Woodstock Wasn’t The Beginning: A Brief History of Music Festivals

How we’ve been dropping the bass and lighting up for thousands of years.
Woodstock Wasn't The Beginning: A Brief History of Music Festivals

Humans are born alone, but we get together to listen to music and party. You might even say that the history of humans is the history of music and festivals. Parties have been popping long before Coachella’s lineup was announced because we’re social creatures and even the most introverted people still get FOMO. Throughout history, people all over the world have been getting together to play music and rage like college sophomores at festivals.

We have early proof of festival and party culture thanks to something that makes every party special: the music. Before humans ever settled into farming around 6,000 years ago, when we still were migratory hunters and gatherers, people were already getting together in sacred places to eat, paint, and have jam seshes. Hunting and gathering required teamwork and planning, so early humans were already getting together to create surpluses of food, which allowed for leisure time and creative expression like music and cave paintings.

Translation: even cavemen were working for the weekend.

Paleolithic flute; Wikimedia Commons

Most importantly, the archaeological record shows that paleolithic humans were enjoying crunchy beats at least 35,000 years ago. In modern Germany, flutes have been discovered in regions where people were gathering to paint caves of animals and carve small female forms. The weather wasn’t the only thing that made the Ice Age pretty cool.

When people began farming, civilizations formed along with a new reason to party: the harvest. Harvests allowed humans to enjoy the fruits of their labor with bountiful food for feasts. Learning how to garden also gave party people nature’s greatest gift—hemp—along with grains and grapes, which people quickly figured out how to ferment into beer and wine. The word festival actually comes from the Latin festum or feast. These early civilizations even had music. Ancient groups celebrating with weed, beer, wine, and music can’t have been too far off from our modern festivals. The earliest archaeological evidence of wine has been dated to 7000 BCE in China, and beer has been dated at archaeological sites to 11000 BCE in Israel. Hemp and marijuana have been grown and utilized for millenia. These early festivals often had the same ethos as Woodstock and Coachella. Take Mehregan, for example. It was a Zoroastrian festival in 5th century BCE in ancient Persia that celebrated friendship, love, and affection.

The first recorded contemporary-style festival took place in ancient Greece. Every four years, the Greeks held athletic and artistic competitions at the Pythian Games (a precursor to the original Olympics). Musicians would play stringed instruments like the cithara (which is where we get the word guitar) and aulos (an ancient pipe), and the best players were rewarded with a crown of laurels not unlike the flower crowns that have become compulsory at Coachella. Cities would send their best to compete, and people from all around the Greek world would travel to see the festivities.

A Bacchanalian Revel before a statue of Pan; Nicolas Poussin

While the Pythia (in whose honor the games were held) was not a teetotaler, the festival itself lacked the more recreational aspects we seek at modern festivals. However, the ancient Greeks were also known to party in other ways. And, while the Greeks may not have invented drug-fueled ragers, they may have perfected them as an art. Some Greeks and Romans worshipped Dionysus, the god of wine and partying, whose followers would congregate, get wasted, and have group sex. These followers would get so high they would become enthusiastic the Greek word for “possessed by god.” Allegedly, these parties (called bacchanalia) were originally women-only orgies, but later versions were open to everyone from every social class.

Around the world, it is common for festivals to take place around the winter and summer solstices and fall and spring equinoxes. Saturnalia (the pagan version of Christmas) was an all-out rager where slaves and masters traded  places, exchanged gifts, and had sex with everybody. Or, as the Roman poet Catullus said of Saturnalia. “the festival day of Saturnalia, the best of days!”

Steven Gerner/ Flickr

In India, the Holi festival occurs around the spring equinox and celebrates color, love, and forgiveness. Like many spring festivals, it asks us to celebrate the new spring and to forgive and forget the past. Holi is also known for its dramatic throwing of colored pigments into the air. And, of course, some groups celebrating Holi consume bhang, an powdered form of cannabis put in drinks or on food. A celebrant of Holi stated to a Western researcher: “Holi, he said with a beatific sigh, is the Festival of Love!”

In fall, many east-Asian countries celebrate the Mid-Autumn or Harvest Festival (中秋節 Zhōngqiū Jié in Chinese) where attendees worship the harvest moon, light lanterns, and celebrate marriages. Mooncakes, a special sweet pastry, are eaten in celebration of the harvest moon and autumn’s bounty.

Hodaka Kato

What are the equinoxes and solstices? I’d be remiss if I didn’t mark a day or two on the calendar. You may think the calendar is just an ever-shortening stack of daily jokes on your desk at work, but it is actually an ancient calculation (later updated in modern times) of the earth’s wobbly trip around the sun. The four seasons are defined by the earth’s tilt and we often celebrate festivals when the earth is balanced or fully tilted. We live our ordinary lives most days of the year, working and wobbling through weeks and months. It is on special days, the days when the earth’s tilt becomes balanced or changes direction, that time itself changes.

Now, the difference between a festival and kickback is more than the number of people who show up. It’s about that special time in which we celebrate. Because, as much fun as a kickback can be, we all know it lacks the je ne sais quoi that Coachella or a Holi have. When we attend a festival, whether it is a Harvest Festival in China or EDC in Las Vegas, we remove ourselves from the normal passage of time. Just as a holiday (which comes from the Old English for “Holy Day”) is distinct from the normal work week, a festival exists outside of ordinary time.

