Photo by Ian Stone.

Inside The Festival Girl's Journey to Document Modern Day Hippie Chicks

Together with photographer Jay Blakesberg, 'Hippie Chick' celebrates 35 years of women at music festivals.

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Aug 20 2015, 4:00pm

Photo by Ian Stone.

"My whole personal life revolved around going to see music. Dancing at a show is an extension of my innermost self, I needed to be dancing," says Edith Johnson, a freelance journalist, also known as The Festival Girl. "Unfortunately," says the 35-year-old with a laugh, "Phish wasn't hiring girls to dance on stage, so I opted for a blog."

Johnson is and runs The Festival Girl, a website that provides colorful first-hand information on music festivals across North America. Johnson has been documenting her experiences going alone to music festivals on social media since late 2011. Her matter-of-factly style of commentary has accumulated a hearty online following and an opportunity to work with Jay Blakesberg, an American music photographer, on his new book, Hippie Chick.

Edith at SummerCamp in 2014. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

Reared by two rock and roll loyalists, Johnson grew up immersed in music. While earning several graduate, postgraduate, and master's degrees, every spare moment and dollar was funneled into her pursuit of live music. One particular concert, a Phish show in Vermont in 2011, proved to be the catalyst for a major change in course. "I never took my parents seriously when they would tell me, 'Pursue your dreams and everything will work out.' I had a scary epiphany after Vermont," she says, "I realized that I didn't want to continue my PHD, I wanted to document music full time."

Johnson started freelancing for a local newspaper to fund her concert-going habits. She sacrificed her car, her apartment, and a general sense of stability to hitch rides and camp out at festivals full time. In 2012, she attended Wakausa, a camping festival in Arkansas, by herself. She's been flying solo at music festivals across the country ever since.

"I started to realize that the information on festival websites wasn't comprehensive enough, it wasn't giving me the kind of information I was looking for, especially as someone traveling alone," says the Utah-native. "With The Festival Girl, I wanted to collect information that went beyond what the marketing team at a festival says. I wanted to know the real dirt, dirt I found by going to festivals regularly."

The family tent Edith used at her first solo camping festival, Wakarusa in 2012. "I came back to find this hula hoop propped up against my door. My neighbours said it 'must be the hoop fairy.' That made my weekend." Photo courtesy of Edith Johnson.

Johnson began detailing her experiences online, posting the information she thought was missing on music festival's FAQ pages. She tweeted average entry wait-times, how thorough car searches were, and an up-to-the-minute on crowd temperaments. She realized that there was a demand for this type of information and that there were other women, such as herself, who were interested in going to festivals alone an valued her lived experience. "I've had women reach out to me and say, "You've inspired me to do my first solo festival and it was such a utopian experience.'"

"But," she says, pausing to sigh, "I also know that there are safety concerns."

She's right. This year alone, media coverage on music festivals worldwide has brought serious on-site safety and security to the surface. Whether it's talk of a rape culture epidemic, sightings of "Eat, Sleep, Rape, Repeat" t-shirts at Coachella, attendees handing out "consent cards," or harm reduction tips about drugs and alcohol—music festivals are not just the escapist realms you see in recap videos. Johnson is well aware of this. Not only has she contributed to The Festival Lawyer's reportage on festival safety for women, she's personally experienced physical and verbal harassment while alone at festivals.

Read more on THUMP: Meet The Festival Lawyer

Edith at Mountain Jam in 2014.

"The last thing I want to do is discourage women from adventure and from experiencing live music by themselves," she says. "I want to empower them, but I also don't want to perpetuate that it's this utopian thing. Not everyone goes to a festival with the same mentality, unfortunately. I want The Festival Girl to be positive and make everyone aware of how to be prepared and safe."

Costs eventually began to hinder Johnson's wanderlust ways. That is until she crossed paths with Jay Blakesberg in 2013.

Blakesberg, a San Francisco-based photographer and filmmaker, has been capturing the music world for over 35 years. In 2013, he haphazardly photographed Johnson mid-dance at Lockn' festival in Virginia. The photo began circulating on Lockn's social media pages and quickly was brought to Johnson's attention.

The photo that connected Edith with Jay Blakesberg, taken at Lockn' Festival in 2013. Photo courtesy of Jay Blakesberg.

"It was at The String Cheese Incident's set during the song 'Rosie,'" she says. "When I saw the photo, I had total body recall of how I felt dancing at that set—like I was being shot out of a cannon into the outer-spaceness of reality. I had to have the photo. I needed to know who took it."

She found Blakesberg's number, told him about the photo, about The Festival Girl, and they made plans to meet. "I gave him a business card and didn't think anything else of it," she says. "A couple months later, he reached out about a project he thought I'd be interested in and asked for samples of my writing. That was the beginning of Hippie Chick."

Hippie Chick: A Tale of Love, Devotion & Surrender is a photo book that celebrates women at music festivals. The book features 445 photos by Blakesberg from across 35 years. Although the music festivals represented focus on rock and roll and jam band scenes, more current festivals with electronic music tinges, like SummerCamp in Illinois, are also included.

Photos from 'Hippie Chick,' courtesy of Jay Blakesberg.

Blakesberg commissioned Johnson to interview 81 different women from the music festival scene. The overarching goal was to document and explore what it meant to be a modern-day hippie chick. Who better to delve into that than The Festival Girl herself?

"The goal was to meet different people in the scene, from hoola hoopers to vendors, to performers, to people who are related to musicians, promoters—women from all aspects of the industry," she says. Johnson also wrote three essays for the book, each with its own theme: Love, Devotion, and Surrender. "It's a beautiful tribute to women in the music scene, but it's also exemplary of evolution. It touches on different generations, different trends, different genres. The whole experience it... it made my heart explode."

Despite her deeply embedded devotion to jam bands and reggae, Johnson says the electronic music fans she's grooved alongside at places like Electric Forest, Coachella, and Outside Lands have been nothing but welcoming.

"Anybody who loves their scene, dedicates themselves to enhancing it, and puts out positive vibes—I will relate to that person, no matter what the music," she says. "Music is a shared experience. No matter the artist or genre, we can all come to common ground on how music makes us feel and why we continue to go back."

"Whether it's the EDM scene or the rock scene, everyone will relate to Hippie Chick."

The Festival Girl will relaunch online with coverage of next summer's festival season. 'Hippie Chick: A Tale of Love, Devotion & Surrender' will be available in bookstores and online on October 1. You can preorder it on Amazon here.

The Festival Girl is on Facebook // Twitter // Instagram
Jay Blakesberg is on Facebook // Twitter // Instagram

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