A Music Festival Without Music? Far Out, Man.

Posted: February 24th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Brian | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

I worked at the cafeteria of Powder Ridge Ski Resort in Middlefield, CT for the winter of 2002, one of the warmest winters that I can remember. There was never more than one slope open, which nullified my hopes that working a minimum wage job would allow me to ride the snowboard park with a free lift pass. I passed that winter being subjected to a soundtrack of Puddle of Mudd, Staind and other bands with extra D’s. More than anything else, I remember this time period as a musical void– a shitty soundtrack befitting a shitty situation.

I recently came across some websites that document this site as the locus of a turning point in hippie history. The ski mountain (read “hill”) was home to a music festival that wasn’t- the Powder Ridge Festival- in August of 1970. The festival was canceled due to a court injunction, but some 30,000 hippies swarmed there anyway. This festival has been maligned as an out-of-control bacchanal, representing the impending collapse of the groovy sixties mythos.

The Wikipedia entry on the festival quotes a New York Times journalist who compared this festival to Woodstock:

“The gentle euphoria—the grins, small smiles, and exchanged ‘V’ signals— of people milling through the muddy fields of Bethel seemed to be missing at Powder Ridge. Instead, last night and this morning, the major pastime here was often shuffling walks along paved roads by grim-faced young men and women who looked remarkably similar to old people moving slowly along the boardwalks of the Rockaways or Atlantic City.”

I don’t believe that the transformation from Woodstock to Powder Ridge could have been nearly so epochal, nor do I think that the attendees had become wandering geriatrics, wondering what had happened to their generation. If anything, this event attests to the fact that music festivals amount to more than the clichéd scene of a crowd of patchwork dresses gyrating, endless dandelions falling from swaying heads, making a plush carpet of grooviness.


Music festivals represent something much more than their names suggest. Their sites become temporary settlements where people camp, get fucked up, and imagine themselves as being free to shed their inhibitions. Maybe, then, music festivals are not about music; maybe music is just a convenient excuse to gather. Another New York Times article seems to hint on this. “They could take down the stage and everything – they could shut off the electricity and take out the phones,” said a deeply tanned young man from New Haven who was wearing only a leather belt and a bead necklace. “It’s the people who do it. The music doesn’t make the festival, it’s the people.”

Convergences such as this provide stints of anarchy that allow people, at least for a few days, to experience fleeting moments of utopia and dystopia. Maybe we need a place in our society for open drug consumption, skinny dipping, and sex with strangers. While some people may be injured, exponentially more people may fall in love. Does this sort of collective release simply allow people to carry on with the banality of their daily lives? Perhaps it exposed people to the excitement and danger of true freedom. There were no security guards to protect attendees from themselves, and yet it doesn’t appear that anything horrible happened.

For the entirety of my time there, Powder Ridge was a blur of grease traps, melted artificial snow, and middle school ski outings- more Frialator than free love. In 1970, on this same 300 acres, people in this “natural amphitheatre” were drinking “electric water,” a free cocktail of hallucinogens of unknown concentration or consistency. Was there some sort of cosmic residue left in this territory of rusted ski lifts and gravel parking lots? Had trace amounts of electric water seeped into the aquifer? Whoa dude.