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  • Writer's pictureW. Gerard Poole

Is There Possibly a Deep Cultural Potential in Festival Culture?

For me, there is a lot to think about here. These transformational festivals are, I think, creating something important within American popular culture. But it might be more accurate to say that they have been creating something important within

American popular culture over the past 40 something years really. Through music, ritual, art, and self organized sub-communities, these festivals have been generating lifestyles, aesthetics, and values...quietly under the national radar. Culture, but rooted in what?

Can we say that the festival culture is to a large degree rooted in the "varieties of the religious/ecstatic experience" (to adapt a phrase by William James) wherein music is a primary vehicle? Or is the need for a "shared community", the often cited "counter culture", the central driving force? But even if we emphasize the latter, we still have to ask why do "shared communities", or sub-cultures, arise from within larger communities in the first place, and why in this specific case, the very marked commonalities that these festivals have displayed for fifty years now?

I always like to predicate any "academic" conversation or inquiry with the "so what?" factor. Anything I study has to at some point address that question. What is at stake here that might make investigating any cultural or social event, rather than simply enjoying it, a worthwhile effort?

So far I feel there is something extremely interesting and worthwhile in the study of the transformational festival scene, and I'll be making a special effort to make that point clearer as my travels and writings develop.

But here is an interesting start:

I teach a Survey of American Popular Music class at the Art Institute of Washington. When we get to the 60's era almost no one in the class has a clue about what Woodstock was. Certainly there is an ethnic and racial component to this fact, but even among the white students there are many who have never even heard the name "Woodstock" much less what was significant about it. But when I went to Rootwire and I asked a number of the young people I encountered there if they had heard of Woodstock, the responses were very different. Among those I asked was the young lady with the "flowers in her hair" that I opened the above montage with. She looked at me like I had just asked an exceptionally stupid question. I got the same response from everyone I asked so I stopped asking. The fact that at 2:29 into the montage is a portrait of Frank Zappa, then Gerry Garcia and Jim Morrison, was hardly a fluke. I stuck my neck out again and asked some of the people in that kiosk if they were familiar with those faces. I received the same incredulous looks. "Are you serious? Of course I know who that is!". But the majority of my students have never heard of either of them, and even if one name was vaguely familiar, they weren't sure why, and they were not familiar with the music at all (not the case however with Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd- another subject for another time).

How is it that this culture has proliferated so powerfully for generations, just under the nose of mainstream society, and why? While this is not the only question I'm approaching the Transformational Festival scene with it is certainly one of them.

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