The Concert Led Zeppelin Never Gave: The Lessons of the Strawberry Fields Festival

By Greg Marquis

For a few weeks in 1970, pop music fans on both sides of the Canada-United States border were excited by the prospects of a ‘second Woodstock,’ a multiple-day outdoor music festival that would include some of the top acts of the era, including Ten Years After, Mountain, Grand Funk Railroad, Eric Burden and War, the Youngbloods, Sly and the Family Stone and Led Zeppelin. Posters in the United States promised “three days of love, sun and sound” in “free North America” – Canada. Initially denied permission to stage the “international carnival” in Ontario, the promoters next tried to entice hip youth to “get high on sky and sun” on a 100-acre farm at Barrachois, near Shediac, New Brunswick.  The festival was scheduled to take place in early August, one year after the now legendary Woodstock Music and Art Fair in upstate New York. Yet Led Zeppelin, whose second album had topped the charts in Canada in 1969 and whose single “Whole Lotta Love” hit Number 2, never performed in New Brunswick.

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Strawberry Fields Festival. Image courtesy Bronny Davis.

This blog post had two objectives.  First, it provides a brief overview of what became the largest pop festival of the era in Canada, Strawberry Fields. More importantly, it suggests themes and an area of research that Canadian historians should consider exploring. Historians of the 1960s and 1970s have more or less ignored not only rock or pop music, but all forms of popular music, including jazz, folk and country and western. Yet popular music was a key part of the Baby Boom experience and Canada was one of the top markets in the world for recorded music. In Atlantic Canada, as well as the rest of the county, fans not only purchased recordings, they also listened to radio and watched television programs featuring music, heard and danced to it Legion halls, school gymnasiums, bars and concert settings and sometimes performed it themselves.  Despite this, historical writing on the Canada in the 1960s and 1970s tends to ignore popular music or treat it in a superficial manner[1]. With a few exceptions, research and publishing in the field has been dominated by ethnomusicologists, folklorists, communications studies experts, freelance writers and journalists. There is nothing wrong with these approaches, but it is time for historians to do their part. [2]

Although the 1970 festival grew out of an idea floated by John Lennon during a visit to Canada in late 1969, its name supposedly had less to do with his 1967 psychedelic song “Strawberry Fields Forever” than the fact that venue was a New Brunswick strawberry farm. Lennon, inspired by Woodstock but mindful of the violence and notoriety of the recent Altamont Festival in California, envisioned a free festival for peace, ideally at a motorcycle track at Mosport, Ontario. Around this time, activists on the left were criticizing pop festivals that charged admission, arguing that in the spirit of the counter culture, experiencing music should be free. This claim led to gate crashing and financial losses for a number of concerts, notably Festival Express, a three-city tour that involved American acts like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead traveling on a special train with Canadian performers such as Ian and Sylvia Tyson. Festival Express also suffered from opposition from police and civic officials. Vancouver’s notoriously anti-hippie mayor Tom Campbell, who would be associated with the 1971 Gastown Riot, opposed any performance in his city. Cosmopolitan Montreal was also shut out as the first stop of Festival Express, which had been scheduled for the same time as the city’s large St. Jean Baptiste celebrations. City hall prevailed on the owners of the Autostade to cancel the concert, citing fear of violence.[3]

Earlier in 1969 Lennon and his spouse Yoko Ono had staged their bed-in for peace at a Montreal hotel and recorded the anthem “Give Peace a Chance.” During their December visit to advance their global peace crusade, the celebrities met with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and discussed their planned festival. Lennon, who was thinking along utopian as opposed to practical lines, was barred from entering the United States because of a drug conviction and saw Canada as a logical base from which to launch the couple’s ‘War is Over’ campaign. In the early 1970, the Toronto-based promoters and Lennon parted ways on the issue of a free event.  Lennon was soon distracted by his solo recording projects, the public announcement that the Beatles had broken up and British media’s attacks.[4]

Facing road blocks in Ontario, the promoters settled on New Brunswick. They required a large budget in order to book groups that had played at Woodstock as well as other acts and an associate who had inherited a large amount of money came to the rescue. In keeping with a trend in other parts of Canada and in the United States, the government of Louis J. Robichaud took steps to make sure that the Strawberry Fields Festival would not take place.  In the press, the struggle was portrayed as a classic ‘generation gap’ battle, with youth complaining that the ‘square’ older generation feared an invasion of unwashed, marijuana-smoking hippies from the United States. Robichaud’s government did not resort to the blunt approach adopted in Prince Edward Island a year later, where the government of Alex Campbell passed a controversial law to ban rock concerts.[5] Instead it simply refused to license the event, citing concerns about public health and safety. This was after the festival had been heavily promoted in print media and on radio stations in the United States.[6]

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Strawberry Fields Festival. Image courtesy Bronny Davis.

