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The Newport Folk Festival is an American annual folk-oriented music festival in Newport, Rhode Island, which began in July 1959 as a counterpart to the previously established Newport Jazz Festival. The festival is often considered one of the first modern music festivals in America (the Newport Jazz Festival being the first modern festival in the world, only 5 years earlier) and remains a focal point in the ever-expanding genre of "folk" music.
The Newport Folk Festival was founded in 1959 by George Wein, founder of the already-well-established Newport Jazz Festival, and owner of Storyville, a jazz club located in Boston, MA. In 1958, Wein became aware of the growing Folk Revival movement and began inviting folk artists such as Odetta to perform on Sunday afternoons at Storyville. The afternoon performances consistently sold out and Wein began to consider the possibility of a "folk afternoon embedded within the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival". Wein envisioned the program to be "similar in scope and tone to the highly successful blues and gospel shows" that had taken place at the Jazz Festival in previous years. Wein asked Odetta, Pete Seeger, and the Weavers to perform on the afternoon in addition to the Kingston Trio. After conferring with the folk community, it grew abundantly clear to Wein that an afternoon program would not suffice and that there was demand for a full festival.
Aware of his own limitations in the folk scene, Wein asked Albert Grossman, then Odetta's manager, to join him in planning and producing the festival. Grossman accepted and began working with Wein to book talent and organize the weekend.
The festival returned in 1960 and was expanded to include three nights. The lineup placed an emphasis on music diversity, booking performers from Africa, Scotland, Spain, Israel, and Ireland alongside "traditional" folk musicians such as Pete Seeger, Ewan McColl, John Lee Hooker, Cisco Houston and Tommy Makem.
Civil Rights Movement
In 1962, two young members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed a gospel vocal quartet named the Freedom Singers. And in 1962, Pete and Toshi Seeger assisted the Freedom Singers in organizing a nationwide collegiate tour. As a result, the civil rights movement became deeply embraced by the folk music community. In 1963, the Freedom Singers performed on the first night of the Newport Folk festival, and on the second night Joan Baez joined SNCC activists and roughly 600 festival-goers on a march through Newport. The crowd walked past the Bellevue Avenue mansions and into Touro Park, where SNCC's executive secretary James Forman and Freedom Singers leader Cordell Reagon delivered speeches, rallying support for the March on Washington scheduled for the following March.
For the final performance on Friday Wein had scheduled Peter, Paul and Mary. But under the persuasion of Albert Grossman, who was managing Peter, Paul and Mary, Wein decided to allow Bob Dylan (whom Grossman was also managing) to close the night. After Peter, Paul and Mary finished their afternoon set, Wein announced that they would reappear at the end of the evening. Dylan performed a set consisting of particularly topical songs: "With God on Our Side", "Talkin' John Birch Society Blues", and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall". Peter, Paul and Mary then returned and performed an encore of "Blowin' in the Wind". Amidst a "deafening roar of applause" they brought to the stage Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Theo Bikel and the Freedom Singers. The singers stood in a single line facing the audience with crossed arms and clasped hands and began to sing a variation on the Baptist hymn "I'll Overcome Some Day". The hymn's new incarnation - "We Shall Overcome" - had become an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement.
Revival of Mississippi John Hurt
In 1928, Mississippi John Hurt, a self-taught amateur musician and farmer, recorded 13 songs for Okeh Records which failed to achieve commercial success. Believing his musical career to be over, Hurt continued farming, apparently thinking little of his brief recording gig.
Post WWII, few records cut by southern musicians in the 1920s were commercially available. Hurt's records were particularly rare, since few had been manufactured in the first place. But Harry Smith, a member of a tiny subculture of obsessive, cranky collectors, put two John Hurt cuts on his influential 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, prompting many blues hobbyists to begin searching for him. In 1963, Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart acquired a tape of Hurt's Avalon Blues through their informal network of tape traders. Hurt had recorded Avalon Blues at the end of a week-long stay in New York that spanned Christmas 1928. Apparently homesick in the big city, Hurt included a line about his home in Avalon being always on his mind.
Hoskins and Stewart were able to locate Avalon and track Hurt down. After asking Hurt to perform, to ensure he was actually who he claimed to be, Hoskins convinced Hurt to move to Washington D.C. and embark on a national tour.
The tour culminated on Saturday evening of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, when Mississippi John Hurt performed alongside Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and John Lee Hooker for a blues workshop at the Newport Casino. The performance is considered to be a seminal moment for the folk revival and caused Hurt to rise to fame. He performed extensively at colleges, concert halls, and coffeehouses and appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
The Electric Dylan controversy
Bob Dylan's 1963 and 1964 performances solo and with Baez had made him popular with the Newport crowd, but on July 25, 1965 festival headliner Dylan was booed by some fans when he played with backing band The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
It is usually said that the reason for the hostile reception by a small number of fans was Dylan's "abandoning" of the folk orthodoxy, or poor sound quality on the night (or a combination of the two). The controversy regarding the reaction of the audience at this event is often overplayed, as it was not the general reaction of the audience, but rather that of a small number of folk "purists", including Pete Seeger. The reaction of "the crowd" to Dylan's performance, certainly from eyewitness accounts, was generally quite enthusiastic. This performance, Dylan's first live "plugged-in" set of his professional career, marked the shift in his artistic direction from folk to rock, and had wider implications for both genres. The performance marked the first time Dylan performed "Like a Rolling Stone" in public.
Despite the musical transition, Dylan's growing status within the larger counterculture ensured that his place in the expanding movement would remain secure.
Dylan did not return to Newport until 2002, when he played a headlining performance while wearing a wig and fake beard.
