THROUGH THE LENS: The Many Memories of the Newport Folk Festival
Highway 65 Revisited - Newport Folk Festival 2015 - Photo by Jim Brock
As we get ready to stream this year’s Newport Folk Festival, titled “Newport Folk Revival Weekend,” photographer/writer Jim Brock, who has attended five of the last six festivals, shares with us some of his thoughts, memories, and favorite moments from those years. And, of course, his one-of-a-kind photos. Many thanks to him for putting this together for us. You can learn more about Jim and his photography at his website, eyeonthemusic.com.
Information on how to stream this year’s fest, which runs this Friday through Sunday (July 31-Aug. 2), and where to listen to archived shows, is here.
Moments that Linger
A musician friend of mine’s been driving talent to and from the Newport Folk Festival for 30+ years. Once, he drove John Prine and, while a bit little starstruck, still managed to ask him about the “little pitchers” line in “Sam Stone,” an expression unfamiliar to my East Coast pal. Well, Prine was a bit surprised, suggesting it was a pretty common saying in his parts. My friend savored the small exchange, calling Prine “a common man in the most uncommon way.” The same could be said of how Newport Folk Festival bonds us together through familiar music, in the most uncommon of ways. Songs we all know by heart, songs we’ve been singing since we were kids.
As a photographer, there are times when you just have to let the moment wash over you. In the years I’ve been roaming the Fort, I’ve had my share. Take last year. The festival closed with an all-hands stage honoring the centennial of Pete Seeger (who still seems to watch over the place) under the banner of “If I Had a Song.” There were the beloved Seeger songs, and then there was his spirit injected into tunes like Sly’s “Everyday People” with Lake Street Dive and Hozier, John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” the Kinks’ “Strangers,” and a beautifully rendered “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” with Judy Collins, Robin Pecknold, and James Mercer. But it was the songs of hope and resistance, like Our Native Daughters’ telling of “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus,” and with Mavis Staples along for “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” that made my hair stand up in the best way. All capped by a chorus of thousands for “This Land is Your Land” and a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott-led “Goodnight, Irene.” A sea of young faces, singing lyrics pre-dating many by generations, past and present blurring. That’s Newport. That’s me singing along.
Here’s a Newport Folk lesson learned the hard way — never leave before the day’s last tune. A few years back, we hoofed it to the car before the end of Jason Isbell’s set, only to find out David Crosby made an unannounced appearance for a scorching “Wooden Ships” and “Ohio” encore. Such collaborations are the heart of Newport. These past few years, Brandi Carlile has been everywhere, as have Isbell and Benmont Tench, who were practically a roving house band in 2019. Anybody may pop up on any stage (yes, you, Jim James) at any time over the three days.
The surprises often aren’t known until they hit the stage. James Taylor dropping in for an unbilled Saturday set in 2015, his first since 1969. Roger Waters joining John Prine at the end of his 2017 set. Or last year’s Saturday closer billed as “The Collaboration,” but listed only as ♀♀♀♀, that brought Dolly Parton and a whole lotta joy to the Fort Stage. And, maybe, whenever the world gets past whatever’s next, the annual murmurs of a Dylan return, or Springsteen or Neil, will be realized.
Then, there are the gems. The personal discoveries. Gregory Alan Isakov at the Quad Stage, playing to a pin-drop hush in 2014, my first ever day at the Fort. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats turning the Quad inside out with a full blown rock and soul revival the following year. The Weather Station’s “Thirty” in 2018, and a feeling rarely stirred since the days of Joni Mitchell’s albums on the Asylum label. The 2019 crowd for J.S. Ondara catching every word down to a whisper all the way out on the grass.
There’s always the unexpected and curious, too. Guitar hero St. Vincent accompanied only by piano, or Tank & the Bangas, just because they’re Tank & the Bangas, in 2018. The undefinable mélange of Khruangbin, last year. Newport Folk isn’t just strings and things, it’s also under-the-radar acts finding their audiences, breakout folksters, roots and indie rockers, and legacy artists, all of whom bear Newport proudly. As Jay Sweet said in a 2018 podcast, “If this festival for you is about the headliners, I don’t think this is your festival.”
The DNA of Newport Folk is as deep as it gets, dating to 1959 and rooted in collaboration and activism. If we’re lucky, a few of those moments wash over us. We connect on the common ground of a shared musical heritage and look forward. And like my friend said of John Prine, that is uncommon, indeed. #FolkYeah
Anthony Mulcahy reported on last year’s Newport Fest for this column, you can find it here. Now, Jim’s photos. It’s a feast for the eyes.