The History of Music Festivals – Where Did it all Begin?

The chalky South Downs, which parallel the East and West Sussex coastline for 80 miles, are studded with ancient monuments. One of the finest and least-known, Whitehawk Hill just east of Brighton, is a series of earthen rings 121 metres above sea level known as Whitehawk Camp, a 5500 year old Neolithic causewayed camp that's older than Stonehenge.

Ancient people didn't live there, or hide from their enemies there. It wasn't a fort. It was a place for community gatherings, feasting and burial, just one of many such places where people met to socialise, make music, drink, dance, and fall in love. If that sounds a lot like a festival, perhaps it was. We don't know. But we do know that humans have always gathered together to party, since time immemorial.  

We're at a festival this weekend, selling our beautiful, unusual clothing to festival-lovers from all over the UK and beyond. And it made us think. While many people believe the first ever music festival was the infamous Woodstock, in 1969, when half a million hippies took over a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, musical gatherings probably have a much older and more interesting heritage. We went looking for clues, and this is what we found out.

Music festivals through the ages – The Greeks and Scots knew how to party!

In 2017 there were more than 500 music festivals held across the UK. In 2016 alone, live music fans spent an awesome £4 billion on gigs, concerts and festivals. But it's nothing new. Music festivals were almost as common in the ancient world as they are today, and Ancient Greece in the 6th century BC was one of the earliest examples we can pin down. The Pythian Games, forerunners of the Olympics, took place in Delphi, held in honour of the god of music, Apollo. They held music competitions called mousikos agon along with athletics, feats of strength, dance and art.

Roll time forwards to the 10th century BC and the Greeks were still at it, celebrating a three day spring festival dedicated to the vine flower, which kicked off with a silent drinking contest before the music and dancing kicked off.

In the eleventh century the Scottish Mods festivals took place, celebrating Scottish Gaelic song, arts and culture. In the 1700s the Three Choirs Festival attracted Rossini, Mozart, and Beethoven fans to hear the music of their heroes played in cathedrals across England.
Germany's Richard Wagner sets up his own festival

Wagner sets up his own festival in Germany

In 1876 Germany’s Bayreuth Festival was staged for the first time, an event founded by the composer Richard Wagner. He hatched the idea to promote his work, and the king at the time provided the start-up money. Just before the start of World War Two, Adolf Hitler co-opted the festival for sinister purposes, to warn Europe about the forthcoming conflict. These days Wagner fans sometimes have to wait years to get tickets, and the festival is as popular as ever.

The 1950s – Newport Jazz Festival

In the 1950s music festivals as we know them were born. In 1954 more than 11,000 people gathered for the first ever Newport Jazz Festival on Rhode Island, to hear live music from Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and more. Then came the 1960s, and the music festival scene that we know and love so much finally became set in stone.

The advent of the Reading and Leeds festivals  

The Reading Festival is probably the oldest non-classical music festival, dating back to 1961 when it was called the National Jazz and Blues Festival. Today's huge Reading and Leeds Festivals take place simultaneously every August bank holiday weekend, with a total attendance of more than 180,000 people, the size of a town. The first Isle of Wight Festival dates back to 1968, one of the most famous early music festivals in the UK, attracting an eye-watering  600,000 music fans in 1970, when Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and The Who rocked the stage.

The planet's biggest festivals

Glastonbury is the world's biggest greenfield festival, attended by around 180,000 people. It's more like a city that a festival, and all of Britain's best-loved bands have played there at one time or another. It's closely followed by Tomorrowland in Belgium, where almost as many people from more than 75 countries turn up every year to enjoy the very best in live music. Coachella in California, Exit in Serbia, Australia's Splendour in the Grass, Fuji Rock in Japan, Rock in Rio in various Spanish-speaking countries, Mawazine in Morocco and Snowglobe in California are all absolutely massive, all taking place through 2018.

What's your favourite music festival?

We love festivals. Every summer we attend as many as we can to meet our customers in person, sell our gorgeous, unique clothing, and enjoy the vibe. If you're a festival fan, what's your favourite music festival and why? We'd love to know, and we'd love to see some of your photos too.

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