanticipated high turnout lead to Parliament passing the "Isle of Wight Act" preventing gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a license.
Video of The Who Performing Heaven and Hell Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970
The modern day incarnation of the Glastonbury Festival first took place near Pilton England in 1970 under the name Pilton Festival. The following year it adopted the name Glastonbury. The 1971 festival was documented in the 1972 documentary Glastonbury Fayre. The 1971 festival featured performances from David Bowie (not featured in the film), Traffic, Arthur Brown and Fairport Convention.
The event took a hiatus for a few years until resuming again in 1978. With the exception of the odd break, the festival has been mostly continual since.
The festival is known for implementing the pyramid stage. Over the years the festival has also been closely connected with a number of charitable causes including Greenpeace, Oxfam & the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Even though there really is not a connection other that the name, there was a Glastonbury Festival that took place during 1914-25. These where a series of cultural events which included stage performances, recitals, operas, chamber music, etc...
Video of Radiohead Performing Climbing Up The Walls Live at the 1997 Glastonbury Festival
Lollapalooza was first conceived by Jane's Addiction front man Perry Farrell as a touring alternative music festival. The first Lollapalooza took place in 1991 and it featured a lineup which included Jane's Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Violent Femmes. The festival was credited with helping to promote the popularity of alternative music and it was at the festival where Farrell coined the expression "Alternative Nation".
It continued as a touring festival until 1997. It took place one last time as a touring festival in 2003. In 2005 it was moved to a single location which took place over a single weekend, Grant Park in Chicago. Since 2011 versions of the festival also took place in Brazil and Chile.
Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor Performing at the 1991 Lollapalooza Festival.
Video of Nine Inch Nails Performing Now I'm Nothing/Terrible Lie Live at the 1991 Lollapalooza Festival
Coachella Music Festival
The first Coachella took place in 1999 in the Coachella Valley in California. It has since become one of the more prominent North American music festivals. Not only does this feature a diverse group of marquee performers, but in recent years it has also featured some notable reunions.
Even though the festival always had solid line ups, 2003 was considered a breakout year in terms of increased media attention. That year’s lineup included the Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The White Stripes and a reunited Iggy Pop and The Stooges. Another notable moment took place in 2012 which featured a hologram of Tupac Shakur performing during the Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's set.
Which music festival do you feel is the most historically significant?
Even More Music Festivals
This has just been a small sampling of music festivals. Over the years music festivals have become an important part of popular music culture. It gives music fans an opportunity to enjoy a number of their favorite artists over the course of a day (or days). It is also an opportunity to introduce up and coming artists to a new audience. It will be interesting to see how music festivals will continue to evolve.
History of Music Festival Quizview quiz statistics
Questions & Answers
I'm surprised to find no mention here or in any other "history" of music festivals, of the relatively large New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. "Jazz Fest" is a 10-day event attended by upwards of half a million people as of 2018. It's been in continuous annual production since 1970. It seems historic, and sizable, but seemingly not notable enough to find in most lists of historic music festivals. I wonder why the omission?
My list isn't exhaustive, and there are a number of significant festivals that didn't make my list. But if it is not being mentioned in other lists, it could be an oversight. I'll be honest, I'm not overly familiar with it, but that could simply be to the fact that it doesn't get the acknowledgment that it deserves. I tried to focus on music festivals that were linked to key moments in the historical development of music, but obviously, there are other festivals you could make arguments for.
© 2012 CJ Baker