Raising lighters, crowdsurfing, the Wave: a history of crowd culture


Have you been in the crowd at a festival or live concert, when suddenly a ripple of energy passed through, and something spontaneous or over the top happened? You could feel the vibes, the collective buzz. It’s #thatmomentwhen a festival experience becomes a lifelong memory.

When the crowd takes on a personality of its own, it can have culture-changing impacts. Witness: the Wave, Woodstock’s flower crowns, the “Running of the Tarps” phenomenon… 

Five stories of crowd participation history

How did crowd participation activities like these become embraced by festival-goers and live music fans? Join us for a journey through the history of these five crowd culture moments. 

Running of the tarps 

Watch Running of the Tarps #cfmf Calgary Folk Music Festival on YouTube.

If you haven't seen this one before, you’re going to need an explanation. 

There’s a tradition in Edmonton and Calgary for events like the Folk Fest where diehard attendees line up waiting for the gates to open, tarps in hand, ready to rush and claim a good spot in front of the stage.

It can go from an empty field to a full tarp mosaic in a matter of seconds. 

The Calgary and Edmonton Folk Fest started back in 1980 and we know tarps were part of the scene then. 

If anyone can tip us off on an earlier ‘running of the tarps’ in BC or Alberta, let us know!

The Origin of Crowd Surfing

Watch Bruce Springsteen - Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out (The River Tour, Tempe 1980) on YouTube.

Surf’s up! There’s no way to know for sure where or when crowd surfing truly began but we’ve tracked down the earliest recording in North America to 1970. 

Iggy Pop was on stage at Cincinnati’s Summer Pop Festival where he lept into the crowd. Although they carried him around, sitting up, more like the hero of a baseball game.

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The first video of a true modern crowd surf (on your back and carried by a lot of people) might go to Bruce Springsteen at a 1980 concert in Arizona. 

And he doesn’t miss a note!

When did the first Wave start?

Watch The First Wave - Documentation - A's Highlight Video - 1981 on YouTube.

I was at a Canucks game in Vancouver a few years back and I witnessed a personal record. ‘The Wave’ went around the stadium seven times! 

Some sources say cheerleader Krazy George Henderson invented the wave at a hockey game in 1981 and again at a baseball game later on.

It’s certainly the first recording of one.

But Henderson himself has said he thinks it actually started by accident in 1979 when he was trying to get two sides of an arena to alternate cheers and noticed the delay of some fans made a cool effect. 

The flower crown and modern festival fashion

The infamous flower crown

The famous Woodstock of 1969 is attributed as the event that created a cultural fashion shift in recent history. Attendees brushed off the more rigid, socially acceptable dress codes of the time to embrace colours and patterns, push boundaries, and celebrate handcrafted items. And festivals ever since have echoed this.

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Did you know there’s an entire sustainable festival-fashion industry in our own backyard? If you tuned into the #BuyBasin Festival in fall 2021 you might have seen Arcane Coda LIVE on Facebook from the West Kootenays showing locally made festival-inspired looks.

Raised lighter tribute

Watch Yer Blues- John Lennon & Plastic Ono Band- Toronto 1969 (NO YOKO SCREAMING). on YouTube.

Turns out lighters were just the natural evolution from matches and candles. 

It might be a summer of ‘69 attribution here. Though there are no videos or pictures I can find showing this, singer-songwriter Melanie Safka recounts during her performance at Woodstock there was a candle lighting ceremony going on at the same time.

“Then in New York, they started bringing candles to my concerts, then it went to matches and later Bic lighters.”

The first time we have tiny flame tributes on record in Canada is a month later when John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded “Live Peace In Toronto”. 

The emcee at the start of the album says “Get your matches ready.”

First time cell phones were used as lighters

As soon as cell phones adopted a camera function, people were bringing them to concerts to capture the moment. By 2006, half the cell phones around had cameras.

But the first time we have a media report about the shift from lighters to the cellphone was a U2 concert in Chicago in 2005. It was newsworthy when, instead of taking pictures, people turned their screen to the stage and waved their arms back and forth like they were holding lighters. 

The stories, and the legends, go on. Festival crowd culture in Alberta and British Columbia has a ton of charming nuances unique to each event.

Is there a festival you attend that is known for having a signature fan-driven experience, crowd activity or expression? A festival moment that will last in your memory forever? 

Let us know on @FestivalSeekers the fascinating festival culture moments you’ve experienced. 

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