The promoters tried once again for Ontario. In April 1970, Karma Productions (its name inspired by Lennon’s newest single) sought permission to stage a large peace and music festival near London, but was blocked by Parkhill Township acting on behalf of “angry constituents.”[7]  At one point, the promoters began to advertise “the First International Strawberry Cup Trophy Race” at the Mosport motorcycle track. In addition to local elected officials, the event faced opposition from Premier John Robarts and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). The OPP attempted to bolster opposition to rock festivals in rural and small town Ontario by showing local officials film clips of American hippies appearing in the nude, selling and consuming illicit drugs and engaging in sexual acts. In addition to the performers listed above, the new iteration promised appearances by Jethro Tull, Melanie, Canada’s Leonard Cohen, Procul Harum, Delaney, Bonnie and Friends and master of ceremonies Chip Monck, “the voice of Woodstock.” In the end, the festival was saved at the last minute by an Ontario judge who ruled that there was no valid legal reason to prevent it. The organizers’ case was helped by a commitment by the Addiction Research Foundation to provide medical services for youth who had overdosed on drugs. At the time the festival was viewed as ‘Canada’s Woodstock,’ but it was one tenth the size. The organizers estimated that 50,000 fans, including many from the United States, attended. Years later, people who attended joined a Facebook site, where they have posted many photos and memories.

Strawberry Fields was the biggest, but by no means the last rock festival in early 1970s Canada. A number of them, such as one at Manseau, Quebec, turned into organizational and financial nightmares for both promotes and fans. But despite setbacks and controversies surrounding drugs, alcohol, hippie-like behaviour, motorcycle gangs, traffic and litter, the outdoor pop festival caught on in Canada, inspiring many small and mid-sized events. In time, bluegrass and country music festivals sprouted up and folk festivals booked a wide variety of performers including rock musicians. The third trend- which had already been established in cities like Toronto where Maple Leaf Gardens had hosted everyone from Bill Haley and the Comets, to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix- was arena or stadium rock.

These groups and venues were at the top of the pop music food chain, but these examples all suggest fruitful lines of inquiry for research.  The musical heritage of the Maritimes is not just Don Messer, John Allan Cameron, Edith Butler or the Rankins. One thinks of the Halifax music scene of the 1960s; the Atlantic Folk Festival, held in Hants. County, Nova Scotia between 1975 and 1981; the tradition of Maritime blues epitomized by Dutch Mason and the bumper crop of regional rockers in the 1970s and early 1980s such as April Wine, 1775, Matt Minglewood, Molly Oliver, Buddy and the Boys, Sam Moon, Peppertree and Haywire.

Led Zeppelin, by the way, did not play in Mosport. Under its famously protective manager, the world’s hottest rock group pocketed its advance fee and found other uses for its time.


Greg Marquis teaches Canadian and Criminal Justice History at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. At present he is researching John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s visits to Canada in 1969. 


Notes:  

[1] Stuart Henderson’s Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011) discusses folk and rock music. The index to Bryan Palmer’s Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) contains a listing for Maoism, but not Music.

[2] For example, Marian Jago, author of Live at The Cellar: Vancouver’s Iconic Jazz Club and the Canadian Co-operative Jazz Scene in the 1950s and ‘60s (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018), has degrees in Musicology and Ethnomusicology. Work by historians includes Ryan Edwardson, Canuck Rock; A History of Canadian Popular Music (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) and Mark Leeming, “In Tune with the Earth: Musical Protest and Nova Scotian Environmentalism,” Acadiensis, 45 (1), (Winter-Spring 2016), 126-42.

[3] “Accommodating pop festivals,” Globe and Mail, June 12, 1970, 6.

[4] John Wiener, Come Together: John Lennon in His Time  (New York: Random House, 1984), 128-30

[5] Greg Marquis, “Uptight Little Island: The Junction 71 Affair,” Island Magazine, 52 (Fall-Winter 2002), 10-14.

[6] Greg Marquis, “Rocking Free North America: The Strawberry Fields Festival and the Youth Culture Borderlands,” unpublished paper, Canadian Historical Association, Victoria, BC, June 3 2013.

[7] “Karma Won’t Hold Peace Festival Near Parkhill,” Globe and Mail, April 3, 1970, 11

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About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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One Response to The Concert Led Zeppelin Never Gave: The Lessons of the Strawberry Fields Festival

  1. Del Muise says:

    Greg; Thank you so much for this article. Anther model for a festival was the Tarbot festivals held in Cape Breton in the later seventies (still referred to by some as Cape Breton’s Woodstock). They featured the widest possible selection of local people, including rockers and blues singers as well as such icons as the Men of the Deeps and even some fiddlers. There is an album that is a collectors item these days. The concerts, which were held at a farmers field at the foot of the Cabot Trail near Saint Ann’s.,morphed into the Rise and Follies of Cape Breton, which was an incubator for for many Cape Breton musical acts that achieved national and international status. A selection of material from the concerts is held at the Beaton Institute at CBU, who have published a wonderful selection of images from the concerts at their Facebook site.

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