Music festivals become cultural common ground

| Saturday, May 3, 2014, 8:21 p.m.

Sunburn. Sweat. Mosquitoes. Beyond-capacity crowds. Trash. Primitive sanitation. Rain. Erratic sound. Mud.

File those under “Things nobody remembers and/or cares about” at summer music festivals.

Instead, we remember Jimi Hendrix' eloquent, feedback-ravaged deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969, Bob Dylan's blasphemous plugging-in of electric guitars at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 (inspiring boos and shouts of “Judas!” from the crowd), and Jesse Jackson leading the crowd in a demand for respect and dignity — “I am ... somebody!” — at Wattstax in 1973.

The names themselves seem to wield a certain memory-summoning, Zeitgeist-shaping power — Woodstock, Wattstax, Newport, Monterey Pop, Altamont, Live Aid, Glastonbury, Isle of Wight — becoming a kind of shorthand for a musical-cultural moment in time never to be forgotten.

At the moment, the summer music-festival circuit seems to only be getting bigger, more diverse and easier to access, spreading to virtually every corner of North America, Europe and beyond. Clearly, the proliferation of massive musical gatherings seems to have some significance, not just musically, but as broader indicators of culture, consumption, fashion and protest.

“In the festival experience, it's as much about the fans as the music — whether you were at Newport in '58 or Coachella last week,” says Lauren Onkey, vice president of education and public programs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

The Rock Hall has a new exhibit called “Common Ground: The Music Festival Experience” that chronicles the history of the music festival. It attempts to tell the story of this cultural phenomenon through a collection of film clips, artifacts, posters, memorabilia and even live feeds from current festivals throughout the summer.

“The modern (music) festival started in 1938 with the ‘Spirituals to Swing' festival,” Onkey says. “There's, like, 1,200 festivals a year now.

“At Woodstock, hippies got to find out that they weren't the only freaks. Festivals pretty much died out in the U.S. in the '80s, but took off in Europe. EDM (electronic dance music) has really found a mass audience through festivals.”

Though the music is only tangentially related to rock and roll, the many hues of electronic dance music have ridden a wave of festival-generated momentum, taking the rave experience out of abandoned warehouses and into the mainstream.

Still, it's a little amazing to see artifacts from Pittsburgh's own electronic mash-up champion Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis) in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet, his battered laptop and customized black-and-gold Nike high-tops are there, in a display from Lollapalooza 2008.

“The vast majority of the festivals were happy to collaborate with the exhibit,” says Todd Mesek, the Rock Hall's vice president of communications.

As a result, there are some really unique and unusual items on display.

There's Jimi Hendrix' guitar strap from Woodstock, Keith Emerson's battered 200-pound Hammond organ from the Isle of Wight Festival in 1971, Muddy Waters' acoustic guitar from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1968, Grace Slick's kaftan from the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

The centerpiece of “Common Ground” is the top floor, which features a giant scaffolding that rises to the ceiling, reminiscent of the scaffoldings that festivalgoers climbed to watch the stage at Woodstock. The room is surrounded by four giant screens, showing a 20-minute film cut together from many music festivals, depicting the festival experience “from dawn to dawn.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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