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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In the summer of 1959, thousands of fans of American folk music made a pilgrimage to Newport, Rhode Island to hear Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, who was then just 18 years old. Year after year, the Newport Folk Festival grew to include young musicians like Jim Kweskin, Tom Paxton and Judy Collins, and older ones too: Doc Watson, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt and Jean Ritchie. As definitions of folk music stretched and evolved, passionate arguments emerged, but none disputed Newport's place as the epicenter of a movement that incorporated politics and activism, as well as culture.

This weekend, Pete Seeger, now 90, takes the stage in Newport again along with Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Mavis Staples, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and a host of new, younger musicians. This hour, a look back 50 years after the first Newport Folk Festival. If you went to Newport, we want to hear from you. Tell us your story. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we begin with - who else - George Wein, cofounder of the Newport Folk Festival, the promoter of this weekend's George Wein's Folk Festival 50. And he's with us from our bureau in New York. Great to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. GEORGE WEIN (Co-founder, Newport Folk Festival): Oh, it's a pleasure. I'm glad that TALK OF THE NATION is concerned with what we're doing up in Newport. It makes me very happy.

CONAN: Fifty years ago, did you think this would have the longevity?

Mr. WEIN: I don't know what I thought about…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEIN: …50 years ago. I know it was a long time ago, but I felt that the folk festival could have a meaning. We had the jazz festival that started in 54. So by 59, I'd learned that they were lot of other things you could do up in Newport.

CONAN: And, indeed, I guess the initial idea was to set aside part of the jazz festival for a folk festival.

Mr. WEIN: Well, at the Jazz Festival, we'd had tap dance afternoon and a gospel afternoon. And so I scheduled a folk afternoon. And then I found out what Pete Seeger and The Weavers and the Kingston Trio and Odetta, that there was such demand that I said enough here for entire festival. And so that's when we decided to do the festival in 1959.

CONAN: And it just - it grew. It became a phenomenon.

Mr. WEIN: It grew because of Pete Seeger. As of 1963, we went back. We are out of Newport for a couple of years, and I went up to Pete's house - and my wife and I went up to Pete's house in Beacon and met with him and Toshi, whom we knew…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEIN: …and worked with them. And we'd - and Pete said he'd like to do the festival. We wanted to do it a different way. He wanted all the artists to contribute their services, no matter how big or how great they were, they'd all get $50. And then we'd bring in as many artists from all over the world, literally, and they would all the get the same as the major artists, $50. And that created an atmosphere that only Pete could control. Pete was the one the spirit behind it. I was the instrument that made it happen, but he was the spirit.

CONAN: And everybody stayed in dormitories and - well, as I understand it, the things that went on after the music stopped on stage were just as interesting.

Mr. WEIN: We fed everybody - my wife and Toshi fed - they put everybody in houses all over Newport, and there were parties afterwards. And I remember parties where Mississippi John Hurt was sitting on the back steps on a lawn in the dark just playing and singing. I opened a door in a room, and there were Dylan and Joanie trading songs, and Odetta was in the living room singing and the New Lost City Ramblers were playing out in the front of the house. I mean, these were marvelous moments.

CONAN: Hmm. Here's an email from Stewart in Minneapolis. I drove up to Newport with catch-all car filled with some guys from the Washington Square scene. Of course, that's in New York. One was Dave Van Ronk. Another was a kid about my age who went to school in Boston and had a friend who sang in the coffee houses there who, as he said, was going to be given a chance to sing during the time allotted to a more established singer. When we got there, he said let's go back stage and say hi to her and wish her good luck. She wore black leotards and had dark eye makeup, just like a lot of the girls that hung around in the village. He then introduced me to his friend, Joan. I'll leave it at that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEIN: Well, Dave Van Ronk represented part of what was happening in Harvard Square at that time. He was a good blues singer and a wonderful performer.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Lou's with us, calling from Philadelphia.

LOU (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, Lou.

LOU: I was at the Newport Festival - Folk Festival 40 years ago. The only reason I remember it, I remember seeing the moon landing. They had a little black-and-white TV on a tower, and everybody was around. It was late at night. It was pouring rain, as it usually was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LOU: And I remember watching moon landing at the Newport Folk Festival, which was 40 years ago, I guess, last…

Mr. WEIN: That was a big thing in the afternoon - Sunday afternoon. I remember that very well, that - I forget. Was it Cronkite? Walter Cronkite who was involved?

CONAN: Sure, yeah.

Mr. WEIN: Yes. And we broadcasted over our own video there. And it was, you know, these moments just mean so much when you think about them.

CONAN: Lou, thanks very much. That's all you remember, is the moon landing?

LOU: (unintelligible) I don't remember much more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And the rain. Okay, thanks very much, Lou.