Johnny Cash Introduces Kris Kristofferson
In 1969, the Johnny Cash troupe was to perform on opening night of the festival. Cash had recently become aware of Kris Kristofferson, a young, relatively unknown country singer-songwriter, and convinced George Wein to allow Kristofferson to join him onstage. Kristofferson's performance of "Me and Bobby McGee" and other songs gave him a launch into his legendary musical career.
Michelle Shocked V-J Day Protest
The Newport Folk Festival has, throughout various points in its history, remained connected to protest movements. In the 60's the festival played a substantial part in the civil rights movement. In the early 80's the Newport Folk Festival was one of the first festivals to serve as a platform for climate change protest.
In the 1990s, playing on Victory Day (originally "Victory over Japan Day" or "V-J Day") folk musician Michelle Shocked asked the entire audience to lie down because "she wanted to see what it looked like when people had been destroyed by bombs". This was relevant to the locale of the festival as Rhode Island is the only US state which still officially celebrates the holiday, and the Naval War College is also in Newport, a mere few miles from the Fort Adams State Park where the festival is held.
Return of Bob Dylan
In 2002, Bob Dylan returned to the Newport Folk Festival for the first time since his shocking performance in 1965, in which he went electric. The '65 appearance at the Folk Festival was a turning point in his career, a distancing of himself from his acoustic folk music to his more blues-based electric music.
Despite wide speculation that Dylan would once again attempt to "shock" the audience at Newport, Dylan performed a straightforward set, with little surprises. The performance was reviewed favorably and provided a much needed economic boost to the festival.
Pixies Go Acoustic
Initially spanning the late eighties and early nineties, The Pixies are often credited for creating a blueprint for alternative rock that was followed and embellished upon by numerous contemporary indie/rock artists. After separating in 1994, the group reunited in 2004 and in 2005, performed, for the first time, a completely acoustic performance at the Newport Folk Festival. The set was deemed "Pixies Go Acoustic" as a play on words in reference to Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival is 1965.
The performance was recorded and turned into a feature film directed by Michael B Borofsky, titled Pixies: Acoustic: Live in Newport.
Establishment of Foundation
The Newport Folk Festival has existed in various forms since its creation; founded as a not-for-profit, the festival became a for-profit in the mid-eighties. However, in 2011, the festival announced it would return to its non-profit status under the umbrella of the Newport Festivals Foundation. The Foundation not only strived to sustain the Newport Folk and Newport Jazz Festival, but also expand the impact of its Festivals through educational initiatives that celebrate innovation while preserving the deep traditions inherent in Jazz and Folk music.
Turning Point/50th Celebration
In 2008, Executive Producer, George Wein hired Jay Sweet as an associate of the festival. At the time, the folk festival was struggling financially and with Sweet's recommendations, the 2008 line-up varied drastically from previous years. Rock band the Black Crowes and Trey Anastasio, frontman of Phish, headlined and other artists on the bill included Stephen Marley and Damian Marley, sons of reggae icon Bob Marley. The Festival was well attended and received favorable press, despite folk purists questioning the modernization of the festival.
Sweet continued his unconventional and somewhat controversial style of booking artists that challenged the conservative definitions of folk music. With 2009 being the 50th anniversary of the festival, Sweet used the opportunity to book both modern and traditional folk acts; symbolizing the past and current styles of folk music. The success of the 2009 festival marked a turning point in the festival's history. In 2011 the two day festival sold out Saturday and in 2012 the festival sold out both days. In 2013 the festival expanded to three days and sold out both Saturday and Sunday. In 2014 the festival sold out all three days months in advance. The festival has sold out every year since.
In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan going electric at Newport, the Festival scheduled a program titled 65 Revisited on the final night of the 2015 festival. The program's details and performers were kept secret prior to the performance - prompting various rumors including the return of Bob Dylan.
In recent years, the Newport Folk Festival has developed a reputation for selling out of tickets before announcing the lineup. Unlike most festivals, the festival "rolls out" their lineup over the course of the year instead of releasing a lineup poster on one day.
The festival has also developed a reputation for programming surprise, unannounced artists. Past instances include the 65 Revisited program (2015), in which Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Dawes, and Willie Watson appeared unannounced. Other surprise moments include My Morning Jacket (2015), James Taylor (2015), Kris Kristofferson (2016), Roger Waters (2017), Mumford & Sons (2018) and Dolly Parton (2019). Like 65 Revisited in 2015, 2018's A Change Is Gonna Come closing set paired guests from the weekend with unannounced guests including Leon Bridges, Chris Thile, and Mavis Staples.
WMVY began streaming the festival in 2005 and was joined by NPR Music in 2008. WMVY's Archives contains both performances and interviews from Newport Folk and NPR music has recorded sets available for listening here: NPR at Newport Folk 2010.
The festival has made efforts in being green-friendly, teaming with many groups to do so.
They partnered with Clean Water Action and Rhode Island Resource Recovery to collect 1.5 tons of recyclables. CWA worked onsite picking up trash and recycling, and set up composting stations to curb the waste generated during the event. A portion of beer and wine sales went to CWA to support their work.
The official beer of the festival, Vermont-based Magic Hat used plant-based, 100% compostable cups.
The festival also partnered with CLIF Bar, who set up a bike valet to encourage people to cycle to the event and participate in their 2-Mile Challenge.
They worked with New England Wind Fund to offset power used during the festival, and Klean Kanteen to provide reusable water bottles.
They also partnered with Farm Fresh Rhode Island to incorporate local foods into the vendors' fare.
In 2015, the Newport Folk Festival was named Music Festival of the Year by Consequence of Sound.
In 2012, the Newport Folk Festival was named Music Festival of Year by Pollstar.
In 2014, the Newport Folk Festival was named Music Festival of Year by Pollstar.
In 2015, the Newport Folk Festival was named Music Festival of Year by Pollstar.