I Got a Song – A History of the Newport Folk Festival
A new book on the history of the Newport Folk Festival is a treasure trove for music fans. Former Providence Journal reporter Rick Massimo has written the first complete account of the legendary festival, describing its many successes and occasional blunders. Massimo interviewed many of the major organizers the festival, as well as musicians, attendees, and Newport locals – the boots on the ground.
I Got a Song follows on the heels of Elijah Wald’s excellent Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties (2015), and legendary festival guru George Wein’s 2007 autobiography, Myself Among Others (2004), both outstanding accounts of the Newport Festival scene. Massimo’s book looks at the festival from its start in 1959 right up through the 2015 weekend, the 50th anniversary of that historic moment when Dylan went electric. (More on that later.) It’s a great read, a thorough and entertaining account.
The Early Years
Massimo traces the origins of the first Folk Festival to the Newport Jazz Festival, first held in the “City by the Sea” in 1954. The oft-repeated story has longtime Producer George Wein approached at his Boston Jazz club Storyville by Newport socialites Elaine and Louis Lorillard. The couple wanted to bring an outdoor festival to the sleepy summer retreat, and Wein jumped on board.
Although outdoor Classical concerts at venues like Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts were common, no one had yet produced a large festival of “popular” music. The Newport Jazz Festival was in fact, the first. In the mid/late 1950’s, Newport was the center of the jazz world, at least for one weekend in June.
A popular workshop at the early Jazz Festivals was a “Blues afternoon,” which featured R&B and blues artists. For the 1959 Festival, Wein went further, planning a “Folk” afternoon with Odetta, Pete Seeger and The Weavers. The previous winter, he had noted large crowds of Boston area college kids attending his Sunday afternoon folk/blues shows at Storyville. At that point, he saw the potential for a full-fledged summer folk festival.
Organizing a folk festival was a creative challenge for Wein, a pianist and jazz promoter. He quickly came to rely on visionaries in the folk world, including performer and activist Pete Seeger, Folklorist Alan Lomax and Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. Wein has trusted others for advice and consul ever since, especially Festival mainstay Seeger, who is portrayed in the book as the central artery running through the Festival’s history.
The first festival in 1959 was considered a great success, with Seeger joined by well-known artists Odetta, Rev. Gary Davis and The Kingston Trio. Other legendary performers including Jean Richie, Bo Diddley, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry also appeared. It was evident from the start that the Festival would have deep roots.
Of course, folk music at Newport was always about more than just a guy and a guitar. The “new thing” at Newport in 1959 was 19-year-old Joan Baez, fresh off the Cambridge coffeehouse scene, a guest of popular folkie Bob Gibson. Still unknown at the time, the Providence Journal referred to her “Joan Byers” as she made her big stage debut.
A couple of years later, Baez brought her own “new thing” to the concert, one “Bobby” Dylan, who quickly became the face of the festival. IN 1964, the festival was drawing over 75,000 fans, when blues legends Son House, Muddy Waters and Skip James appeared. Thousands slept in public parks and beaches, straining the city’s resources.
Over time, Newport became the benchmark for music festivals. It was the first true Americana festival (before the term became widespread), with a focus on authentic American roots music. In an age before Google and YouTube, talent scouts ventured into different regions of the country seeking out artists in genres including Cajun, Bluegrass, and a Cappella. Wein and his staff brought in international artists as well, from as far away as Spain and Israel. In Chapter 4, “Texas was the Worst,” Massimo shares some colorful stories about the adventures of festival staff seeking out artists in the South.
Massimo describes the struggle between the “evolutionists” and the “functionalists,” two camps in the Folk world identified by historian Richard Cohen. The evolutionists brought a pure approach to the music – it had to remain authentic, true to its roots. To them, it was only folk if it could be played on the front porch or the juke joint. The functionalists believed the music “could serve practical purposes, energizing the folk to struggle against racism and oppression.” The struggle between these two forces played out repeatedly over the years.
Challenging both movements was the mass market popularity of folk music in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Remarkable by today’s standards, groups like The Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four, and Peter, Paul and Mary were topping the pop charts. In fact, one of the early blunders came during the first festival in 1959 where Wein acknowledges briefly losing the trust of the purists. Near the conclusion of the first Sunday concert, and under pressure from fans who wanted to get home early, he made a last second change to the schedule, accommodating fans and allowing The Kingston Trio to go onstage before Bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs. It took a while for the purists to forgive him.
Of particular interest is Chapter 7, “A Limited Amount of Time,” where Massimo tells the story of the legendary half hour set when Dylan ”went electric,” kicking out the jams for a whole generation. The narrative is shared completely through a series of quotes – from festival organizers, fellow musicians, journalists, critics and other eyewitnesses.
As far as his verdict on that moment, it’s apparent that truth lies in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, those who were present seemed to each take away something different. Some witnessed the audience booing, but for many, it was unclear – was it directed at the artist? The sound system? Other fans? The assemblage of quotes, arranged chronologically (and all dutifully footnoted), isn’t intended to answer the question. Massimo allows the witnesses to make their statements, and the reader to be the jury.
Since its founding, the festival was a focal point for youth – in a way, the counterculture began to percolate in Newport. Political activism was overt from the start and the Festival addressed social justice issues thorough song and action. Of course, the Civil Rights Movement was in the forefront in the early years. Massimo shares some great anecdotes, including Wein’s story about how two groups integrated a bus at the 1964 Festival.
“The all-white Sacred Harp singing group from Alabama was riding a shuttle bus to the festival grounds when the bus stopped to let on the all-black Georgia Sea Island Singers, who were also headed there. The bus was full. There was nowhere for the Sea Islanders to sit. According to the book, there was an awkward pause while everyone weighed their options. And then, only a few years after the idea of a black woman sitting with white people on a bus provoked many white Southerners to riot in the streets, the men of the Sacred Harp group rose and oﬀered their seats to the women.”
More recently, the festival has taken on environmental issues and stood in the forefront of the Gay Pride movement. The “out and proud” Indigo Girls ruled the Festival in the 1990’s appearing 9 times in 10 years. They brought a new brand of activism that inspired many festival-goers.
In recent years, Wein has ceded the day to day operation of the festival to Executive Director Jay Sweet. Sweet, has become the “memory keeper,” charged with the challenging task of keeping the Festival fresh while maintaining the connection to the past. He’s continued to broaden the definition of what folk music is, inspiring a new generation of fans.
Since 2014, the Festival has sold out even before any acts are announced, a rare feat that even caught the attention of James Taylor, a late addition to the 2015 line up. In a special moment that year, Taylor was able to complete his 1969 set that had been shortened by news of the first manned moon landing.
In a 2016 interview, Sweet spoke about the “paradox of compounding expectations,” the belief that the Festival has to outdo itself each year. Of course, the organizers can never equal that moment in ’65 when Dylan went electric, nor many others, but it has succeeded in maintaining the spirit of those times. That positive, life affirming spirit is evident in this book as well- I strongly recommend it.
I Got a Song is out June 6th. Preorder it here.
Ken Abrams writes about music for FolkRadioUK, Popdose, and NoDepression. He is a former Music Critic at GoLocalProv in Providence, RI.