A Brief History of Music Festivals

Thousands of years of dumping bass and lighting up

We’re born alone but party and listen to music together. You could say humanity’ history is music and festivals. Even introverts get FOMO, so parties started before Coachella’s lineup was announced. People from over the world have been holding music festivals for centuries.

Early festivals and parties

Music is an early indicator of festival and party culture. 6,000 years ago, when humans were still wandering hunters and gatherers, they gathered in sacred sites to eat, paint, and jam. Early people worked together to create food surpluses, allowing for free time and creative expression like music and cave paintings.

Ancient flute

Archaeological evidence reveals paleolithic humans like crisp beats 35,000 years ago. In modern Germany, flutes have been found where people painted animal caves and carved feminine shapes. The Ice Age wasn’t just about the weather.

The harvest gave people a reason to celebrate when they started farming. Harvests provided abundant food for feasts. Gardening supplied party people hemp, wheat, and grapes, which they fermented into beer and wine. Festival derives from the Latin feastum. Ancient cultures had music. Ancient communities celebrating with cannabis, beer, wine, and music likely resembled modern festivals. Wine dates to 7000 BCE in China, and beer to 11000 BCE in Israel. Hemp and marijuana are centuries-old crops. Early festivals were like Woodstock and Coachella. Consider Mehregan. In 5th-century BCE Persia, Zoroastrians emphasized friendship, love, and affection.


Ancient Greece had the first modern-style festival. The Greeks held the Pythian Games every four years (a precursor to the original Olympics). Best players of stringed instruments like the cithara (from which we get the name guitar) and aulos (an ancient pipe) were rewarded with a crown of laurels, similar to the flower crowns required at Coachella. People from all around Greece would travel to observe the celebrations.

Pythia, in whose honor the games were staged, was not a teetotaler, but the festival lacked recreational components. Ancient Greeks partying in various ways. The Greeks may not have originated drug-fueled riots, but they perfected them. Greeks and Romans adored Dionysus, the god of wine and partying, whose followers became drunk and had group sex. These disciples would become “possessed by god” in Greek. Originally, bacchanalia were women-only orgies, but subsequent versions were accessible to everyone.

Winter and summer solstices and fall and spring equinoxes are often celebrated with celebrations. Saturnalia was the pagan form of Christmas, where slaves and masters switched places, received gifts, and had sex with everyone. Catullus called Saturnalia “the greatest of days”

Holi celebrates color, love, and forgiveness around spring equinox.

Holi celebrates color, love, and forgiveness in India during the spring equinox. Like many spring holidays, it begs us to forgive and forget the past. Holi is famed for its colorful powder throws. Some Holi revelers use bhang, a cannabis powder, in drinks or on meals. Holi is the Festival of Love, a celebrant told a Western scholar.

Many east-Asian countries celebrate Mid-Autumn or Harvest Festival ( Zhngqi Jié) in the fall. Attendees worship the harvest moon, light lanterns, and celebrate marriages. Mooncakes celebrate the harvest moon and autumn’s richness.


Equinoxes and solstices are seasons. I’d be foolish not to note a few days. The calendar is an old computation of the earth’s erratic voyage around the sun, updated in current times. We celebrate festivals when the planet is balanced or totally tilted, which defines the four seasons. We work and stumble through weeks and months most of the year. On days when the earth’s tilt changes, time alters.

Festivals and kickbacks differ in many ways than attendance. It’s about celebrating. Kickbacks are fun, but they lack the “it” factor of Coachella or Holi. When we visit a festival, whether it’s in China or Las Vegas, we stop time. A festival, like a holiday (from Old English “Holy Day”), exists outside of ordinary time.

Our lives don’t halt, yet we’re freed from regular limits in this time-outside-of-time. Normal, chronological or linear time stops ticking as we plan retirements and wait for 5 o’clock. Special time, or kairos, lets us live in the moment, make love to strangers, and use narcotics without fear. Festivals are part of the charm that keeps us coming back summer after summer and relieves the daily grind.

Music emphasizes time. We dance to life’s musical heartbeat. Before mosh pits and twerking, people gathered to dance. Sufi Muslims in 12th-century Persia began semazen, or Whirling Dervishes. A dervish wears a colorful skirt, meditates on Allah, and spins in a trance. In 2011, Taiwan had 755 sufis spinning together, according to the Guiness Book of Records.

Peter Bruegel’s The Fallen to Meulebeeck

Group dances aren’t always sober. Thousands of people would dance madly for hours or days during the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe. In 1518, hundreds of people in Alsace died from exhaustion after dancing for a month. These proto-flash mobs have been documented for centuries. The entire city may have eaten ergot, a fungus that grows on rye bread and is associated to LSD. Unbaked bread made a town half-baked.

Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Janis Joplin, the Dead, and Otis Redding collaborated during the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The Monterey Pop Festival featured numerous headliners and lasted several days. Two years later, the definitive 60s music festival was held in Woodstock, New York, where nearly half a million people saw and heard what may be the greatest rock n roll lineup of all time: The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Santana, and Joan Baez.

Woodstock transcends the music scene.

It reflected the peace, love, and naivete of the 1960s counterculture movement, drug use and all. It demonstrated that young people were more interested in music and contemplation than working or fighting in Vietnam. People could enjoy human existence in its purest form despite rain, terrible acid, heat, and lack of facilities. Woodstock was a spark of beauty where 500,000 kids recognized they were part of a greater organism, remarked Joni Mitchell.

Altamont Concert

The 1969 Altamont Free Concert contrasts Woodstock. Advertised as the Californian Woodstock, it became a violent riot with at least four deaths and countless injuries, including an LSD-induced drowning. Meredith Hunter, a teenager on meth, approached the stage with a gun while the Rolling Stones played Under My Thumb. She was driven off, stabbed, and killed by the Hells Angels, who had been engaged as security. Altamont’s dark villainy contrasts with Woodstock’s sex and peace, signaling the end of the naive 60s and the beginning of the cynical 70s and inspiring Don McLean’s American Pie.

Music festivals continued through the 1970s and 1980s, notably at the Reading, Leeds, and Glastonbury Festivals in the UK and the Newport Folk (where Dylan first went electric and got booed) and Jazz Festivals in the US. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that large-scale, recurring festivals like Lollapalooza, Warped Tour, Bonnaroo, and Coachella began.

Festivals are as mainstream today as they were in the 1960s. This is less a judgment on the mainstream music that penetrates Coachella and Bonnaroo lineups than on how music has become pervasive in society. There are at least 255 large music festivals in the U.S. each year. Over 2 million people attended the top 15 festivals last year. Attending a festival has become as much of a rite of passage for young people as smoking their first joint in high school, and playing one has become as much of a sign of success for bands as appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Once folk, rock, or jazz-focused, festivals are now eclectic and integrated. Phish, Childish Gambino, Post Malone, Solange, Cardi B, Tame Impala, Courtney Barnett, Fleet Foxes, Moses Sumney, Paul Simon, and Lil Wayne will share stages this summer. Only a festival’s collective beauty can combine such acts into fresh art and music to commemorate the nation’s variety.

The future of music festivals is as foggy as the smoke-filled fields we all frequented as teens and young adults. Cost can be expensive, artists trend toward multimedia light shows, and festival organizers seem profit-driven. As long as humans exist, we’ll celebrate with love, drugs, music, and each other.

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