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The Strawberry Fields Festival was held at Mosport Park Raceway in Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada, about 70 miles east of Toronto, between August 7 and the early morning hours of August 10, 1970. Although accounts vary, the audience has been estimated at between 75,000 and 100,000 people paying $15 for a 3-day ticket
Initially, the promoters put forward plans to host a festival in Moncton, New Brunswick, named the Strawberry Fields Festival. As was the norm in 1970, local politicians intervened and revoked various permits. We don't want no freaks here, baby. That seemed to be the message.
But freaks always be thinking. It was relocated to Mosport Park in Ontario, thinly disguised as a championship motorcycle race featuring some contemporary entertainment. Clever, huh? Surely, The Man would see through that?
The festival was advertised as the "First Annual Strawberry Cup Trophy Race". To avoid public and political scrutiny, the musical entertainment aspect of the event was downplayed and the festival was not promoted heavily in Canada. But there was only so long this ruse was going to work, especially as adverts over the border were clearly selling it as a rock festival.
Eventually, local officials realised it wasn't a motor cycle racing event and the Attorney General of Ontario, Arthur Wishart (he sounds a crusty old stick of Scottish stock), filed for an injunction to stop the festival from taking place, citing health and public safety concerns. On August 6, with only hours to go before the festival was due to start, Supreme Court Justice D. A. Keith refused to grant the injunction and the festival was allowed to proceed. He played the role of the sympathetic straight guy, and there's always a sympathetic straight guy. Maybe he just really wanted to see Ten Years After.
In America, the festival was promoted with the slogan, "Love, Sun and Sound". Who can resist that trio? As a result, a large percentage of the attendees were from the American north east. Others travelled from as far away as California and Florida. In the end, the sanctioning body for the racing series withdrew its drivers from the event so an actual race never occurred, although an obligatory lap by a few motorcyclists did occur in order to comply with the local ordinance.
Several thousand more young American music fans were turned back at the Canadian border, when they were unable to provide proof they had sufficient funds to look after themselves while visiting Canada or produce adequate identification. Forty US dollars were required to be shown to officials. If you could not show the cash, they were told they could not enter Canada.
Cash was sometimes borrowed from person to person at the lineup. One person who was turned away at the Canadian border crossing at Prescott, Ontario, drowned while attempting to swim into Canada across the St. Lawrence River near Watertown, New York. Several arrests related to the attempted importation of narcotics and banned substances were made. Of course.
The three days line-up was a mixture of unheard of local-ish bands and the heavyweights who were forever on tour. This included Procol Harum, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, Mountain, Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, Sly and the Family Stone, Delaney and Bonnie, your friend and mine, Melanie and the seemingly ever-present, Jose Feliciano. Also on the bill were Cactus - playing an early gig. What a great band they were.
When reading reviews of festival performances around this time, it's very interesting that almost no band is reported as playing a bad set. People have their favourites, of course, but no-one stinks the place up and I can only imagine this is because all of these bands were so road hardened. They played 8 gigs a week for 10 months a year. All of the above had been playing festivals for at least 2 years, so they were tight and knew what was required in terms of performance.
Led Zeppelin were on the posters but didn't show, neither did Leonard Cohen. The whole event was closed by Sly Stone.
Was this Canada's Woodstock? Well, sort of. Clearly some of the same bands played, but this attracted a smaller crowd and doesn't seem to have held any cultural significance in the long term.