LOU: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. One of the musicians who performed at the Newport Folk Festival in those early years was Doc Watson, the great guitar player. Here he is playing the "Beaumont Rag" at the festival in 1963.

(Soundbite of song, "Beaumont Rag")

CONAN: Doc Watson in 1963, and he's kind enough to join us now by phone from his home in western North Carolina. And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. DOC WATSON (Singer, Guitarist): Hello. I'm right here.

CONAN: I wonder if you remember playing that song.

Mr. WATSON: Oh, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATSON: That was one of my favorite guitar tunes.

CONAN: How did you find your way to Newport that summer?

Mr. WATSON: With the aid of my good friend, the late Ralph Rinzler. He set it up for me. I'm sure most people that are familiar with the festival, the Newport Festival, know Ralph and got to meet him. He was a fine man, and he was instrumental in getting me started in the folk revival, they called it.

CONAN: The folk revival, in those days. And George Wein, of course, you remember Ralph Rinzler.

Mr. WATSON: Ah, yes. Ralph traveled a lot with me in the beginning and helped me learn the ropes of the programming shows on the stage. And, oh, I was a nervous fellow for a while. Something happened to me in school that give me a lot of stage fright. I was told I was conceited. I won't go into the details.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I wonder, what did you make of the scene there with all these other famous musicians?

Mr. WATSON: You know, I enjoyed 95 to 100 percent of what I heard other people do there. And that's pretty close saying you enjoyed all of it.

CONAN: And it sure is. And that's a pretty high percentage almost anywhere.

Mr. WATSON: Yeah. And I did. I enjoyed it a lot of…

CONAN: Anybody in particular you remember?

Mr. WATSON: Oh, there was awful lot of them.

Mr. WEIN: Well, I remember Doc Watson.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: This is George Wein, Doc.

Mr. WATSON: Yeah. Joan Baez, I enjoyed a lot of the songs she did. And I believe Peter, Paul and Mary was on there…

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. WATSON: …sometimes.

CONAN: And, well, George Wein, certainly Doc Watson opened a lot of ears with that unusual, then, guitar style that just knocked people out.

Mr. WEIN: He's one of the finest musicians I've ever heard in any style, and that was a thing about Newport. Doc Watson was a country guitarist. But, I mean, the blues guitarists, they all had kind of the same roots, the same background, and they all had the same feeling, each one in his own individual style and from his own background. But the guts of the music was the same. And you hear Doc Watson today, he's just as great as he ever was.

CONAN: Doc Watson, you're still touring?

Mr. WATSON: Yes, yes, I am. Mitchell Greenhill is my booking agent, he's Manny Greenhill's son. Mitchell is a good man, and he's a good musician in his own right. He works MerleFest with us every year. That's a festival down here at Wilkes Community College ever year in memory of our boy. We lost him in an accident in '85.

CONAN: Sorry that happened, but I'm glad it's so beautifully memorialized.

Mr. WEIN: Doc, Mitch's father, Manny, was a partner of mine for years, back in Boston in the old days, and Manny was a wonderful man, and Mitch is a wonderful kid.

Mr. WATSON: Yeah, I wonder - they were a wonderful family to know. Mitchell is as honest as God's good sunshine on a clear day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATSON: Those are the kind of people I like.

Mr. WEIN: As honest as you are, Doc. I just went by your - do you have anything to do with that pub on the East Side in New York, on 2nd Avenue, with your name in front of it?

Mr. WATSON: Did I have anything to do with that?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, because it says Doc Watson's up there, and they're playing country music. So I don't know how that happened, but…

Mr. WATSON: I don't either.

CONAN: But I think they're going to hear from your lawyers. Doc Watson, thanks very much for being with us today. Continued good luck to you.

Mr. WATSON: Well, I'm very proud to have had the opportunity to talk a little bit on your radio show, and you're doing a good job there of bringing back a lot of good memories, and if I ever have the chance, if the Newport Festival still runs, I'll come up there and pick. I may surprise some people with picking some things that ain't quite as country as they were, but they'll be close enough. I'm self-taught on the guitar, incidentally. I didn't take any lessons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, Doc Watson, if you're going to Newport again, stop by here in Washington, D.C., and come and see us in the studio. We'd be delighted to have you on the program.

Mr. WATSON: I sure would like to.

CONAN: All right. George?

Mr. WEIN: It's an invitation, Doc, to come next year, when - if we're all around next year. Just stay healthy.

Mr. WATSON: Fix it up with my booking agent, and have him holler at me, and we'll see what we can do.

Mr. WEIN: Okay.

CONAN: Doc Watson, thanks again. Doc Watson joined us today by phone from his home in western North Carolina.

