July 24, 2009
BY RICK MASSIMO
Journal Pop Music Writer
Fifty years ago, the first Newport Folk Festival put traditionalists
such as Pete Seeger and Oscar Brand on the same stage with The
Kingston Trio, a pop act with a chart-topping single and three
number-one albums. People were debating then what real folk music was
including on a festival panel at Rogers High School.
Fans were still debating the question six years later in 1965, when
Bob Dylan chose Newport for his first electric performance _ and in
1985, when the festival returned from a 15-year hiatus with acts such
as Los Lobos and Robert Cray; and they'll be doing it next weekend,
when indie-rockers The Decemberists and Fleet Foxes share the stage
with Seeger and Joan Baez.
The tension between the traditional and the new, the old favorites
and the interlopers, is what festival impresario George Wein calls "a
magic combination." It drove folklorist Alan Lomax and Butterfield
Blues Band manager Albert Grossman to come to blows over an insulting
onstage introduction in 1964; it drove Seeger to famously wish for an
axe to cut the power lines during Dylan's 1965 show. And it leads
some of the fans who cheered Dylan back then to complain about the
new generation in the next breath admitting that they haven't been
in about 20 years. It's always been there, and figures in the
festival's history say it will always be there because it's
supposed to be there.
Half a century ago, the original idea was for folk at Newport to take
up one afternoon of the already established jazz festival. But Wein,
the jazz pianist and nightclub owner who had been producing the
Newport Jazz Festival for five years , quickly realized that the folk
scene, with Harvard Square as its epicenter, was a much bigger deal
than that. Soon, a whole folk festival was put together to be held in
Freebody Park, a block behind the International Tennis Hall of Fame,
July 11 and 12, 1959.
Seeger was the first act. Brand was the MC. A young Odetta, not yet a
legend, was there as well. The bluegrass group The Stanley Brothers
played, as did country-blues guitarist Gary Davis and the string band
The New Lost City Ramblers. "Newport wasn't the biggest festival in
the world," Seeger says now, "but it was one of the first to show …
you could put well-known people on the same stage with less-known people."
Through the influence of figures such as Seeger and Ralph Rinzler and
Theodore Bikel, all key figures in the folk boom of the '50s and '60s
who joined the festival's board in the early years, the festival was
an egalitarian, traditional, rooted affair through the next decade.
No artist would be paid more than $50 plus expenses, Seeger and Wein say.
"It was Utopia," Wein says now. "But it worked then. It couldn't
work now. … You need to have somebody whose integrity could not be
challenged. And no one ever challenged Pete's integrity."
Artists roomed together in dormitories; concert-goers slept on the
beach. Robin Wiseman, then a North Kingstown teenager, remembers
sitting at a picnic table in Newport in 1964 making sandwiches with
folk-blues legend Taj Mahal.
Eventually, the influence of rock 'n' roll crept into the folk scene.
The post-Beatles rebelliousness and thoughtfulness of rock music
helped drain the folk scene of young listeners. Bob Dylan's
festival-closing performances in 1964 and 1965 (he first played
Newport in 1963) were the legendary symbols of the process.
Doug Hindley, of Lincoln, who was there both years, recalls that in
1964 "the entire city was waiting to see Dylan," calling him "the
power and the man." "He's yours," gushed Ronnie Gilbert of The
Weavers, introducing Dylan that year as he climbed the stage with his
acoustic guitar, already playing "Chimes of Freedom."
The next year, Dylan tore out of the gate with a breakneck electric
version of "Maggie's Farm." "Most people were in a state of shock;
the others just booed," says Hindley. "There was crying." Even though
he now remembers the performance as "dynamite; just beautiful," and
Dylan finished with a couple of half-hearted acoustic songs, Hindley
and his friends drove back to Cumberland afterward, "and not one word
Mighty Dylan, Hindley felt, had sold out. No more work shirts and
workshops; local fans like Wiseman would no longer run into Dylan on
Bellevue Avenue and get invited to a sing-along. The post-electric
Dylan wore "Clarabelle the Clown shirts" (Hindley's term) and went on
Wein knew that something had changed too. "We lost our prince. And
nobody replaced him. …"It was never the same after that. By '66, I
knew that we were having problems."
By 1970, both Newport festivals were in trouble. There wasn't the
money to put on a 1970 Newport Folk Festival. And when that year's
jazz festival ended in a riot, Wein and Newport parted ways. Wein
moved the jazz festival to New York and produced new projects,
including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
When the revived folk festival returned in 1985, things had changed,
and continued to change.
Newport, a town that the Navy and the moneyed elite had dominated,
was now much more interested in attracting tourism than in the '60s
and '70s. And Newport wanted the festival back, Wein says with some
changes. There were no more nighttime shows, and the festival would
now be at Fort Adams, a state park on a peninsula away from downtown.
The new venue changed the tenor of the festival. Gretchen Lendrum, of
Middletown, remembers the old Newport shows as "a 24-hour festival,"
with music all over town even after the shows had shut down for the
night. The Fort Adams shows are more like a regular concert, she says
"you clap, then you pack up and go home."
