A Century Of Sound: Tracing The Evolution Of American Music Festivals

Journey through the past 100 years of music festivals in the United States.

By Andy Kahn Apr 15, 2024 2:00 pm PDT

Music festivals in the United States have grown from humble beginnings into a massive cultural phenomenon, reflecting the shifting landscapes of music, society and technology. Over the past 100 years, the music festival has evolved and expanded in prominence in America, providing entertainment in a wide variety of settings.

Music festivals have become an integral part of nearly every genre of popular music. From coast to coast and throughout each year, music fans can seek out the artists they love at the events that best suit their tastes and interests.

The JamBase Festival Guide has listed thousands of U.S. music festivals over the years, and the total is consistently growing. With the music festival season coming into full swing, journey through the past 100 years to explore the evolution of the music festival in the United States (and beyond).


The Roaring ‘20s & Birth of Music Festivals In America

The 1920s saw music gatherings around the country often organized by different ethnic groups. According to author Ronald D. Cohen, who wrote the book A History of Folk Music Festivals in the United States: Feasts of Musical Celebration:

“The ‘Festival of America’s Making’ was held in New York City in 1921, and the ‘Festival of Nations’ in Cleveland in 1927. St. Paul, Minnesota, was active in promoting an annual festival, such as the first Folk Festival and Homelands Exhibit in 1932, featuring 18 nationalities.

“The program for St. Paul’s 1934 International Folk Festival noted: ‘The songs and dances of the Festival are a creative activity of the foreign communities. The episodes of the program have originated in the various national and racial groups and have developed under their own leadership …All nationalities, races, religions, ages and occupations are represented. Men, women, and children of various degrees of education, of every economic and social level, the privileged, the unemployed, descendants of early settlers, the latest arrivals are friends in a common enterprise.’ Participants came from England, Norway, Ukraine, Germany, Greece, Armenia, Romania, Poland, and other nations; the music and dance ranged from classical to folk, and short plays were staged.

“The 1942 Festival of Nations in St. Paul featured, among the numerous European groups, Jewish singers and dancers, as well as the Hattie Q. Brown Community House, which presented a selection of spirituals, and a Western Pioneer Square Dance. Understanding and tolerance of diversity were part and parcel of the promotion of patriotism, the goal of such festivals.”

Folk festivals grew in popularity in the 1930s in the American South. Gatherings of fiddlers, often featuring competitions, sprung up throughout the region.

During the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s, music events and gatherings continued to flourish, with events like John Hammond’s From Spirituals To Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Glen Island Casino’s Sunday night concerts in New York attracting large crowds.

Big band music dominated the scene during this time, led by legendary performers such as Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. One of the earliest and most significant festivals of this era was the Newport Jazz Festival, founded in 1954. Renowned for its celebration of jazz, blues and swing, the Newport Jazz Festival became a seminal event in American music history, attracting legendary performers such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

Five years later, influential Newport Jazz Fest promoter George Wein staged the first Newport Folk Festival, introducing audiences to groundbreaking artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Meanwhile, country music festivals in rural areas and bluegrass festivals in Appalachia celebrated the roots of American music, drawing enthusiasts from across the nation.

The Counterculture Movement & Rise of Rock Festivals

The 1960s witnessed a seismic shift in American society and music, as the counterculture movement took center stage. With it came large-scale music events that truly set the stage for the current modern music festival scene.

This era saw the emergence of iconic rock festivals, notably the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. Monterey Pop epitomized the spirit of the 1960s, featuring groundbreaking performances by artists like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and The Who.

Otis Redding at Monterey Pop

One of the country’s largest and still running music festivals, Milwaukee’s annual Summerfest made its debut in 1968. Countless musicians from all types of genres have made the trek to perform at the long-running fest.

Another landmark event, the storied Woodstock Festival in 1969, transcended its original intentions to become a symbol of peace, love and expression of music. With its sprawling crowds and legendary performances, Woodstock solidified its place in history as the quintessential music festival of the era.

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While Woodstock was a celebration of the 1960s peace and love ethos, the decade came to a close with the violence that unfolded across the country at the Altamont Free Concert. Held at the Altamont Speedway and headlined by The Rolling Stones, the event turned tragic when an attendee was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle group, which was hired to provide security.

Unheralded at the time, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a series of concerts that took place in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood during the summer of 1969. The festival ran for six weeks, from June 29 to August 24, and featured performances by many of the most popular Black musicians of the era, including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Edwin Hawkins Singers and The Staple Singers, among many others. Integrated groups also performed, such as Sly and the Family Stone, The Chambers Brothers, Herbie Mann’s band featuring Roy Ayers and more. Latin music was also represented by the likes of Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaría.