We're talking with George Wein, who's the impresario of the original Newport Folk Festival 50 years ago and a revival of that folk festival that gets underway tomorrow in Newport, Rhode Island. We're talking about the golden anniversary.

Still to come, Tom Paxton and Mavis Staples remember the festival and take your calls, 800-989-8255. What do you remember about Newport? You can also send us an email. The address is talk@npr.org. This is Buffy Sainte-Marie. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. It's the 50th anniversary of the first Newport Folk Festival. NPR Music will be live from Newport all weekend. You can hear performances from all three stages on Saturday and Sunday and download a free sampler at the new npr.org.

Our guest is George Wein. He's the co-founder of Newport, and we want to hear from you. What's your Newport Folk Festival memory? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at the Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's get Darryl on the line, Darryl with us from Redding, California.

DARRYL (Caller): Hi, greetings. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DARRYL: In '71, I came out for the jazz festival, blues Saturday. I came out from California with co-host Ray Charles and BB King, had a great lineup with Jimmy Rushing, Eddie Cleanhead Vinson. But the night before they rioted during Dionne Warwick's performance, I was told, by kicking down a plywood partition and allowing people to stream into the area unchecked.

So fast-forward to last year. I was working here in Redding at a casino, and I passed a Santa Claus-looking inebriate who mentioned that, yeah, we kicked down the plywood, we all ran in on the field, and they shut it down.

I stopped, I said Newport? He said, yeah, '71. So that's all. It was a remarkable thing after all those years to run into the perp.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: George Wein, of course, that was the jazz festival he's talking about.

Mr. WEIN: That was the jazz festival. It wasn't a riot, it was an incident. The kids broke the fences down. We had 20,000 people in the park, and we just said, hey, we're going to have to go home, and they filed out without a problem.

Music should be free was in the air in those days, and they could not control a lot of young people getting stoned outside. It's alright.

DARRYL: Well, I thank you for all the great music over all the years.

CONAN: Darryl, thanks for the phone call.

DARRYL: Okay, good day.

CONAN: And joining us now on the phone from Bethesda, Maryland is another Newport Folk Festival veteran, Tom Paxton, who first performed there in the early '60s. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. TOM PAXTON (Folk Singer): Thank you, great to be with you.

CONAN: And you were there. I guess your first year was 1964?

Mr. PAXTON: '63. I was there '63, '64 and '66.

Mr. WEIN: Tom, how are you? It's George Wein. It's nice to…

Mr. PAXTON: Hi, George. It's good to hear your voice.

Mr. WEIN: It's been a long time, man.

Mr. PAXTON: I just heard a little bit of you with Doc Watson, and boy, that brought back memories.

CONAN: Did you hear him back in those days for the first time?

Mr. PAXTON: I did, yeah. He was there in '63. I remember the evening concert, when Doc and Jean Ritchie, and it might have been Mac Wiseman, sang an a cappella, "Amazing Grace," and that was the first time I'd ever heard that song. It was just a stunning experience.

CONAN: The exposure to all of those other musicians, all of their traditions, all of the tunes they had in their heads, all the different ways they played, that must have been remarkable.

Mr. PAXTON: Well, I mean, that was the year that John Hurt appeared for the first time in the North. He had only been rediscovered a few months before.

CONAN: George Wein, of course, Mississippi John Hurt, one of the great blues players of all time.

Mr. WEIN: The blues artists that we brought, Mance Lipscomb and, you know, and what's his name - there's so many of the blues artists. They had the Blues House - Howlin' Wolf and Robert Pete Williams and people that had never been up North.

Mr. PAXTON: Yeah, Sun House.

Mr. WEIN: Sun House, yeah.

CONAN: The National steel guitar.

Mr. PAXTON: Oh yeah.

CONAN: John Hurt, though, he played that - he had that very soft voice that I guess people don't associate with the blues. You think of Howlin' Wolf…

Mr. PAXTON: I never thought of John as a blues singer myself. I always thought of him as more of a ragtime.

CONAN: Uh-huh. That's interesting.

Mr. WEIN: It's interesting for me, too, Tom, because you're right. He didn't sing the normal blues things. He had the blues feeling in everything he did though.

Mr. PAXTON: Yeah.

Mr. WEIN: He came right out of the same world.

CONAN: Was it intimidating to go and perform in front of those people?

Mr. PAXTON: Me?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. PAXTON: Oh yeah. Are you kidding? I was in my early 20s, and I was used to playing in the coffee houses in Greenwich Village. I was just starting to get around other parts of the country. Suddenly to find myself at a big venue like that, it was - it was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

Of course, they were very wise about the way they, you know, brought us young guys along. They had a concert in the afternoon for most of us young songwriters, and I remember Pete was the MC for that, and you know you're safe if Pete's around. And then there was a new folks concert in the afternoon on Sunday, and that was good, but they didn't toss you into the deep end up there in front of 18, 20,000 people.

