Newport Folk Festival: 50 Years Later

baez newport

hide captionJoan Baez performs with Bob Gibson at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959.

Courtesy of the artist

The breakout star of the first Newport Folk Festival was an 18-year-old singer with dark eyes and long black hair. She wasn't even listed on the official program. Her name: Joan Baez.

"I stood at the bottom of these stairs with my knees knocking," Baez says. "And I thought, I'll walk up these stairs to this immense audience, 13,000 people, and I'll either faint or vomit or sing. And as usual, I sang. And it was a big hit."

A Divided Community

Baez was one of folk music's young traditionalists. Back then, there was such a thing as popular folk music. For example, The Kingston Trio had five No. 1 albums, and a deep divide separated the trio's fans from those who preferred to take their folk music straight.

According to founder George Wein, the Newport Folk Festival embraced both the popular and the obscure from the beginning.

"It wasn't going to be the commercial or the noncommercial; it was going to be both," Wein says. "It was going to be an event that had never happened, and really present a totality of the world of folk music."

Four years later, Wein hired a producer who had played at the early festivals and earned the respect of everybody on both sides of the debate: Pete Seeger. Seeger had his own ideas about the essence of folk.

"Coalminers. Ex-lumberjacks. Grandmothers who like to sing to their grandchildren," Seeger says. "That's folk music. That's real folk music."

All of the artists agreed to perform for the same modest fee of $50, which meant the producers could save money on the headlining acts. Some of the money was used to send a folklorist around the country looking for lesser-known talents.

Stretching The Definition Of 'Folk'

Newport was the model for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which started in 1967. But by then, the Newport festival had already lost some of its innocence. Bob Dylan famously plugged in at the 1965 festival, much to the dismay of purists. Wein says attendance started to decline as Dylan took a lot of young fans with him to rock music.

"That was the beginning of the end of that great world we had built," Wein says. "It lasted four or five years, but it was never the same after that."

The festival shut down in 1971. Wein went on to other events, and there wasn't another Newport Folk Festival until the 1980s. But Baez says that was Newport in name only.

"I remember going back when they instated it many years later, and I thought, 'Oh, goody. After the show, everyone will sit around and play guitar and banjos,' " Baez says. "And then I realized that didn't happen anymore."

Baez will be back in Newport this weekend for the 50th anniversary of her debut, along with festival veterans Seeger and Del McCoury. Today, the festival is once again stretching the definition of "folk music."

Deer Tick and fellow Rhode Island band The Low Anthem are among the indie rockers on the bill. Part of the attraction for younger artists is the chance to join Seeger on stage for a big singalong at the end of each day. The 90-year-old singer says he's happy to oblige, but he conveys a tinge of nostalgia for the days when he shared the stage with coalminers and lumberjacks. Seeger says the real legacy of the Newport Folk Festival plays out all year long, all over the country.

"I'll place my hope in the thousands, tens of thousands of small festivals all over the place," he says.

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