This weekend, the 60th edition of the Newport Folk Festival with take place on the coast of the Narragansett Bay, where boats will gather to enjoy music wafting out over the water from the main stage. Folk musicians, along with an ever-broadening group of “folk-adjacent” artists, have been performing at this venue since the festival’s founding in 1959. There have been countless memorable moments from the stage, but we’ve chosen 10 of our favorite to highlight of one of American music’s enduring treasures. To celebrate the Newport Folk Festival, here are 10 great musical moments from its history.
The Newport Folk Festival grew out of the Newport Jazz Festival after organizer George Wein began booking folk acts on Sunday afternoons at his jazz club in Boston. The inaugrual lineup included Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Odetta, the Kingston Trio and Bob Gibson, who brought a then-18-year-old Joan Baez to the stage to perform a traditional spiritual set to new music, which you can also watch here
Mississippi John Hurt’s musical career in the late 1920s was short lived. After cutting 13 songs and a tour that took him to New York City, he returned home to Avalon, Miss., and to life on the farm until a recording of “Avalon Blues” from his week in New York found its way into the hands of tape traders. In 1963, after 35 years of obscurity, he was invited to tour his music culminating in his Newport Folk Festival performance.
After sharing his literate updates of Woody Guthrie’s troubadour folk style the previous two years, the Newport crowd wasn’t quite ready for for Dylan’s amped up electric guitar in 1965. You can almost imagine Dylan at the end of this “Maggie’s Farm” performance saying, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.”
Newport has become known for famous collaborations and all-star jams to close out the weekend. One of the first was a tribute to Woody Guthrie, led by folklorist Alan Lomax and featuring Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie and surviving members of the Almanac Singers, Guthrie’s folk ensemble with Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. Here’s Seeger performing one of Guthrie’s most beloved songs, followed by the rest of the tribute.
One of the most imitated and influential guitar players of the 20th century, Ike Everly and, to a lesser extent, his wife Margaret, were well-known in the South and the Midwest as folk and country music performers. Originating from the coal-mining region of Muhlenberg County in rural Kentucky, Ike and his neighbor Mose Rager are largely responsible for developing a unique three-finger guitar style that has since been imitated far and wide. Ike and Margaret wanted to raise their children in a smaller rural community, so in 1944 he accepted a new job performing first at Waterloo, Iowa’s KASL radio station and a year later at KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa. Their sons Don (age 8) and Phil (age 6) first began performing on their parents’ show during this time, introduced to the listening audience as “Little Donnie” and “Baby Boy Phil.” With Margaret often joining in, they created beautiful four part harmonies that enamored listeners every time they performed together. Featuring a mix of C&W, gospel and Appalachian folk melodies, the Everly family’s material conveyed an instinctual sense of timing and harmony. By 1955, after their parents gave up their music careers, Phil and Don moved to Nashville to pursue their own careers as The Everly Brothers. The brothers would soon be among the most important and influential acts of the early rock & roll era, setting new standards for close, two-part harmony singing and infusing their songs with the best elements of country and pop music. The big crossover success would come in 1957 with their smash hit, “Bye Bye Love, ” which would begin an incredibly impressive string of hits lasting into the early 1960s.
George Wein’s vision for the Newport Folk Festival included morning and afternoon workshops on the festival grounds. One of the most fascinating and enjoyable workshop sets in the history of the Newport Folk Festival occurred in 1969, when the program featured the long-retired Ike Everly, once again accompanied by his sons Don and Phil, performing an impromptu workshop set before an intimate and appreciative audience. Performing together for a full hour, this unplanned and spontaneous set captures Ike, Phil and Don Everly on stage together for the first time in 15 years. For fans of Ike Everly, who never recorded much, this is indeed somewhat of a holy grail, with his performances, storytelling and off-the-cuff exchanges with Phil and Don a priceless addition to his legacy. For Everly Brothers fans, this recording provides a remarkable opportunity to hear the brothers reflecting on their roots and engaging in material rarely heard in such an intimate and spontaneous context. —Alan Bershaw
If Dylan can go electric at Newport, then the Pixies can go acoustic. The band hadn’t performed together in 10 years when they played a reunion tour in 2004, including their first-ever unplugged performance at the festival. This helped propel the legendary festival into a new direction embracing a younger generation of fans and artists, which would begin in earnest a few years later.
My first trip to the Newport Folk Festival was in 2008, and Saturday’s line-up looked like it was ripped out of the pages of Paste magazine, thanks in part to new festival director (and frequent Paste contributor) Jay Sweet. Cat Power, Jakob Dylan, Jim James, She & Him, Steve Earle. But no act bridged the traditional folk and the indie world that had begun to overlap it like Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. The pair of alt-country/Americana stalwarts were everywhere during the fest, joining The Levon Helm Band and Jimmy Buffett on stage as well as wowing the crowd during their own main-stage set. Just two instruments (Welch’s 1956 Gibson J-50 and Rawlings’ tiny archtop 1935 Epiphone Olympic) and two voices and original songs that sound like they’ve always been a part of the Appalachian Mountains, the duo pulled from four albums worth of material and closed with a pair of appropriate covers, given the venue—Paul Simon’s “Gone At Last” and the bluegrass standard, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” You can watch the full concert here.
Paste first started recording small sessions with Newport bands in the ruins of Fort Adams in 2011. We recorded private performances with Civil Wars, Amos Lee, The Devil Makes Three, Chris Thile and Michael Daves, “Carolina Chocolate Drops”: and Middle Brother, the side project of Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit and John McCauley of Deer Tick (and Jonny Fritz on percussion for this performance). McCauley is a Rhode Island native and served as something like a grand marshal of the festival that year, jumping on stage with band after band and organizing a special VIP celebration at night.
Paste returned to Newport in 2012 and 2013 in upgraded digs open to all Newport attendees. These sessions were among my favorite we’ve ever done, capturing delicate performances like this one from Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, accompanied by a lone guitar. The sisters’ harmonies make a mockery of pop stars who need Autotune and huge backing tracks. Other performers at the Paste Ruins that year include Robert Ellis, Trampled By Turtles, Blind Pilot, Sara Watkins, Dawes, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, City and Colour, Rodriguez, and Of Monsters and Men.
Paste’s final year of hosting sessions at Newport Folk was 2013, and we filled our little nook in Fort Adams with the members of Old Crow Medicine Show for a three-song set, including this track from the band’s fourth album, Carry Me Back. This is one of the few acts that would sound as much at home on the stage of the 1959 Newport Folk Festival as they would in 2018.
The 60th edition of the Newport Folk Festival takes place this week at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, R.I. The lineup is fantastic as always (and the most female-centric lineup from a festival that I can remember outside Lilith Fair), including Courtney Barnett, St. Vincent, Lucius, Brandi Carlile, Jenny Lewis, Amanda Shires, Margo Price, Valerie June and Phoebe Bridgers.