Almost 60 years after the first Newport Folk Festival, we’re still struggling to define folk music. Well, maybe more accurately, we’re still trying to determine if there are any boundaries to folk music and trying to determine how porous those boundaries might be. Nowhere is this struggle more evident than at the annual meetings of Folk Alliance International, where the diversity of music and musicians reflects the contemporary responses to these questions. Almost 30 years after its founding, the organization’s board must still struggle with the invitation list (who’s in and who’s out), but those conversations surely must be energetic and exciting as the board asks what the face of folk music looks like in a particular year. Attendees may not always feel, of course, that folk music is on display either in the official showcases or the private showcases, with some asking, “where’s the political force of folk music?” as they’re listening to, for example, Bill Kirchen, the Titan of the Telecaster, electrify the audience with his extended version of his “Hot Rod Lincoln.”
Questions about the state of folk music have dogged us at least since 1965, when Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival. Even before that event, of course, there was some question about exactly what defined folk music. Did singing folk music mean singing songs of the people — the folk — from particular traditions, using the instruments that those folks might have used to play them? As new singers came onto the scene singing their own songs and not the traditional folk songs, questions about authenticity and preserving tradition arose from the old guard that had been singing those Scottish ballads or Southern field songs. Already in the early 1960s, then, musicians and songwriters danced around these questions, being embraced — or choosing not to be embraced — by the folk movement.
In 1959, George Wein established the Newport Folk Festival, which in its own way provided an answer to the question of who’s in and who’s out; at the same time, it provided a venue for a diverse group of artists then emerging out of the folk revival. Wein decided to devote a festival at Newport to folk music after holding a folk afternoon at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1959 featuring Odetta, Pete Seeger, and the Weavers: “When I saw young people filling the club Sunday afternoon, drinking ginger ales, a crowd I had never seen before, I realized that we had enough for a folk festival.” On July 11-12, 1959, then, the inaugural Newport Folk Festival featured Odetta, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, Bob Gibson, the Stanley Brothers, Earl Scruggs, and Pete Seeger, among others. Seeger, Oscar Brand, Theodore Bikel, and Albert Grossman composed the inaugural board for the festival.
Now, for the first time, journalist Rick Massimo provides a sweeping history of the festival in I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival (Wesleyan). Drawing on interviews with the musicians, the organizers and promoters (Wein has told his own story in Myself among Others: A Life in Music; Da Capo), and the fans — many of whom return year after year — Massimo energetically leads us into the thickets surrounding the rise, fall, and rebirth of the festival. While his prose is often workmanlike and flat, he more often vibrantly tells good stories that bring to life the personalities involved in the festival, as well as stories that offer perspectives on the significance and endurance of a folk festival.
After its birth in 1959, the festival ran for 11 years, shutting down in 1971 — a “symbol of a worn-out genre looking for a reason to exist.” In 1985, the festival rose from the ashes in a very different form, with a different vision: “Where it had been a nonprofit, utopian, determinedly egalitarian presentation onstage and backstage, in which everyone from Bob Dylan to the fiddler for the Greenbriar Boys got $50 a day, it reemerged as a sleek, commercial, corporately sponsored weekend of concerts … the musical ethos sprang from the desire of a generation of artists and fans — most from the same generation that had propelled the initial incarnation of the festival — not to be left behind as the music industry moved on to another new sound and crowd.” While the festival lives on in this new incarnation, it has struggled to attract an audience, sometimes bringing in a big-name popular act like Jimmy Buffett (2008), whose set famously divided the audience so that his fans stuck around while the rest of the crowd made a mass exodus.
Of course, the Newport Folk Festival also played host to the event that shifted the cultural ethos from the by-then benign folk movement to the just developing youth culture of rock and roll. The night that Dylan “went electric” was in many ways the beginning of the end of the first incarnation of Newport. Since Elijah Wald has now written the definitive book on this night—Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties (Dey Street) — Massimo provides a brief oral history of that moment, simply laying the “taped evidence, the recollections of the participants and audience members, both in the moment and decades later, and the heated debates in the folk music magazines of the time and the sober histories many years down the road” end to end without commentary. Maybe the most telling words come from Wein himself, who said, “it was never the same after that. By ’66, I knew that we were having problems.”
Perhaps the greatest lesson we learn from Massimo’s animated history is that even the inaugural festival raised questions about the definition of folk music. One critic wrote, “On the whole, Newport was a great disappointment to me. ‘Folk’ is such a debated and misused word, given far too wide an interpretation by some of its perpetrators.” Another critic expressed his feelings about the conflict between the commercialism of some acts and folk: “What connection these frenetic tinselly showmen [the Kingston Trio] have with a folk festival eludes me, except that it is mainly folk songs they choose to vulgarize.” Albert Grossman, one of the board members who would eventually manage Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, gushed more giddily: “The American public is like Sleeping Beauty, waiting to be kissed awake by the prince of Folk music.”
This year’s lineup at the Newport Folk Festival continues to raise the question about the definition of folk music. John Prine, Wilco, and Fleet Foxes are the headliners each night, and the lineup each day looks as if it could have come straight out of the Americana Music Association Festival (itself a kind of folk festival). Massimo himself will be reading at the Museum Stage, which also hosts the For Pete’s Sake program in memory of Pete Seeger. At best, Newport Folk — and Folk Alliance International, as well as the Kerrville Folk Festival, among others — reminds us of the dynamic character of folk music, as well as the fraught state of music criticism and music charts (either Billboard charts or radio airplay charts). By telling the enduring saga of Newport Folk, Massimo illustrates the ways that the festival changed the course of much in our culture.