CONAN: George Wein, was that - that was, I guess, conscious.

Mr. WEIN: Well, we did that intentionally. We had the popular names like Peter, Paul and Mary and people that had sold millions of records, and we put on the other groups that - like the Sacred Harp Singers or the Georgia Sea Island Singers so that people would get a chance to hear music they never heard. And all of that worked, and it created - we brought - a lot of people developed and came out of the folk festivals.

Mr. PAXTON: Oh yeah, that's true.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. WEIN: Leonard Cohen was part of one of those workshops in 1967. I had forgotten all about that until I read about the fact that he started at the Newport Folk Festival.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: If you said you learned anything from any of those other musicians up there, Tom Paxton, what would it be?

Mr. PAXTON: Oh, I think what I learned from the other musicians was to be myself, to take my music where it needed to go and not to try to imitate anybody, to be inspired by people without feeling I had to imitate them.

So I mean Pete was just such an example, and I say Doc Watson was a revelation to my generation. The first time he ever came up, Ralph Windsor(ph) brought him up to a little, tiny little place around the corner from the Gaslight in Greenwich Village, and somehow just word of mouth, we heard that it was going to happen, so we all went and crammed in this place and heard Doc for the first time. And it was like fire from the mountain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAXTON: I mean, it was just - it as the truth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEIN: That's one of the things the festival was important for, was sending people like Ralph - and Bob Jones would go out with Ralph, and they would search all over the country for talent that was great, that hadn't been heard in years. And one of the people they discovered was Doc Watson. A lot of other people were found out too.

CONAN: Tom Paxton, we want to thank you so much for your time today, appreciate it.

Mr. PAXTON: Hey, great to be in with you.

CONAN: Folk singer Tom Paxton, kind enough to join us by phone from Bethesda in Maryland. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Michael, Michael with us from Mill Valley, California.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Michael, go ahead, please.

MICHAEL: Listen, me and my two buddies were there in 1965, and there was this buzz going around that Dylan was going to go electric, and we were all excited, and of course we were broke all the time and, you know, got in on the cheapest tickets. So we were way out in back, and so Dylan, of course, started off acoustic and then moved to his electric, and all of a sudden all these people started booing and getting (unintelligible) the beginning of electric rock and roll, and we were right, and it was a revelation, and it was a wonderful experience.

CONAN: Well, this has been captured, and let's listen to Bob Dylan from the Newport Folk Festival.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Musician): (Singing) I ain't gonna work for Maggie's pa no more. I ain't gonna work for Maggie's pa no more. Well, he puts his cigar out in your face just for kicks. His bedroom window it is made out of bricks. The National Guard stands around his door. I ain't gonna work for Maggie's pa no more.

CONAN: And George Wein, I guess if there's the one most famous moment from Newport, I guess that's it.

Mr. WEIN: We didn't dream that it would change the whole world of music. It was the beginning of the end of the folk festival as we knew it. You see, a lot of young people loved acoustic music, and a lot of their friends had already gone into electric music with the Beatles and what was happening, and when Bob went electric, they could then go electric too, because if their idol, Bob Dylan, went electric, they didn't have to stay away from it. They didn't have to fight anymore because it really was a fight among young people at that time.

CONAN: As to what was - well, there were a lot of people saying, look, this folks music, this movement, it needs to stay acoustic.

Mr. WEIN: We tried for another four or five years. I think in 1970 we had a festival scheduled - it never came off because the world had changed. The economics had changed. Money became so important.

I mean, when people were drawing 50,000 people to concerts and making, you know, whatever amount, nowadays million dollar fees are not much for these really big artists. They get much more than that. It seems strange, and so this was the beginning of the new world in which we're living in right now.

CONAN: And the festival, indeed, went into hiatus for, what, 15 years?

Mr. WEIN: It went on a hiatus, and I was happy to bring it back. When we brought it back, it was a little different. Bob Jones and his daughter now, Linny(ph), they had the singer-songwriter situation. We brought in people like the Indigo Girls, who were very popular, and we had a good run.

One day we brought Dylan back, and we sold out every seat so fast you couldn't believe it. We'd like to get Bobby back again up there because he really belongs there.

CONAN: I think he does. It was really a place that, well, he's so closely identified. But as mentioned, there was all kinds of music, as folk music stretched its definitions and different kinds of forms were recognized. Almost from the beginning, there was gospels, too, from groups like the Staples Singers.

(Soundbite of song, "Pray On My Child")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Pray on.

