BOB GARFIELD: In 1970, farmer Michael Eavis opened up the slatted wooden gates to his land in the southwest of England for a weekend of free music and communing with nature. Over the following 30 years this small hippie gathering morphed into a massive annual event attracting hundreds of thousands of people who wanted to listen to the latest chart-topping bands or mainly roll around in the mud and share the experience of overused porta-johns.
But as the world has become ever more technologically advanced, so too has the Glastonbury Festival. This year pixels will replace the mud and a search engine will take the place of a hilltop view.
George MacKay is the author of Glastonbury: A Very English Fair. Welcome to the show!
GEORGE MacKAY: Hi. Thanks for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD:Before we get to the latest development in the life of this festival, can you please explain the place that the Glastonbury Festival holds in the collective consciousness of the Brits?
GEORGE MacKAY: Glastonbury has something special about it because even though it's -- it has indeed --it morphed into this huge mega-mass event, you know, with hundreds of thousands of people --it claims that it still has an ethos of alternative values and culture and green issues about it.
BOB GARFIELD:Ethos of alternative values although there are gigantic masts for the cellular phones and--chain food outlets pitching their tents next to the green-dreadlocked men selling veggie patties.
GEORGE MacKAY: Yeah, it's set in this beautiful, absolutely beautiful valley - a stunning place - which as legend has it is indeed the Vale of Avalon --Avalon being the secret island where King Arthur was buried to rise up in a future day to kind of re-invent the English. You know there's a sort of spiritual dimension to Glastonbury, and then as well as that you've got 200,000 people -- all their motor cars -their pollution - their mobile phones and etc, etc.
I think those contradictions, rather than -you know it's almost too easy to say that they've undercut the original ethos and that's all been lost in a sort of sponsored corporate world. I think the contradictions of Glastonbury have energized it really and have kept it interesting and kept it a bit alternative even while all these other things are going on around it.
BOB GARFIELD:Okay, but this year however the festival has evolved in the past, there's a - a genuine technological sea change because there will be no Glastonbury Festival on Farmer Eavis's land this year. What is replacing it?
GEORGE MacKAY: Instead of everyone congregating as pilgrims at Glastonbury this year in those special green fields, we have instead a virtual Glastonbury. You have to log on to the Net and you will get some sense of the spirituality, so the web site claims, from the Web itself.
BOB GARFIELD:Putting aside for a moment the very genuine difference in the experience of recorded music versus live music, if Glastonbury is about the experience - about the community - how in the world is any of that conveyed over a computer?
GEORGE MacKAY: It isn't! Glastonbury is a mass event; it's about the crowd. It almost doesn't matter who the headliners are each year. In fact lots of people I spoke to - well I, I don't - I didn't really see any bands. You know people were saying oh, who's on? Are they? Oh, I don't think I'll bother that. I like up here in the stone circle or I like it here in the teepee circle and so it's almost like the crowd becomes its own entertainment, and you simply don't get that in the solitary - the sole experience of, of logging on to the Web and looking at your computer screen.
BOB GARFIELD: And that seems so clear. Why in the world are they going through with this exercise?
GEORGE MacKAY:I think Glastonbury is at a moment of crisis. Michael Eavis, the farmer who has organized it since the earliest days in 1970 - you know -he's getting on a bit, and he's quite keen, I think, to pass the event on - the organization of it - to his daughter, Emily. But if that doesn't happen, where does that festival go? And so I think they're trying to kind of do a bridge, really, this year and then build it up again for next year, because if they don't, there's a sense that it may begin to fade away.
BOB GARFIELD:Well if this is just a bookmark, if they're just holding a place for the festival to resume at some later date, do you think that can ever happen or do you think the life cycle of Glastonbury has played out and that it, it's just in its final stages.
GEORGE MacKAY: Sometimes indeed yeah. The life cycle is finished, and it may be that Glastonbury has got bigger and bigger, and then it was a mega-event, almost too large an event last year, and that maybe that says it's time to stop, you know, and where Glastonbury lives is, is in our memories and in the folk culture and in the-- the sort of traditions of alternative culture which are continually being re-written and re-explored by cultural studies, academics like myself.
BOB GARFIELD: Very well. George MacKay, thank you very much!
GEORGE MacKAY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: George MacKay is a professor of cultural studies at the University of Central Lancashire. [SONG PLAYS] YOU KNOW I'M A DREAMER BUT MY HEART'S OF GOLD I HAD TO RUN AWAY...