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Woodstock: The Yellow Brick Road of Music Festivals
By: Kathryn Summers

, remembered as the legendary music festival that changed lives, promoted peace and broke down cultural barriers, is celebrating its 44th anniversary this week.

The year was 1969, when over half a million people gathered on the 600-acre stretch of land in the quiet town of Bethel, New York, to hear some of the most iconic artists of the time perform over the span of three days, beginning on Friday, August 15 and bleeding into Monday morning.

The original producers of Woodstock, Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang, the late John Roberts and Joel Rosenman were all in their 20s when they formed Woodstock Ventures with the help of their families. Though they’ve launched a dynasty, the group remains committed to staying true to their principles and the belief in “universal human rights, ethical business practices, unfettered creative expression, free trade, the loving care of our plant, the power of the individual to make a difference, and the overwhelming impact of communities to act as agents of peaceful change,” according to their official website.

While Woodstock might be remembered as a free festival, it did not begin that way. Originally, tickets were being sold for $5, which would have been just enough to cover the vendors and artists’ fees.  About 100,000 tickets were sold prior to the festival, but once word about the artists performing began to spread, five times the number of people who purchased tickets arrived at the partially-finished gates, and there was no choice but to let them in.

While that has certainly changed, and in many ways the politically-driven music events of the past have given way to popular festivals like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, the tradition continues to live on.

Mittenfest, a smaller festival in Michigan, is one such event that has been expanding over the years.  In 2006, Brandon Zwagerman founded Mittenfest as an addition to the backyard campus shows he had organized in Ann Arbor during his time as a student at the University of Michigan. As a way to give back to his community, the event serves as a fundraiser for 826michigan, a creative writing program for children aged 6 to 18 in the state’s Washtenaw County.

An attendee since the first Mittenfest, Jeremy Peters joined the event as a promoter in 2008 and helped put together the first S’Mittenfest, a summer festival celebrating 826michigan’s expansion to Detroit that took place on July 20th at The Magic Stick.  

Peters says Mittenfest has evolved quite a bit since the beginning, when it was started so that “everyone could get together to play a little show while we were all back in Michigan visiting our families over the holidays.”

“We love that the bands are excited to perform and help this nonprofit, and they want to tell their fans about it,” Peters said. "We just try to have a great cross-cut of the music scene here in Michigan and put on a fun show that you can come out to and enjoy. That's worked for us, and helped us raise as much as we have for 826michigan."

Mittenfest has grown over the years from a one-day, primarily acoustic festival to a larger, five-day event with more than 50 bands coming from across the state of Michigan. As the festival has expanded, so have the creative writing programs it supports.

“Mittenfest is such an important and heart-warming tradition in Ypsilanti,” said Amanda Uhle, 826michigan’s Executive Director. “We are so proud to be generating tremendous support in that community which goes directly to helping students in its public schools succeed. Now that we are offering our programs in Detroit schools, we hope that S’Mittenfest can come to be meaningful in Detroit as well.”

Similarly, Farm Aid is the longest-running benefit concert series in America, taking place in Saratoga Springs, New York each year in September. Beginning in 1985, a wide variety of musicians, farmers and fans gathered together for one mission: to keep family farmers on their land.  The board members include co-founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young, as well as Dave Matthews, who joined the board in 2001. To date, Farm Aid has raised more than $43 million “to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture,” according to their official website.

The site of Woodstock also remains as a testament to the power of that iconic first year.  The dairy farm where the festival took place is now the site of the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center, a not-for-profit center with a pavilion stage that can seat 15,000. It is also home to the Bethel Woods Museum, an award-winning museum dedicated to the “study of social, political and cultural events of the 1960s.”

While Woodstock marked an important first step, other music festivals today have evolved in a similar fashion, celebrating annually and quickly generating attention. As the first in a long and storied history of music festivals, those four days set the standard and opened the world to the endless possibilities of what could be.

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