THE STAPLES SINGERS: (Singing) Pray on my child.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: "Pray On My Child," The Staples Singers at Newport, long time ago. Joining us now from Chicago is Mavis Staples. And it's great to have you with us today.

Ms. MAVIS STAPLES (Singer): Well, thank you.

CONAN: I wonder if you remember that performance.

Ms. STAPLES: Yes, I - yes, I do. I remember that. And that, you know, that time was a historic moment, you know. And we were proud to be a part of it.

CONAN: Why do you think it was historic?

Ms. STAPLES: Well, just as George Wein just said, you know, it - all of the musicians were there with the acoustic guitars. And folk music was just, you know, it was just huge, you know. I really didn't know that it changed after. I don't know how I missed that…

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. STAPLES: …that Dylan played his electric guitar. But it's always been a part of me. In fact, that - at that time, it was very new to me because we were just so strictly gospel. And we were being invited to folk festivals, and what I saw was, you know, that they were just all about love, you know. And I mean, love came in all colors. You know, the flower children, the blast of the tie dye, you know. And it was - my eyes were just - I couldn't see enough. I couldn't hear enough, you know. And it was just a time for me - a different time for me that I loved.

Mr. WEIN: Mavis, just you - and it's so beautiful - you and The Staples Singers, they meant so much and they meant a lot to my wife Joyce. You remember Joyce?

Ms. STAPLES: Yes, Joyce. We…

Mr. WEIN: And Joyce always wanted Pops to play the guitar solo at the workshops. You were something else, The Staples Singers. And, you know, lady, you still are something else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEIN: I love you very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STAPLES: Thank you, George. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Mavis Staples and George Wein. We're talking about 50 years after the first Newport Folk Festival. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: And, Mavis Staples, The Staples Singers went on to have some pop hits afterwards. Do you think that the origin of those was really the other music you heard those days back at Newport?

Ms. STAPLES: Well, now, you know, our music did - go across the board.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. STAPLES: But it wasn't - we were still singing our regular gospel and folk and message songs. It just happened that we added a rhythm section. You see, when we first started, for years, we sang only with Thompson's guitar. And when we go on Stax, with "I'll Take Your There" and "Respect Yourself"…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. STAPLES: …we had to add a rhythm section. And that - the disc jockeys did it, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STAPLES: They just put us across the board into pop, into - which was - you know, which was okay with us because we knew - where our hearts were, we knew what we were singing and who we were singing about. But it was okay. You know, one secular song that the Staples Singers recorded and the only secular song was "Let's Do It Again."

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. STAPLES: And that was for a movie, Curtis Mayfield wrote.

CONAN: Right.

Ms. STAPLES: And when Curtis told Pops, he said, now, Pops, this is your part. And that was…

Ms. STAPLES: (Singing) I like you lady. So fine with your pretty hair.

Ms. STAPLES: And Pops said, Curtis, man, I'm not going to say that. He said, I'm a church man. I'm not going to say that. And Curtis begged Pops. He said, oh, Pops, the Lord won't mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STAPLES: He said, I'll be praying for you. And my sisters and I, we wanted to hear our voices on the big screen, too, you know, so, we started begging Pops.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STAPLES: He finally gave in, you know. But it's just - you know, they give us a lot of different names. Right now, I'm Mavis Staples, the gospel, blues, R&B, you know…

CONAN: And on your way to Newport, too. But you mentioned something interesting: message songs. There is no way to overstate the degree to which Newport played a role and music played a role in the civil rights movement at the time.

Ms. STAPLES: Oh, yes. Without a doubt. Without a doubt. The songs that everyone sang were about coming together and loving one another and letting us all know that we were not alone. You know, it - folk is close to gospel than, you know -see, gospel is truth. And when you're telling the truth, I feel you're singing gospel, you know. So, the folk music, it did so much. And a lot of the artists marched with us. And, you know, it played a big part with - in the civil rights movement.

CONAN: George Wein, was that a conscious part of it?

Mr. WEIN: Oh, it was very conscious. I mean, everybody on the board was dedicated to this. We all were personally involved one way or another. And the finale of the festival when everybody was on stage, Pete and Joni, and Bernice Reagon(ph) and the Staples and Peter, Paul and Mary, and Jean Ritchie and the Clancy Brothers representing all sorts of things and all sorts of music. And they're singing "We Shall Overcome."

Ms. STAPLES: Yeah.

Mr. WEIN: I mean, it was so thrilling, I mean, and you still think about it. And tears come to your eyes when you remember it the way it was. But it was much stronger, much more important than tears. 'Cause the next thing you know, President Johnson was saying on a television speech, he was talking about "We Shall Overcome" when he was pushing the passage of the Civil Rights bill.

CONAN: Mavis Staples, knock 'em dead at Newport this weekend.