The Harlem Cultural Festival overlapped Woodstock, held miles away in Upstate New York. Due to that connection, the Harlem Cultural Festival has been hailed as the “Black Woodstock,” having recently been reexamined for its historical significance in the documentary film directed by The Roots drummer Questlove, Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and the Grammy Award for Best Music Film.

The Expansion of Music Festivals In The 1970s & 1980s

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a proliferation of music festivals across the United States, reflecting the diversification of musical genres and subcultures. In 1971, the Glastonbury Festival debuted in England, setting a precedent for the fusion of music, art and countercultural ethos.

Meanwhile, in the United States, events like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which George Wein helped establish, and Colorado’s scenic Telluride Bluegrass Festival emerged as bastions of musical tradition and innovation.

An estimated crowd of over 100,000 people came together at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on August 20, 1972 for a daylong concert billed as Wattstax. The historic event drew one of the largest crowds of the time and showcased many of the era’s premier Black musicians. Wattstax was headlined by Isaac Hayes and also showcased performances by Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Albert King and many others. The Staple Singers — who performed at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that some referred to as the “Black Woodstock” — were on the Wattstax lineup, which some also called the “Black Woodstock” as well.

In 1973, the Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band and The Band staged what was intended to be a one-day concert event at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway in Upstate New York. Attended by an estimated 600,000 people, Summer Jam at Watkins Glen was deemed the “largest audience at a pop festival” by the Guinness Book Of World Records.

Grateful Dead – Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam – July 27, 1973

In Memphis, the first Beale Street Music Festival was held in 1977 and Chicago’s Jazz Festival premiered in 1979. The Windy City’s blues heritage is also celebrated with the annual Chicago Blues Festival which made its debut in 1984. Austin’s innovative South By Southwest conference became an essential annual meeting that merges tech, film and music.

Live Aid, the historic multi-venue benefit concert held on July 13, 1985, was organized by musician Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. The event featured simultaneous concerts at Wembley Stadium in London, England, and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with some of the biggest names in music performing, including Queen, U2, Madonna and David Bowie. It was watched by an estimated global television audience of 1.9 billion people across 150 countries and raised over $125 million in aid.

The Philadelphia concert was hosted by Jack Nicholson and included memorable moments like Led Zeppelin’s reunion performance after disbanding in 1980. Others who performed in Philadelphia for Live Aid included Mick Jagger with Tina Turner, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Run–D.M.C., The Beach Boys, Joan Baez, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, CSN, Hall & Oates, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and others.

In 1985, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp orchestrated the inaugural Farm Aid concert with the aim of shedding light on the plight of family farms and generating financial support to safeguard agricultural legacies. Dave Matthews assumed a role on the Farm Aid Board of Directors in 2001, with Margo Price following suit in 2021. Presented with the feel of a festival, the annual all-star concerts, which were inspired in part by Bob Dylan’s statement during his Live Aid appearance, have amassed over $78 million in support of farmers.


The Explosion of Music Festivals in the 1990s & 2000s

The 1990s and 2000s marked a renaissance for music festivals in the United States, driven by advancements in technology, globalization and the rise of digital media. The advent of the internet enabled festivals to reach wider audiences and foster online communities, while advancements in sound and lighting technology transformed live performances into immersive experiences.

The 1990s and 2000s witnessed the rise of alternative rock, hip-hop and electronic music, leading to the proliferation of niche music festivals catering to specific genres and subcultures. Traveling festivals like Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E., Lilith Fair, Ozzfest and Warped Tour came into prominence in the 1990s and 2000s.

Events like Coachella and Pitchfork Music Festival became synonymous with alternative, hip-hop, pop and indie music, offering attendees an eclectic blend of live performances, art installations and immersive experiences.

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Festivals favored by the jam scene also began to proliferate with the founding of High Sierra Music Festival in 1991 leading the decades-long surge. After throwing DIY events in the early 1990s, Phish began hosting their own large-scale multi-day festivals, as the only band on the lineup, in 1996 when over 70,000 people attended The Clifford Ball at an abandoned Air Force base in Plattsburgh, New York. In 1997, they hosted The Great Went in Limestone, Maine, once again drawing tens of thousands of fans to a rural setting for a weekend of music and community. They returned to Limestone the following summer to host Lemonwheel.

