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
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.