Ms. STAPLES: I'm going to try my best.

CONAN: Mavis Staples, a Staples Singer, joined us by phone from Chicago. She'll perform at George Wein's Folk Festival 50 this weekend, on Saturday. And you can download a sampler from the artists featured by NPR Music at the Folk and Jazz Festival at Newport, including songs from Mavis Staples at npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: And some sad news of relevance to this program, just a moment ago, we played some music by the New Lost City Ramblers from the Newport Folk Festival in the early 1960s. We heard today that Mike Seeger, a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, has entered hospice, recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma. The group was scheduled to celebrate their 50th anniversary tonight with a concert in Clifftop, West Virginia at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival. And we're sorry to report that news.

George Wein is with us. Of course, the impresario, the promoter who started the Newport Folk Festival 50 years ago. And he's the promoter as the festival gets set to resume tomorrow in Newport, Rhode Island. 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. Let's go next to Carol(ph). Carol with us from Woodside in California.

CAROL (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi, Carol. Go ahead, please.

CAROL: I just wanted to say that I had played in the Newport Festival in 1965, and I wanted to thank George for inviting two unknown singers to perform in the New Folks(ph) concert that year. We were called Kathy and Carol. And the…

CONAN: George, do you remember Kathy & Carol?

Mr. WEIN: I remember them. I remember them. I remember you, Kathy, not well but I do remember you.

CAROL: Yeah. We've actually starting singing again the last couple of years when our album was re-released. And it was amazing to be in Newport. We were terrified, of course, but overwhelmed with all the wonderful music, too.

CONAN: How long did you guys perform together?

CAROL: We performed together - well, we were 20 years old when we performed together. Probably for another six years, and then we went off in separate careers. I stayed in music. Kathy became an art teacher. And about three years ago, we dusted off her guitar and have gotten back into it and are having reunion concerts. It's been lots of fun.

CONAN: Oh, I bet that is fun. And any thoughts about heading back to Newport?

CAROL: Pardon?

CONAN: Any thoughts about heading back to Newport?

CAROL: We would love to come back to Newport.

CONAN: Maybe you'll have a reunion of some sort, George.

Mr. WEIN: Well, we're looking up and - keep the history of the festival alive, and you never can tell because the new faces that we - like Kathy and Carol were on there. You developed a lot of people. Arlo Guthrie was one of the new faces. He's on the festival. Joni Mitchell was a new face. James Taylor was a new face. Some big stars came out of Newport.

CONAN: Carol, good luck.

CAROL: Thank you so much.

CONAN: I appreciate the phone call.

Mr. WEIN: Carol, thank you.

CONAN: And somebody who is hard to imagine was ever a new face is Ramblin' Jack Elliott. He's on the line with us now from Western Massachusetts. Ramblin' Jack, nice to have you talking on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. RAMBLIN' JACK ELLIOTT (Guitarist, singer): Hello.

CONAN: Heading back to Newport, are you?

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yes, sir. I'm on my way there tomorrow.

CONAN: And do you remember playing back there in, what, I guess, 1966 or so?

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah. I think I first played there in '62 or three and I played about five times since.

Mr. WEIN: He's…

CONAN: What - go ahead, George. I don't mean to interrupt.

Mr. WEIN: He doesn't stop rambling. I used to see him in airports all over the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: (Unintelligible).

CONAN: What is your most striking memory of Newport, Jack?

Mr. ELLIOTT: Well, I remember - this is a - one would like to say a fond memory of one's favorite show or one's best show, but the most striking memory I have of Newport was when George Wein introduced me and I was kind of dragging my feet because I was backstage watching the TV monitor of Mr. Armstrong, who was about to set foot on the moon. And he was just coming out of the hatch. And I counted the ladder rungs. It was 10 rungs. And George said, "come on, Jack." He was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: There was a delay there of about four seconds. Just a second. Just a second. And I slowly walked to the microphone at the same speed that the man was coming down the ladder, pointed up at the sky. The moon was just over their left shoulder, a big full moon. And squinted at the moon and shaded my eyes and I said, he's just stepping on the moon now…

CONAN: Hah.

Mr. ELLIOTT: …like I could see it with my naked eye. It got a big laugh -18,000 people were laughing. And I thought, wow, this is going to be good.

CONAN: Did you ever think you'd do play-by-play of a moon landing?

Mr. ELLIOT: It was my - it turned out to be the worst show I ever did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOT: It started raining. And I felt sorry for the 18,000 people who were getting wet. My guitar wasn't getting wet. There was a nice roof over the stage.

Mr. WEIN: You never did a bad show, Jack. I mean…

Mr. ELLIOT: Oh, well. There was all these cameras, you know? And I've always had a problem with flashbulbs.

