MUSIC FESTIVALS IN THE UNITED KINGDOM
Deviant Amps' Paul Woodwright at Kozfest 2016 (which Paul organizes) & Black Light Secret at Surplus Festival 2016
Part 1: Inspiration and Evolution
Text and concert photos by Jack Gold-Molina
Cultural festival gatherings have occurred in the United Kingdom and in Europe in some form throughout the entire evolution of modern man. While there is no single date of the first festival, music has always had a key role. Expressions of artistic creativity, including music and sculpture, emerged with some of the first modern humans around the time that they began colonizing Europe during the last ice age, approximately 40,000 years ago. Nicholas J. Conard, Maria Malina and Susanne C. Munzel, writing for the journal Nature, suggest that music is one of several behaviors that made them distinct from Neanderthals. It is argued that the emergence of art and culture gives a possible explanation of why early modern humans survived and Neanderthals, with whom they co-existed, did not.
The 2008 discoveries of several flutes made from mammoth ivory and bird bone that were found in Germany and France dating back approximately 35,000 years ago – the oldest known musical instruments – suggest that not only was music widespread, but so was “humanity's creative spirit.” Conard, in an interview with Pallab Ghosh for BBC News, stated, “It's becoming increasingly clear that music was part of day-to-day life. Music was used in many kinds of social contexts: possibly religious, possibly recreational – much like we use music today in many kinds of settings. The modern humans that came into our area had a whole range of symbolic artifacts, figurative art, depictions of mythological creatures, many kinds of personal ornaments and also a well-developed musical tradition.”
Conard et al. wrote that it is possible that music contributed to the maintenance of larger social networks, helping to facilitate demographic and territorial expansion. According to Professor Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, “These flutes provide yet more evidence of the sophistication of the people that lived at that time…. I think the occurrence of these flutes and animal and human figurines about 40,000 years ago implies that the traditions that produced them must go back even further in the evolutionary history of modern humans – perhaps even into Africa more than 50,000 years ago.”
It was during the Pleistocene era, from 2,600,000 to 9,700 BCE, that the evolution of anatomically modern humans took place. These humans migrated from Africa during the late Pleistocene period, moving into other areas of the world including Western Europe. According to Stringer, “When modern humans came out of Africa, fundamentally they were behaviorally modern. They took that into Europe. There was no single revolutionary event in Europe; this was something that was in modern humans when they came out of Africa, and the ones who stayed behind as well.”
photo from English Heritage
Stonehenge was raised between approximately 3,100 BCE and 2,300 BCE in what is now Wiltshire, United Kingdom. This was during the Holocene Epoch, circa 9,700 BCE to the present, at the end of the Pleistocene. It was also during the Neolithic Period, or New Stone Age, in Britain that began around 4,900 BCE and ended in 2,000 BCE with the beginning of the Bronze Age. Following the Mesolithic Period, or Middle Stone Age, that occurred from about 8,000 BCE to 4,900 BCE, this was a time of transition from the long Paleolithic Period, or Old Stone Age, that occurred from approximately 700,000 BCE to 8,000 BCE – a time of savagery. A more settled way of life depending on animal husbandry and agriculture, eventually this would lead to growth in population and in the size of communities, and the beginnings of what would become townships.
Around 4,000 BCE the inhabitants of Britain were constructing chambered tombs with large stones known as megaliths, such as the Chun Quoit in Cornwall. Silbury Hill, the largest manmade mound in Europe, was constructed around 2,500 BCE. On a base covering more than five acres, it is roughly 130 feet high. Around that time, the inhabitants of the Norfolk area also dug mines up to 35 feet deep in order to reach flint that was used to make edged weapons and tools. At the time that Stonehenge was built, at least 900 other stone circles were also formed. Carefully raised in astronomical alignment to the summer solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset, the sarsen stones of Stonehenge were erected and repeatedly moved. It has been suggested that this was to assist with the observations necessary to establish the correct days for seasonal festivals.
The celebration of summer solstice and its Pagan folk equivalent Midsummer, which is celebrated on a date that differs from the astronomical solstice, have an enduring history throughout Europe. Astronomically the longest day of the year, the summer solstice is meaningful in a conjunction of ancient place and sacred time. A very old tradition, though first recorded in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Midsummer was marked by the lighting of festive fires. The inhabitants of Aquitane, in southwestern France, celebrated a sun ritual by rolling a flaming wheel down a hill to a river, later reassembling the charred pieces in the temple of a sky god. A similar event that involved the rolling of a wheel was recorded in the Cotswolds in south central England in the fourteenth century, on the evening before Midsummer, June 24, the nativity of St. John the Baptist. Last seen in Widdecombe in Devon in 1954, the Midsummer wheel was widely recorded in collections of English folklore.
