To celebrate, to commemorate: A long weekend

It’s not as though music festivals are a new thing. The Proms will celebrate their 125th birthday in their current form next year, while the Bayreuth Festival is even earlier dating back to 1876.

A programme for the “Dr. Who” Proms, July 2013 — Bruno Walter accompanies Kathleen Ferrier at the Edinburgh International Festival, 1948. Portrayed by Milein Cosman. Courtesy of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust — Bayreuth Festspielhaus 1882. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Following the Second World War a number of new classical music festivals sprang into being, from the Edinburgh International, which was set up in 1947 to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” (for some romance at the Festival see our recent Instagram post), to the Aldeburgh Festival, which began in the following year.

Festivals dedicated to popular music are generally more recent. The grand-daddy of jazz festivals, the Newport Jazz Festival, held in Newport, Rhode Island, started in 1954, and a few years later, its counterpart, the Newport Folk Festival began.

From the beginning the American Festivals were very different to their European counterparts. Most notably they were much shorter, running over just two or three days (the classical festivals could span a week or even months). They would lead to changes in the way that people would think about music festivals.

The Newport Folk Festival became notorious in 1965, when Bob Dylan “went electric”, moving away from the usual acoustic sets to a fully amplified band. It would be fair to say that the audience reaction was mixed, with boos and cat-calls predominating. There has been some argument as to why the reaction was so intense. In general it’s believed to have been the move away from acoustic sound that upset folk purists, other suggestions have been disappointment in the brevity of Dylan’s set, or simply poor quality speakers.

Dylan goes electric at Newport

It seems likely to me that this move away from the traditional folk sound paved the way for future rock and pop music festivals, basing the format on the established Jazz and Folk Festivals in Newport. Several small scale festivals took place in the States over the next two years before the first large scale US rock festival took place in Marin County, California, in June 1967, a week before the more famous Monterey Festival. The Monterey Festival launched the American careers of The Who and Jimi Hendrix. Both of whom ended their sets with smashing up their instruments on stage, much to the bemusement of the US audience, who had never seen anything quite like it (the British in the audience were much more blase!).

1969 was the year of big festivals. The biggest, best known, and the inspiration for pop music festivals ever since was Woodstock, which took place on 15th-18th August 1969. Surprisingly, it didn’t actually take place at Woodstock, which was 41 miles down the road, but at Bethel instead. The festival was named after the town where Bob Dylan was living at the time. He was less than impressed, valuing the seclusion of the New York countryside, and famously snubbed Woodstock, appearing instead at the Isle of Wight Festival (the ancestor of UK festivals) a few weeks later; a major coup for the young British organizers.

Woodstock was a huge enterprise. Around 400,000 people attended, causing gridlock on the roads, and leading to at least one baby being born in traffic en route to the event. For such a large event, which seems to have planned relatively quickly, it was remarkably trouble free. Despite road jams, torrential rain, and nearly half a million people on the move, most stayed in good spirits, and it was largely crime free, much to the disappointment of reporters.

Woodstock was memorably filmed (one of the film editors was none other than a young Martin Scorsese), and many of the images and sounds that linger in the collective imagination belong to that documentary including one of the best Beatles covers ever, Joe Cocker’s With a little help from my friends, and Jimi Hendrix’ take on The Star-spangled banner.

Famous acts invited to appear at Woodstock but who never made it there include The Doors (who regretted turning it down), Frank Zappa (who didn’t. He didn’t like mud, what would he have made of Glastonbury?), and Joni Mitchell, who missed Woodstock, but made it to the Isle of Wight the following year, as did The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. The Who played almost back-to-back Woodstock and Isle of Wight Festivals in 1969.

Frank Zappa – not so glorious mud…

The Isle of Wight Festival of 1969 was smaller than Woodstock (150,000 attendees) and, perhaps because of this, rather better organized. The event the following year was bigger still with some estimates making it bigger than Woodstock, perhaps with as many as 700,000 attending.

The list of acts was impressive including The Doors (who played in the dark), Emerson, Lake and Palmer (who played their arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition), Mungo Jerry (who turned up and didn’t play), and Miles Davis (who did). As with Woodstock, a documentary film was made of the event, which captured it perfectly. Sadly Message to Love remained unreleased until 1997. It’s worth watching, and comparing to the earlier Woodstock film.

In the case of Woodstock local residents were less than happy at the disruption caused by the festival; and it would never take place again. There was an event to celebrate the 40th anniversary at the Bethel Arts Centre, but the 50th anniversary celebrations planned for this year were cancelled.

The Isle of Wight Festival was cancelled following the 1970 festival, but was revived again at the start of the 21st century, and has been running annually ever since. More importantly the early festivals on the island were to inspire Glastonbury, but that’s another story…

View over the Glastonbury Festival, taken on Wednesday 24th June 2009.
Photo by Brian Marks.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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