CONAN: Flashbulbs…

Mr. ELLIOT: I started asking the photographers to cut the cameras. And of course, photographers don't have ears. They have eyes.

CONAN: And even if they had ears they would never listen anyway.

Mr. ELLIOT: (Unintelligible) I lost it. I lost my temper onstage. I remember Kris Kristofferson was freaked about it. He was asking my manager, is Jack like this all the time?

Mr. WEIN: He is, you know? He doesn't change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOT: It was very embarrassing. And I saw a photograph of myself later. It was taken by a photographer of Newport, and it was one of the ugliest faces I've ever seen in my life. And it was me talking to the cameraman.

CONAN: Oh, well. I'm sure they've forgiven you, Jack.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOT: I hope so.

MR. WEIN: They…

Mr. ELLIOT: I'm going back tomorrow...

Mr. WEIN: They sold the photo for…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You're going back tomorrow and going to pose for them?

Mr. ELLIOT: I guess I'll have to.

CONAN: Jack Elliot, good luck tomorrow.

Mr. ELLIOT: I'm looking forward to it.

CONAN: Great to talk to you.

Mr. ELLIOT: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Jack Elliot - Ramblin' Jack - is going to be performing in Newport. And again, if you want to hear some of that, go to NPR music and you will be able to download some of the stars of that. Let's get another caller on the line. John(ph) calling from Tallahassee.

JOHN (Caller): Yeah. I'd like to ask George if he remembers the Folk Festival in 1959 when the Kingston Trio played and the crowd with nonstop cheering and then let Earl Scruggs come on, who was following them, until Dave Guard came out and quieted the crowd down, told them the Kingston Trio would come back for an encore if they'd let Earl play. Can you tell this story, George?

Mr. WEIN: I sure can. It was one of the nadirs of my life, one of the worst moments of life. The Kingston Trio were the most popular group in America at that time - of all kinds of music. They were just…

Conan: "Tom Dooley," yeah.

Mr. WEIN: Yeah. They were just number one. And we had scheduled Earl Scruggs, who was like the Louis Armstrong of the banjo, to be - before the Kingston Trio, the kings are going to close the show. It was getting late, and a lot of young kids were - the parents where there with their young children. And I mean young children, eight, nine years old. And we got to request to put the Kingston Trio on.

And unfortunately, it was - I honored the request and put the Kingstons on before Earl Scruggs. It took me years to live that down in the folk world. And I've always been sorry I did that because my respect for the Kingston Trio was one thing, but my respect for Earl Scruggs was something else. They were two different worlds. And Scruggs was a master of what he did.

The Kingstons were a wonderful popular group, and they deserved to close the show. But Dave Guard understood what happened. And when he came out, that was a very nice gesture that people should listen to Earl Scruggs who was a master of his instrument.

CONAN: And Earl, of course, still remembered as the Louis Armstrong of the banjo today and the Kingston Trio are sort of vaguely remembered as this group that had a couple of hits back in the day. John, thanks very much for the call.

JOHN: Well, don't run the Kingston Trio down. They were the ones that got the whole folk revolution started in 1958 with - they made it popular and made it the kind of music that people love to listen to.

Mr. WEIN: You're absolutely right about that. I mean - and they needed groups like that because they made it all happen.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much.

JOHN: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Jen in St. Augustine. You guys are killing me. I'm depressed to be missing the Folk Fest for the first time in 16 years. I just moved to Florida, can't make it this year. I guess I'm a new attendee, from the Ben & Jerry's years to the present. But I have nothing but the fondest memories of watching the shows over the years in the amazing Fort Adams State Park.

In 1993, I went back to my car in the pouring rain to get my raincoat and was offered a ride. On my long trek back, the gentleman who drove me went right to the backstage area letting me off where the musicians congregated. He told me to stay dry and introduced himself as George. Thank you, Mr. Wein, for the ride and for adding to my great memories.

Mr. WEIN: Well, we're always concerned with people. But I'd like to get in a word. Now, we're talking about the old days, but this festival this weekend is unique. Because in addition to Pete and Joni and Arlo and Ramblin' Jack and people from the old days, we have so many new groups, the Decemberists and Neko Case and Iron & Wine, and so many young groups that really want to get involved with this world of Pete Seeger that he created.

They really wanted to - they wanted to sing. They want to sing with Pete. Both finales, Pete's going to work both nights. He's not going to work, he's going to hold the sing-alongs twice Saturday and Sunday. And that's because the other artists, the younger artists wanted to sing with Pete. Judy Collins is going to be there with Pete, also from the old days. And it means that this festival -and the concept of what folk music is it evolves over the years, just like jazz evolves into different directions. It will continue. And we're very proud to be part of it even now, you know?