Bob Jones, who had started as a volunteer in 1963, became producer of
the folk festival in 1985, and he says that his first order of
business was to get as many people from the canceled 1971 festival
onto the 1985 bill. "I had no idea whether we'd be able to keep the
festival going," Jones says but with Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Joan
Baez and Bonnie Raitt, the festival sold out. The next year, Jones
told The Journal "Maybe we made too much of nostalgia last year but
we wanted to reestablish the festival in Newport and now we will find
out if we have or not." While the performers included a 15-year-old
Alison Krauss, Jones says, the festival lost money in 1986.
That's when the festival turned to corporate sponsors to make ends
meet. In 1987, the Nestle corporation was the first to sponsor the
festival. As corporate sponsors came and went, the festival's name
changed from the Nestle Folk Festival to the Ben & Jerry's Newport
Folk Festival to the Dunkin' Donuts Newport Folk Festival. "If we
didn't have corporate sponsorship, we wouldn't have a festival," Wein
says, adding that the high fees commanded by headlining artists and
the capacity of Fort Adams (about 9,000) limits the booking possibilities.
Whatever the naming situation, Jones kept varying the bill. "We were
certainly moving, not toward the edge, but to a larger definition of
folk. I felt that if people came out of the folk scene, maybe never
playing it but having a great respect for it, they could be presented."
The festival was now a for-profit venture with corporate sponsorship,
but the promoters looked for ways to replicate the feel of the old
festival wherever possible, to mixed results. In the process, they
helped create a new sensation in the mix between singer-songwriter
folk and radio-ready pop music.The Indigo Girls maybe never got as
big as Bob Dylan, but singer-songwriter Amy Ray says that the Newport
festival was similarly instrumental in building their career.
They played Newport nine times between 1990 and 1999 (as well as in
2001 and 2006).
"The audience there kind of loved everybody," Ray recalls. "It was
very embracing. And for a long time it felt like home to us, and the
standing gig that we would do. … I knew the history, and … I felt
like part of a folk tradition."
Ray adds that the camaraderie between the artists was reminiscent of
what she had been told about the early history of the festival: "The
most important part of that festival to me is not when we actually
played," she says.
And while the political involvement of the festival wasn't as
pronounced as in the years when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality were invited guests,
Ray says that even in the corporate-sponsored years, there was room
to make a difference.
"There was definitely an activist spirit," Ray recalls. "It wasn't
politicized the way it probably was in the '60s, [but] whenever we
were there, we were talking to people in that way."
In 2007, Wein sold his company, Festival Productions, which produced
the folk and jazz festivals, to a new firm called Festival Network.
The new company produced the 2007 and 2008 editions of both
festivals, but in February of this year, the state Department of
Environmental Management, which operates Fort Adams, revoked the new
company's contract with three years remaining, citing late payments
of the state's cut of festival proceeds.
Wein saw a vacuum in Newport and got back in the game at age 83.
He hurriedly put together New Festival Productions, which was awarded
a one-year contract from the state in April very late in the game
in the festival business, and with no corporate sponsor (one has
since been found for the jazz festival). And when assembling the bill
of what this year is known as George Wein's Folk Festival 50, he went
to the same kind of mix that has worked in the past.
When Festival Network began producing Newport, the most immediate and
visible change was an influx of indie-rock bands that had clearly
been influenced by the singer-songwriters of the '70s and '80s, but
had cut their teeth playing electric guitars in bars, rather than
acoustics in coffeehouses: M. Ward, Bright Eyes, Ray LaMontagne and more.
When Wein resumed control of the festival, he hired Jay Sweet, who
had worked at Festival Network, saying, "He represents a world that I
don't know." Sweet, who lives in Easton, Mass., and went to high
school in Newport, says "I wish there was a better word, but I
believe in the brand. I believe in the heritage that Newport brings
with it. This is where Dylan went electric and the Pixies went acoustic."
The bill next weekend includes Seeger, Baez, Mavis Staples, Ramblin'
Jack Elliott and Arlo Guthrie, as well as young indie-rockers and
singer-songwriters such as The Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, Neko Case,
Joe Pug and Rhode Island-based groups Deer Tick and Low Anthem.
Sweet recalls seeing The Decemberists in Boston last year and hearing
the song "Sons and Daughters." "I thought, 'This could be a Pete
Seeger song' … they also don't shy away from the darker side of folk
tales, which the artists on the early festivals never did."
Sweet, who is also editor-at-large at Paste magazine, calls this
year's edition "a DIY (do-it-yourself) festival," and says that that
places it squarely in the Newport tradition. He gives the example of
singer-songwriter Joe Pug: "He is the epitome of what a folk artist
was, is and will be. Someone who says, 'I don't have any money and no
one's backing me, but I've got this guitar, I got a batch of songs,
and I'm going to make enough money here to get to the next gig.'
That, to me, is folk music."
And the two-day festival, which begins on Saturday, will end where
Newport folk began: with Pete Seeger.
He'll close both days of the festival, including a giant sing-along
with as many of the performers as possible. He says he hasn't been to
the festival in many years, and that his hearing precludes him from
getting to know many of the younger artists, but this is one of only
two shows this year he's doing away from the immediate area of his
Beacon, N.Y., home.
Seeger, 90, who wanted to cut the cord on Dylan in 1965 (because the
sound mix was awful, he says), now quotes the advice he got decades
ago from his father: "Don't waste your time arguing about the
definition of folk music; it's a waste of time. Just know that the
folk process has been going on for thousands of years, in all fields
And the process continues at Newport, he says, praising the
festival's "wonderful contrast. Mixing it up!"