Our lives don’t stop but we are freed from our normal constraints and can live fully in this time-outside-of-time. Normal, chronological or linear time ceases its too persistent tick-tock where we plan our retirements and wait for 5 o’clock. Special time, or what the Greeks called kairos, allows us to live in the moment, to make love to strangers and consume drugs with impunity and without fear of repercussions. Festival time is part of the magic that keeps us coming back summer after summer and gives relief form the tedium and grind of everyday life.

Recai Cabuk/ Shutterstock

The importance of time is also found in music. Musical time is the heartbeat of life and one we take part in through dance. Before mosh pits or twerking ever danced their way into our hearts, people were getting together en masse to dance the night away. In 12th century Persia, Sufi Muslims began a practice known as semazen or what the West calls the Whirling Dervishes. A form of meditation, a dervish wears a colorful skirt, contemplates Allah, and spins like the wash cycle, entering an ecstatic trance. In a dizzying statistic, according to the Guiness Book of Records, the most sufis spinning together was 755 in Taiwan in 2011.

Die Wallfahrt der Fallsüchtigen nach Meulebeeck; Peter Bruegel

Not all of these group dance sessions are sober. In Europe, during the Middle-Ages and Renaissance, there were episodes of so-called “dancing plagues” where thousands of people would simultaneous and frantically dance for hours or days on end. Culminating in 1518 in Alsace, a dancing plague struck hundreds of people who danced for over a month, some of them dying from exhaustion. These proto-flash mobs affected everyone in a town and are well documented over hundreds of years. One explanation is that ergot, a fungi that grows on rye used for bread and is structurally related to LSD, was accidentally and simultaneously eaten by the entire city. This resulted in unbaked bread getting a whole town half-baked.

The origin of the modern music festival is generally credited to the Monterey Pop Festival where Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Janis Joplin, the Dead, and Otis Redding jammed in June, 1967. Distinct from a simple concert that lasts for a few hours at most, the Monterey Pop Festival raged for several days with multiple headliners. Two years later, the definitive 60s music festival was held in Woodstock, New York where nearly half a million people turned out to see and hear what may be the greatest rock n roll lineup of all time including: The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Santana, and Joan Baez.

Derek Redmond/ Wikimedia Commons

Woodstock as a cultural phenomenon transcended the music. It represented the peace, love, and naivete of the 1960s counterculture movement in all of its drug use and muddy sex. It showed the world that hundreds of thousands of young people were more interested in music and introspection than joining the workforce or fighting a war in Vietnam. That despite all of the rain, the bad acid, heat, and lack of facilities or conveniences, people could get together to celebrate human life in its most pure form. Or, as Joni Mitchell said, “Woodstock was a spark of beauty where half-a-million kids saw that they were part of a greater organism”.

The counterpoint to Woodstock is the infamous Altamont Free Concert in December, 1969. Advertised as the Californian Woodstock and with many of the same headliners, it became a violent riot with at least four deaths and multiple injuries including an LSD-induced drowning. While the Rolling Stones played Under My Thumb, Meredith Hunter, a teenager allegedly on methamphetamines, approached the stage with a gun before being driven off, stabbed, and killed by the Hells Angels motorcycle gang that had been hired to provide security. The dark villainy of Altamont provides chiaroscuro when compared to Woodstock’s sex and peace and together they signal the end of the innocent 60s and the beginning of the jaded 70s: a story arc that inspired Don Mclean’s immortal American Pie.

Although music festivals continued through the 70s and 80s, notably at the Reading, Leeds, and Glastonbury Festivals in the United Kingdom as well as the Newport Folk (where Dylan first went electric and got booed) and Jazz Festivals in the United States, it wasn’t until the 90s that the large scale, recurring festivals like Lollapalooza, Warped Tour, Bonnaroo, and Coachella began.

As a cultural phenomenon, music festivals are as mainstream today as they were countercultural in the 60s. This is less a reflection on the pop music that now permeates the lineups of Coachella and Bonnaroo, but rather that supply has met the demand of teenagers everywhere and music has become a ubiquitous part of society. By my count, there are currently at least 255 large scale music festivals that occur each year in the United States alone. Just the top 15 festivals drew over 2 million people last year. Attending one of these celebrations of life and music has become as much a rite of passage for young people as taking that first hit of a joint in high school, and playing one of these festivals has become as much a sign of ‘making it’ for bands as appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone once signalled.

Where festivals were once folk, rock, or jazz oriented, they’ve become increasingly eclectic and integrated. This summer alone, bands and acts as diverse but complementary as Phish, Childish Gambino, Post Malone, Solange, Cardi B, Tame Impala, Courtney Barnett, Fleet Foxes, Moses Sumney, Paul Simon, and Lil Wayne will grace some of the same stages across the country. It is only the communal beauty of a festival that can bring such acts together in new blends of art and music and celebrate the diversity of the nation.

The future of music festivals is as hazy as the smoke and trash covered fields we’ve all frequented in our teens and twenties. The cost of attending can be prohibitive, the acts trend more and more towards multimedia light shows of sensory overload, and festival organizers themselves seem driven by profit. However, we are a celebratory species and as long as people are people we will celebrate with love, drugs, music, and each other.

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