CONAN: Well, you mentioned some of those younger performers. Ben Kweller is going to be there, Tift Merritt, and Josh Ritter, who's been a guest on this program. And he's been kind enough to join us today from the studios at Chicago Public Radio.

Josh, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. JOSH RITTER (Musician): Hi, Neal. And hi, George.

Mr. WEIN: Hi, Josh.

CONAN: We've heard from all of these great guests you are excited to be going to Newport?

Mr. RITTER: I'm thrilled. I'm really excited about it. And just listening to these - listening to all these incredible people, heroes, it's making me pretty excited.

CONAN: And I wonder if you're getting a little nervous, too. There are some legends there.

Mr. RITTER: Yeah. Yeah. There's a lot of people there whose - and I remember the first time I ever went to the Newport Folk Festival, I was actually - I just - I played my guitar outside the gates. And, you know, growing up where I did in Idaho and, you know, you can hear about Newport and, like, learning about the history, it was a lot like a Mount Olympus to somebody like me, you know? So it's - you know, I'm very excited to be able to come and play.

CONAN: When you were growing up, was Newport a destination for you? That was a place you knew if you're going to make it, you're going to have to go to Newport?

Mr. RITTER: Absolutely. And, you know, Pete Seeger was a huge part of that. I -the first - I made a tape when I was a kid, and I - it was all my songs. And I sent a tape out, and Pete Seeger wrote me back and said, you know, if you want to do this, you got to just find a place and dig in because a song can change the world. And that changed my life that…

CONAN: Songs could change the world, yes indeed.

Mr. RITTER: …letter he wrote.

CONAN: Josh Ritter is with us. We're also still talking with George Wein about the memories of the Newport Folk Festival, and talking about the festival that gets underway there tomorrow.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Josh Ritter, I also wanted to ask you. When you - you went there as, I guess, a fan the first time?

Mr. RITTER: Yeah. Yeah. I did.

CONAN: And in playing outside the gates, what kind of reactions were you getting from people?

Mr. RITTER: Well, it's a friendly place, you know? And whether you're on stage, up on the main stage, or whether you're on one of the smallest stages or you're in a workshop, people give you the respect of their time. Maybe they'll just come and see a song, or maybe they'll just actually hang out there in a parking lot with you for a little while.

That's a special thing that doesn't exist in a lot of festivals, I can tell you from experience. And…

CONAN: I wonder, are there still arguments about what's appropriate, what's folk music and not? I mean, I guess some people could say what you play isn't really folk music.

Mr. RITTER: Yeah. I mean, I guess that's true. I think that, you know, the duty of any artist isn't to emulate a tradition. It's really to pay credence to the tradition by expanding it and kind of testing its boundaries. And I think that's what a - that's the opportunity that a festival like Newport gives, which is that you can bring all of this people together, see how different and individual vision is, but also see how it links into a chain which goes back thousands of years and will, hopefully, continue for thousands of years.

That's a special thing to realize in a time like now when we're told that, you know, when we're told to pay our attention to a single individual or a single, hot, new band or, you know, or everything is linked into a consumer culture. It's great to see that, really, it's - it can be about the music, you know?

CONAN: Some people are going to be going to see you. Who are you going to be interested to see?

Mr. RITTER: Well, I'm very excited to see Joan Baez, who I've gotten a chance to tour with a bunch and who I love. Neko Case, Iron & Wine, of course, Pete Seeger, I'm just his - he's the person I want to meet. I was in an elevator once with him and I was too nervous to say hello. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, Josh, I think we're going to end today - we're going to - talking a lot about Pete Seeger with you and with George Wein and I guess everybody else because he's so much the spirit of the Newport Folk Festival. And, Josh, first of all, thanks very much for being with us today. Good luck on your way to Newport. And knock them dead.

Mr. RITTER: Thank you very much, Neal. Thank you, George.

Mr. WEIN: Thank you, Josh. Look forward to hearing you.

Mr. RITTER: Can't wait.

CONAN: Josh Ritter, with us today from Chicago Public Radio. He'll perform in Newport this Sunday. And as we mentioned, well, Pete Seeger, George Wein mentioned, will be performing closing both nights of the Newport Folk Festival. He was there back in 1959 at the first one. He's now 90 years old, and we can only assume he'll have the whole audience in song again.

Here he is at Newport in 1964, singing "O Mary Don't You Weep."

(Soundbite of song, "O Mary Don't You Weep")

Mr. PETE SEEGER (Singer): (Singing) O Mary don't you weep. Oh, pharaoh's army got drowned. Oh, Mary don't you weep.

CONAN: Our thanks to George Wein who joined us today from our bureau in New York.

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