Folk You: 50 Years of the Newport Folk Festival

Music Features Newport

Newport Folk is the granddaddy of American folk festivals and—were it not for the existence of the Newport Jazz Festival, founded five years earlier by the same man—it would be the granddaddy of all American music festivals. After five decades, it’s still run by its founder, the remarkable 83-year-old George Wein, who spun the folk fest off of the jazz fest just in time to catch America’s early-’60s folk revival.

“I became acquainted with the folk movement after I booked Odetta at Storyville in 1958,” Wein says today. “The place was packed. I found out that Cambridge was host to a growing folk movement, so I decided to schedule an afternoon of folk music during the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival. I asked Odetta, Pete Seeger and The Weavers to perform. As I did research and talked to people, it became clear to me that an afternoon wasn’t enough—I needed a full festival.”

It’s impossible to overstate how essential Newport was to the movement. Although there were other important folk festivals (most notably in Philadelphia, Chicago and Berkeley), Newport was the summit, the place that recapped everything important from the previous year, and that foreshadowed everything to come.

It was at Newport’s first festival that folk stalwart Bob Gibson called 18-year-old Joan Baez—who’d been causing a sensation in Boston’s folk clubs—to the stage for two hair-raising duets. By the next year she was a star herself, and she later introduced another rising star, Bob Dylan, to the Newport audience.

In the early days, the festival was administered by a foundation with a board comprised of folksingers who emphasized traditional music, not only on the main stage but also in the small daytime workshops. Young guitarists could sit at the feet of Mississippi John Hurt and Rev. Gary Davis and absorb their techniques, just as banjo players could observe Roscoe Holcomb and Earl Scruggs up close. And because the folk revival rediscovered the music of many performers who’d recorded in the 1920s and ’30s, these artists soon played Newport themselves.

The 1963 festival featured performances by Hurt, Son House and Skip James, and many other bluesmen followed. Clarence “Tom” Ashley—who’d recorded with the Carolina Tar Heels in the 1930s—brought his protégé, Arthel “Doc” Watson, when he played Newport, and a star was born.

Bluegrass enjoyed a period of increased popularity thanks to Newport’s exposure. And in 1967, despite the scorn of their hometown newspaper, which doubted sophisticated New Englanders would want to hear their “chanky-chank” music, the Balfa Brothers brought their genuine Cajun sound to folk fans, resuscitating an almost-extinct musical community that continues to this day.

The more reactionary wing of the folkie community always debated “authenticity” versus “commercial” music, but Newport navigated a course between the two. In addition to blues workshops, Newport offered topical song workshops where songwriters dealing in mostly political subjects presented their work.

They, too, contributed some unforgettable moments, as when Richard and Mimi Fariña held a crowd during a summer downpour at the 1965 festival, a moment that—like many early highlights—was recorded for Vanguard Records. And there were certainly no objections when Peter, Paul and Mary joined Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers to perform “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the 1963 festival.

Where things got sticky, though, was with electricity. The most notorious incident was Bob Dylan’s 1965 performance backed by members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. This set, and the verbal firestorm it triggered, exposed a division in the folk movement that had already hit Newport: When Muddy Waters played for the first time in 1960, he was forced to use an acoustic guitar because purists wouldn’t concede that electric blues was folk music.

Electricity was an even bigger problem in 1969. That year, Led Zeppelin’s set caused a riot. But, according to longtime Newport producer Bob Jones, it wasn’t loud rock ’n’ roll that led to the festival’s 14-year hiatus—it was the anarchic melée that erupted when an overflow of rowdy fans rushed the stage as Dionne Warwick performed her hit “What the World Needs Now is Love,” tearing down fences and destroying equipment.

By 1985, things had long-since cooled down, and Wein revived the event with corporate sponsorship and a wider musical remit. Although the festival continues to emphasize performers with roots in traditional music, there is a sense of experimentation; as current festival producer [and Paste editor-at-large] Jay Sweet puts it, “Newport is where Dylan went electric and the Pixies went acoustic.”

One holdover from the old days is the way musicians still sit in with each other, a paean to the grand old hootenanny tradition. This year’s Newport Folk Festival (featuring sets by Fleet Foxes and The Decemberists) will conclude each of its weekends with a Pete Seeger-led hoot with younger performers paying tribute to the 90-year-old folk patriarch the way he most prefers—by playing and singing with him.

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