A brief history of music festivals

As millions of Britons paint their faces and don their Wellingtons, Julian Humphrys looks at some music festivals, past and present...

This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

ca. June 1967, Mount Tamalpais State Park, California, USA --- Guitarist David Crosby of the Byrds performs with his band in front of a large crowd at the Magic Mountain Music Festival on Mount Tamalpais. --- Image by © Henry Diltz/Corbis

When were they first held?

Well before the invention of the electric guitar! The first known music festival was the Pythian Games, a precursor of the Olympics, which was held from the late sixth century BC at the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. A general celebration of all things beautiful, it included a day of musical competitions.


Do the Welsh Eisteddfodau have a long history?

The annual celebrations of Welsh poetry, music and performance can trace their history back to a bardic competition held by Lord Rhys at Cardigan Castle in 1176. After two centuries in abeyance they were revived at the end of the 18th century, notably by the Gwyneddigion, a society of Welsh exiles in London. They received an added boost in the mid-19th century as a response to the ‘Blue Books’ – controversial government reports criticising the state of education and culture in Wales.

How old is the Three Choirs Festival?

Centred around the choirs of Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester cathedrals, and closely associated with the careers of composers such as Elgar and Vaughan-Williams, the festival claims to be the oldest non-competitive classical music festival in the world and celebrates its 300th birthday this year.

Where was the first large modern rock festival?

California’s Monterey Pop Festival of June 1967 frequently gets that distinction but in fact a week before Jimi Hendrix’s guitar-burning exploits at Monterey a similar if smaller event, the splendidly named Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, had been held at Mount Tamalpais, also in California.

The legendary Woodstock Music and Arts Fair was held two years later, in August 1969. It wasn’t actually held at Woodstock. Problems finding a suitable location there obliged the organisers to site it over 40 miles away, near the town of Bethel.


When was the Glastonbury Festival first held?

On 19 September 1970, the day after Jimi Hendrix died. Acts included Marc Bolan, Stackridge and Al Stewart. They played before a crowd of about 1,500 and the admission price included free milk from the organiser’s farm.