Shantel Mitchell for NPR
A scene from the Newport Folk festival last weekend.
A scene from the Newport Folk festival last weekend. Shantel Mitchell for NPR
"We'd like to end with a cover, in the spirit of the festival and to honor the folk that came before us," said Dave Lamb, the shaggy singer for the folkish duo Brown Bird, at the end of its Sunday afternoon set at the 51st annual Newport Folk Festival. MorganEve Swain plucked out a hot beat on her stand-up bass and the pair's voices intertwined as the audience whooped and hollered.
The slice of musical history that moved the crowd was "Jackson," the near-novelty number co-written by Jerry Leiber (one of the guys who gave Elvis "Hound Dog") and best known as the signature tune of those venerable country music modernizers Johnny and June Carter Cash. In the 1960s, the Cashes were part of the first wave to challenge folk orthodoxy at Newport by breaking down the walls between music perceived as homespun and rural and city-mouse commercial pop.
Like his friend Bob Dylan, who gave the fest its definitive moment by "going electric" in 1965, Johnny Cash always pushed against the traditions others expected would define him. Honoring him and his spunky, funny wife, Lamb and Swain captured the spirit of this year's Newport, and today's inherently iconoclastic folk scene.
Arm sleeve tattoos peeked out from beneath vintage dresses; singer-songwriters (well, at least one, Deer Tick's John McCauley) wore yacht caps. And all varieties of pop music — from Opry-referencing country to Warped-speed punkgrass to art pop played on, yes, synthesizers — blended in with the chorus of acoustic guitars.
Main stage sets by The Decemberists and Elvis Costello defined the fest's mood: these rockers don't honor the musical past as much as crush hard on it, seeking out its forgotten corners, reimagining its tired scripts and showing how a some passionate attention can reinvigorate even the most over-traveled cultural streams.
Costello's set had been billed as acoustic, but the electric guitar buzz that shot out toward the Newport harbor as soon as his set began announced otherwise. The Decemberists did their own barn-burning: tight enough to be loose after a summer of touring, the group (aided by touring member Sara Watkins on fiddle and voice, and special guests Gillian Welch and David Rawlings) fleshed out main songwriter Colin Meloy's fantasist scenarios as if they were songs we'd all sung together since summer camp.
These rock star acts shone in the middle of a spectrum that, at one end, included elders like the soul great Mavis Staples, the rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson and the bluegrass banjo icon Earl Scruggs, and at the other featured new sensations like the indie-roots supergroup Middle Brother and orchestral pop crate-diggers Freelance Whales. In the middle, young vets Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Amos Lee, Gogol Bordello and M. Ward found the space to take their sometimes very formal music in more experimental and emotionally powerful directions.
What most of the artists on this eclectic bill shared during this highly collaborative and free-spirited two days was a willingness to put aside folk's biggest bugaboo: the fear of inauthenticity. Across the board, participants seemed less concerned with properly playing out old ways than with making their own creative gestures, informed by what's come before without being burdened by it.
The spirit I felt at Newport is the same one that's motivated people nationwide to take up old customs and go down forgotten cultural byways — from circus arts to organic farming to craft brewing to making race cars out of power tools. (Read Kurt B. Reighley's book United States of Americana for a guided tour of the new, crafty America.) One booth in the craftspeople's arcade at Newport seemed most relevant to this process. It sold upcycled wares: bags and jewelry made out of colorful scrap material. Regarded with fresh eyes and handled with love, what might have been lost to landfill became beautiful and useful again.
Upycling, rather than preservation, seems like a good metaphor for what folk music is about now. Whether working with precious materials or scraps dug from musical crates, folk's new generation works attentively to meld timeworn materials into the forms they find most useful and exciting now. In music, that might mean finding the commonalities between an old style and a new one. One of my favorite sets of the weekend, by the female vocal trio Mountain Man, epitomized this style of blending elements without erasure. The group's originals borrow from Appalachia, but also from world music, art doyennes like Meredith Monk and Kate Bush and even animal sounds. Instead of the usual set-ending singalong, Mountain Man had its audience say goodbye with a round: something that requires careful thought about what it means to both find your own way in music and follow along.
Upcycled folk might also involve uncovering what's been forgotten or deliberately hidden in music's official histories. Another of my Newport favorites, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, does that with old-timey string band music. Bridging the false divides separating blues from folk from country, this North Carolina band also doesn't hesitate to see the folk in the present day. On Sunday, the Chocolate Drops brought beatboxing to the Newport main stage, in what might have been a first, had the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello not done something similar with its boisterous polyglot set the day before.
Upcycling folk traditions stresses individuality within collaboration and allows for all kinds of different perspectives to seep in. Someone like the mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, who played his own sizzling set with the guitarist Michael Daves and popped up on a few other stages on Sunday, thrives by being adaptable while still hewing to what he sees as the original bluegrass spirit — funny, pop-smart and rough around the neck.
Such shining lights of future folk have plenty of forebears. Billy Bragg and The Mekons were making similar innovations twenty years ago, as were Fairport Convention and Bill Withers twenty years before that. The legacy that Newport now welcomes is the one that celebrates the many different ways folk music has unfolded over time, rather than getting stuck in just one.
During this year's festival, there were direct intergenerational connections, as when Emmylou Harris invited the Nashville duo The Civil Wars back her up on her song "Evangeline," conjuring images of the young duo as the new version of herself and Gram Parsons. There were many respectful nods from the kids toward the elders; Meloy joined in with Mavis Staples on a rousing version of The Band's "The Weight," and everyone name-checked Pete Seeger, who grinned from ear to ear as he wandered throughout the grounds, occasionally breaking out his banjo and joining in on a song.
And at least once, there was a chance to witness the magical process of a pop song turning into a folk favorite. In the Lego-sponsored kids' tent, Staten Island's PS22 youth chorus sang a killer version of Adele's "Rollin' in the Deep"; one could suddenly imagine the song being sung by young and old for a century.
The one element notably absent from this hearteningly genre-busting weekend was explicit political protest, a main mission of folk when Seeger helped organize the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Meloy dared to mention the "S" word — socialism — while praising Seeger during the Decemberists' set; Harris sang her striking hymn to Emmett Till and Costello closed his show with an apparent shout out to the arguers on Capitol Hill: "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding." Seeger led the crowd and many artists gathered onstage in a closing round of his anti-war singalong "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" but that moment felt more sentimental than incendiary.
As Congress fought a historic internal battle just a few hundred miles away, the folk gathered at Newport nurtured artistic sparks instead of making social commentary. Was this a failure? It didn't seem like one in the moment, perhaps because the spirit of creativity was so strong in the air. This could be a part of folk's upcycling process, too: all the emphasis on crafting and intimate communal exchange can make loud engagement with current events seem ostentatious. But cultural movements often start around home fires. Perhaps next year, a new voice will pull out new inspirations from the old American songbag and shape it into something necessary for our troubled times.