The Pagan tradition of the lighting of fires was to ritually strengthen the sun, driving out evil and bringing fertility and prosperity to people, crops and herds. Gorse flowers were set ablaze and carried around cattle to prevent disease and misfortune, while people danced around the balefires and leapt through the flames as a purifying or strengthening rite. The Norse would light torches and parade through the countryside with their families and animals to the celebration site. Celts would light balefires all over their lands that would burn from sunset St. John's Eve to sunset Midsummer Day. It was around these flames that the festivities would take place. Up to the mid eighteenth century in Cornwall, the number of fires that could be seen from any given place was used as a form of divination and to read the future. In Germany, bonfires are still a custom, where people gather to watch and celebrate the solstice, and in some areas, straw dolls are thrown into the fire.
In the United Kingdom, inspiration is a primary element in the arts and music, as well as in society at large. Simon Deards, co-organizer of Cosmic Puffin, an independent music and arts festival for charity, explained, “We're with friends. There are artists on the stage performing the music that they love and that moves them. If you get a physical reaction to a piece of music, you feel that you have made a personal connection to the artist performing that music. That phenomenon is one of the fundamentals of your liking music, that connection that you make. It is very rarely, in most people's lives, that that connection comes back the other way. That is why I get involved in these small events, these festivals. You get that connection.”
In his article “Inspirational Variations? Culture and Leadership in England,” Simon Booth wrote that there is a “streak of individualism to be found in England.” According to Booth, cultural change in England since the early 20th century, rapid during periods of war and slower during periods of peace, has been influenced by a number of factors. The arrival of migrants from many different parts of the world following the end of World War II caused society to become increasingly multicultural and cosmopolitan. The “baby boomer” generation, the generation of children born between 1945-1960, was committed to economic reform and the development of a welfare state, and was committed to equality of opportunity. Regional and ethnic influences began to grow in significance as well. By the beginning of the 21st century, many diverse ethnic communities came to make up substantial populations in the UK.
Two mutually exclusive cultures were developing in UK society during the course of the 20th century. One of these cultures was made up of a progressive scientific elite, and the other was based on the traditional intellectual elite that had little interest in the understanding of, or the values associated with, science or technology. Booth stated, “These forces have had a strong influence that can be summed up as a battle between progressives and traditionalists. Looking back, we can see that two cultural archetypes have been striving for supremacy.”
Traditionalist culture in England was based on social and economic inequality in society. It supported and maintained the idea of class as a differentiating factor, and was held together by a general acceptance of inequality, support from the church, and by law and custom. Members of this culture preferred the known, learned, or experienced truths associated with how they were raised. The nature of the social rules that governed behavior depended on the class that an individual belonged to. Middle and upper class norms included putting an emphasis on such values as personal discipline and morality, politeness, keeping to the rules even when no one else is checking, telling the truth, and acting as a “gentleman” or a “lady.” According to Booth, “These attributes were at the heart of an ‘establishment' view of the world.”
In the 1950's and 1960's, an alternative culture was developing in the UK that was rooted in liberal and collectivist values. Guitarist, painter and album artist Peter Pracownik, in an interview for Festivalized: Music, Politics and Alternative Culture by Ian Abrahams and Bridget Wishart, stated, “In the early ‘60's, people really started to think a bit more; they were allowed to read more books. And by reading more you want to know more and you get Zen with it because no-one's listening to you. So the only way to converse with other people is to have a happening, in a park or out in a field. They developed that way, and then they became love-ins.”
Festivals are considered a celebration of life, as they have been traditionally for many thousands of years. In the 1960's, a new, anarchic counter-cultural festival scene emerged in the UK. Festivals in the mid-twentieth century had typically been seen as a one-day event, gatherings that often incorporated jazz music and binge drinking. As rock and roll groups like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Jefferson Airplane became increasingly popular and influential, underground magazines such as Oz and the International Times (IT) offered a new way of seeing the world. Artists, musicians, educators and festival goers alike were experimenting with psychedelic substances, and the UK festival scene became part of a wider cultural revolution.
In Part 2, we will look at how festivals in the United Kingdom have been influenced by changes in society, and how they continue to thrive today.
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- Alumniportal Deutschland (2016). Midsummer: when in Germany St. John's fires burn.
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- Worthington, A. (2004). Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion.
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