In 1999, Phish staged two festivals, first during the summer in Oswego, New York. A second event was held in the Florida Everglades when the band performed an epic set from midnight to sunrise on December 31, 1999. Phish returned to Limestone in 2003 for the festival simply called It. The next summer, the band and fans withstood extreme weather conditions for a farewell festival in Coventry, Vermont that was followed by a multi-year hiatus.

Upon returning from hiatus, Phish staged Festival 8 in 2009 at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, California where Coachella and Stagecoach are held. Phish held their next festival Super Ball IX in 2011 staging the first festival at Watkins Glen since the historic event in 1973. The band returned to Watkins Glen in 2015 to host Magnaball and planned to hold Curveball there in 2018 but it was canceled due to inclement weather. Phish’s 11th festival, Mondegreen, will take place in Dover, Delaware this summer.

Originally loaded with jam-friendly artists, Bonnaroo launched in 2002 and grew to be one of the premier music festivals in the country while expanding to present a diverse array of artists and genres.

“Phish had actually established that it was possible, that there was an audience out there that embraced the festival experience,” Bonnaroo co-founder Ashley Capps told The Tennessean in 2019. “And they did it in a way that was imaginative and professional, and really captured the hearts and minds of their audience. That inspired us.”

“There’s no underplaying the significance that Phish had, as a band and as an organization, in the direct development of Bonnaroo,” Bonnaroo co-founder Rick Farman added. “As soon as we started down the path of (Bonnaroo), I started calling [Phish manager John Paluska and tour manager [Richard Glasgow] up and saying, ‘Hey, do you happen to know anybody that does water systems,’ or does this or does that?”

Widespread Panic – Vacation – Bonnaroo 2002

Widespread Panic (See 323 videos)
Widespread Panic (See 567 videos)

Alongside HSMF and Bonnaroo, the jam scene was supported by annual fests like The Peach, Gathering Of The Vibes, Mountain Jam, LOCKN’, Summer Camp, 10,000 Lakes Festival, Langerado, and Rotherbury (whose site now hosts Electric Forest). Jam fests often present late-night sets provided by electronic dance music (EDM) artists.

EDM festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival, Beyond Wonderland, Movement Electronic Music Festival and Electric Zoo, also gained popularity during this time, attracting electronic music fans from around the world. EDM has grown into one of the most popular festival scenes, with global events attracting fans year-round.

The mainstream crossover appeal of country music coincided with the rise in events targeted at fans of the increasingly popular genre. Stagecoach, held on the same grounds as Coachella in Indio, California, is one of many massively popular country fests that annually draw huge crowds.

Music and the culinary arts merge at events like Bottle Rock in Napa Valley and Luck Reunion in Austin, and at dozens more where foodies can find BBQ, bourbon, craft beer and other delectables. Countless festivals incorporate additional activities and programming like workshops, outdoor excursions, yoga classes, art installations, artisan markets, late-night dance marathons and comedy performances.


The Modern Era: Diversity, Sustainability & Innovation

In the 21st century, music festivals in the United States have evolved into multifaceted spectacles that transcend mere musical performances. Today’s festivals embrace diversity, featuring lineups that span genres, cultures and generations.

Events like the Afropunk Festival and The Roots Picnic celebrate Black culture and identity, while festivals such as Lightning in a Bottle, Electric Forest and many others promote sustainability, community engagement and artistic expression.

Mary J. Blige – Family Affair | Roots Picnic 2022

Technological innovations like virtual reality and livestreaming have transformed festivals into truly global events, allowing audiences from around the world to participate in real-time. International brands like hip-hop-driven Rolling Loud and EDM-centric Ultra throw packed festivals in the United States and in many major cities across the planet.

Expanding beyond the borders, artist-co-branded and genre-centric destination events in places like the Mexican Riviera and Caribbean Islands offer fans an annual opportunity to vacation with their favorite musicians in typically warm locales. Similarly organized musical cruises like Jam Cruise and Cayamo have brought the music festival to the open seas.

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The American music festival landscape is an ever-changing array of events that offer many opportunities to Go See Live Music. New events are happening alongside others celebrating substantial anniversaries.

Recent years have also seen long-running festivals (many named above) call it quits, while upstarts never fully get off the ground. The reasons why some succeed and why some fail in some cases are obvious and in some cases remain a mystery.

Festivals come in all genres and sizes, from massive multi-day campouts to independently promoted single-day, boutique affairs, each offering something different beyond musical performances. Explore the JamBase Festival Guide to find the right fest for you.

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