12 Newport Acts Share Their Favorite Folk Songs

Music Lists Newport

Since 1959, Newport has represented one of the richest festival traditions in the United States. This year’s lineup is no different, featuring bands like My Morning Jacket, Alabama Shakes, Trampled by Turtles and Charles Bradley. While these artists range from genres such as rock, soul, country and bluegrass, it’s the festival’s strong folk roots that stand out most, with legendary acts like Jackson Browne and emerging songwriters like Robert Ellis playing across four different stages.

To celebrate that tradition, we asked 12 different acts playing Newport Folk Festival this upcoming weekend to share their favorite traditional folk songs. Read what artists including Dawes, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and First Aid Kit have to say about these timeless, iconic songs.

Klara and Johanna Söderberg
First Aid Kit

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
One of our all-time favorite folk songs is “Matty Groves.” There are so many great renditions of this tune, but the late Doc Watson’s version takes the cake. The guitar work is crazy and Doc’s voice is so straightforward and unpretentious. We love Fairport Convention’s take on the song as well; it gives it some rock edge and breaks out into a brilliant instrumental jam at the end. Our friends Alela Diane and Alina Hardin recently did a haunting cover. Oh, and don’t forget Joan Baez did a great dramatic folk-rock ballad version of the song.

What do you love about that song?
It’s cool that the song is so very old; that’s something what we love about folk music in general. The songs are old, and we don’t always know where they come from. That makes folk a genre that’s universal, timeless and very human. We see “Matty Groves” as a tale not so much about love and adultery in itself, but more about class struggle between the rich and poor and women and men. The story is powerful but pretty messed up, yet we love the brutality and tragedy of it. It’s an exciting tale that keeps you engaged throughout all the 17 (!) verses.

Ryan Boldt
The Deep Dark Woods

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
“Willie O Winsbury,” it’s a traditional song sung by Bert Jansch and a slew of others, but the finest version is Anne Briggs.

What do you love about that song?
The melody is heartbreaking and the lyrics are confusing and weird. In most English ballads, something tragic happens, and in this song it sounds like it’s going that way. Everything seems to work out fine for everybody. It’s very rare and I love it.

Anthony D’Amato

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
Tough to pick just one, but I can remember “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” by Woody Guthrie being one of the very early songs I wanted to learn on guitar. There have been great covers over the years by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and lots more.

What do you love about that song?
It’s one of those songs that forces you to confront how pervasive and ingrained some prejudices still are in our culture. “Plane Wreck” could just as easily have been written in 2012 as in 1948 because we still don’t have an answer to the question Guthrie ends the song with: “Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards? / Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?” We want all of the benefits of cheap and unregulated labor, but none of the responsibility for the poverty and abuse it engenders. At best, the migrant workers Woody sang about were treated as invisible (in the chorus he fights that notion by giving names to the nameless dead, who at the time were only referred to as “deportees” in the papers), but in hard times, they were spotlighted as scapegoats and sent “back to the Mexican border / To pay all their money to wade back again.” It’s been 60+ years since Guthrie wrote “Plane Wreck,” but we sure don’t have a lot of progress to show for it.

Ben Jaffe
Preservation Hall Jazz Band

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
“Out on the Rolling Sea” by Joseph Spence

What do you love about that song?
In junior high, I begged my mom to take me to a record convention taking place at Days Inn Motel out in the suburbs of New Orleans. I bought two records: The Best of Fats Domino and Joseph Spence’s Happy All the Time. I had never heard of Joseph Spence. I bought the record purely based on the cover which I do all the time. When I played the record, I was transfixed. I never heard anything like his singing or guitar playing, his grunts and groans. It sounds like he’s playing drums, bass, the melody and rhythm all at once! Buying this record not only opened my mind up to the West Indies but always reminds me there’s more out there that we don’t know than we do!

Joe Fletcher
Joe Fletcher & the Wrong Reasons

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
“Ramblin’ Man” by Hank Williams.

What do you love about that song?
It’s beautiful, simple, haunting and honest. Not long ago, I found myself in the Hank Williams Museum (Montgomery, Ala.) alone in front of the Cadillac that Hank passed away in. This song came piping in through the museum as I was seated. Being there, listening to Hank explain his life and what drove him and his instructions to us as to how we should view his death was a moment in time that will stick with me forever.

John McCauley
Deer Tick

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
“Whiskey in the Jar,” [a] traditional Irish folk song that has been sung by The Dubliners, Thin Lizzy, Grateful Dead, Metallica and many more.

What do you love about that song?
I love this song because it translates so well between from its Irish folk origins to rock and to metal music. A lot of that I think has to do with its lyrical content. It’s pretty dark, but it’s also kind of a love song. It doesn’t sound goofy when Metallica plays it, but it would probably be pretty goofy if you heard Metallica play “This Land Is Your Land”. Oh yeah, and this song is a must for any drinking soundtrack.

Joel Rafael

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan.

What do you love about that song?
I don’t know if “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a folk song, because to me, a song is a song. But I think “Blowin’ in the Wind” meets all the qualifications of a great folk song. It carries a social message that’s timeless in nature, it’s tied to the questions of war and peace that humankind has asked itself for ages, it has a melody and chorus that’s easy for the people to sing. And in it, Bob Dylan captured the essence of the American song.

Griffin Goldsmith

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
“Visions of Johanna” by Bob Dylan.

What do you love about that song?
The lyricism speaks for itself.

“Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, ‘jeeze
I can’t find my knees’”

Tom Brenneck
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
“The Banjo Song (Oh Suzanna)” by The Big 3.

What do you love about that song?
Because this band’s stellar arrangement of “Oh Suzanna” was used a few years later by Shocking Blue for the hit “Venus” and recently covered by Neil Young on his latest record Americana.

Nick Panken
Spirit Family Reunion

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” sung by any one of us.

What do you love about that song?
The tune taken from a song about the abolitionist John Brown, the wife of one of Brown’s Secret Six funders, writes new words about the ensuing Civil War, providing John Steinbeck with the title to his opus, and inspiring the Union anthem “Solidarity Forever.” This song has lasted over 150 years, finding relevance in every context it is sung in—whatever the struggle may be.

“He is sifting out the souls of men before his judgment seat / be swift my soul to answer him! be jubilant my feet!”

Johnny Irion
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
“Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie” by Elizabeth Cotton.

What do you love about that song?
I love the fact that she was in the latter part of her life when Mike Seeger recorded Libba. You can hear the years on that song’s mileage is everything in a folk song. It just rolls.

Ben Jaffe and Suzanne Santo

What’s your all-time favorite folk song?
Jaffe: “American Tune” by Paul Simon.
Santo: “Jolene” by Dolly Parton.

What do you love about that song?
Jaffe: The line about him not knowing a soul that hasn’t been battered makes my stomach hurt and birth little baby fairies at the same time. I like it when songs can do that.
Santo: It’s probably more of a country folk song, but that’s more my shteez anyway. I love this song. Structurally, lyrically and emotionally it’s a great story that many people I’m sure can relate to at some point. It doesn’t get any better than Dolly is what I say…”

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin