The Circle Will Not Be Broken: Newport Folk Festival 2016

View from the Harbor Stage at Newport Folk Festival

“Somebody’s gotta do it,” says Jay Sweet, producer of the Newport Folk Festival, when I ask what inspired him to take up the charge of keeping the long-running festival alive and relevant. “I felt like it was the granddaddy of all music festivals. It’s the original. It’s imperative that the original remain.”

Newport Folk Festival founder George Wein, who also started Newport Jazz in 1954, was going to let the folk festival go after its 50-year anniversary in 2009. Sweet had been hired at that time as a consultant and associate producer. “I saw what was happening at Bonnaroo, at Coachella, [and realized that Newport] is a trusted voice. Why change it?”

Newport is a unique festival. Its commitment to introducing audiences to lesser-known artists that are bound to make a strong impression, while always scheduling a select group of tried and true favorites, remains strong. This year’s lineup was balanced with legends and promising up-and-comers, as always. “[This festival is] dedicated to the artists. And the artists bring other artists into the fold,” says Sweet.

Joan Baez was invited to play by George Gibson during the Newport Folk's inaugural year, 1959. Two years later, Baez invited Bob Dylan to join her. Johnny Cash talked Wein into letting a little-known Kris Kristofferson sing a few tunes at the 1969 festival. He returned this year, joined by the much-buzzed-about new country traditionalist Margo Price.

“Kris Kristofferson needs to be put in front of 18 to 25 year olds," says Sweet. "We bridge the generations by putting Margo Price on stage with him."

Newport Folk audiences attend assuming something special will happen, whether it’s Beck singing with Ramblin Jack Elliott or Ruby Amanfu performing with Deer Tick.

Jesse Bauer, artist manager at Gold VE, articulated the beauty of Newport well: “The Newport Folk Festival is important because of the unique relationship and trust between the artists, Jay Sweet, and the festival goers. It creates a sense of community, and the feeling that everyone is part of something bigger. You learn to expect the unexpected.”

“We have no marketing budget," says Sweet. "That line item is a zero on our spreadsheet. We don’t put out press releases, but instead dedicate an entire day to each artist we feature as we slowly announce the lineup leading up the festival. But we’re always sold out before the lineup is even announced. This year it took only 48 hours.” 

Traci Thomas, manager of Jason Isbell, John Moreland, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones [Moreland and St. Paul both played Newport Folk this year] has similar thoughts. “I love that the Newport Folk Festival has kept its integrity all of these years," she says. "They care about both the fan and the artist’s experience. As a manager, it is important to me that both artist and the fan enjoy themselves. The festival does a great job of bringing in new talent each year as well as artists that have a historic significance with the festival. As someone who strives to build career artists, it’s important to remember those that brought us all here. Also, you can’t beat the view from the main stage.”

“Artists like it because they can pop up unannounced and do whatever they want," Sweet adds. "It’s a safe environment for experimentation. We had 12 bands show up this year that weren’t even playing the festival.”

Sweet isn’t exaggerating. There were unannounced song swaps and collaborations, spontaneous collisions of musical worlds, and joyous mashups of styles all weekend. Shovels & Rope set up shop at the Jane Pickens Theater in downtown Newport to present their Busted Jukebox show and invited many festival players to join them. Deer Tick did the same with their Newport After Party show. On site, Ryan Adams delivered a beautiful set with the Infamous Stringdusters and Nicki Bluhm. Hayes Carll and I played the Motel Song Swap with Shovels & Rope on the Museum Stage. Elvis Costello performed with Larkin Poe, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Dawes. Glen Hansard called Costello to the stage during the finale of his set. My Morning Jacket backed Ray LaMontagne. The list could go on.

No artist shows up in Newport because they’re getting a huge paycheck. They show up because they want to, and because they don’t know what’s going to happen either, only that they’ll likely be delighted and rewarded somehow. It fills the artistic coffers to let loose, to make music just for the joy of doing it -- especially now, when every note is in danger of becoming a commodity.

Indeed, it seems every singer-songwriter and folkie wants to play Newport. It’s sort of a rite of passage for us. In all honesty, we love playing festivals because we get to see our friends. The rest of the year, we run up and down the roads so much that it’s easy to lose touch. It’s always a comfort to see a kindred spirit and commune over a song or a conversation. There’s no doubt that the fans can feel that camaraderie, and they love it as much as we do.

Even so, no other festival comes to mind that holds as much heritage, prestige, and mystique for performers as Newport.

And it isn’t only musicians and fans that want to take part. Hotelier and entrepreneur Jeff Burns was determined to do his part in furthering the cause this year, and brought together legends Terry Allen, Kris Kristofferson, and Joe Ely to perform with the Texas Gentlemen -- a group of musicians that play regularly at his historic and exceedingly artist friendly Belmont Hotel, based in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas.

“It’s always felt as if there is a genuine appreciation on both sides of the stage.," he says. "The musicians are as excited and honored to be playing as the fans are to be there. The history and the hallowed grounds of the Fort are incomparable and the stewards of the festival are keenly aware of its history and the epic chapters they contribute year in and year out. It was a tremendous honor for the Belmont to have the opportunity to align with the festival. We have a deep love of music and a profound respect for the artists that make it.”

Venerable fashion designer Billy Reid has collaborated with the not-for-profit festival for several years, making special items to raise funds for Newport’s foundation and also helping to sponsor the Museum Stage.

It seems everyone that understands it wants to do what they can to keep it going strong, and going strong it is. At the end of the day, The Newport Folk Festival is all about building community, making a big musical family, and not only upholding tradition, but also figuring out how to further it. As Sweet succinctly put it, “Steal the playbook that Pete Seeger [who was on the original board of the festival], used. Check your ego at the door. Speak truth to art and speak truth to power. What would Pete do? What would Woody do?”

Sweet has made sure that philosophy carries through every hand and heart on the grounds of the beautiful Fort Adams State Park where all the magic is made. As we left the gate on Sunday afternoon, one of the volunteers looked at my tired trooper of a six-year-old son who’d valiantly danced, played, and laughed his way through two long days of music and dust and handed him a patch that says, ”One of the folk.” I knew then that his first Newport wouldn’t be his last.

Thanks for a very well written insight into this venerable and worthy festival, Allison.  I hope to attend next year, and your story here underscores how important this gathering is in the necessary and vital work of passing on tradition and culture from generation to generation. Long may the Newport Festival thrive!

Excellent article...appreciate the insight of the artist who both plays the festival and enjoys it from a spectator's standpoint...and as someone who's dad bought him is first 45 rpm record at age 5 (Elvis), the love of music is the best gift you can pass along to your son...I know you know that, but to experience Newport at age 6...that's a great thing...