Legends, New Bands Grace Newport Festival Host Liane Hansen speaks with NPR's Bob Boilen from the Newport Folk Festival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
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Legends, New Bands Grace Newport Festival

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Legends, New Bands Grace Newport Festival

Legends, New Bands Grace Newport Festival

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The Newport Folk Festival is famous for a lot of reasons. An 18-year-old Joan Baez got her start there in 1959. It's where Bob Dylan stunned crowds by going electric in 1965. And it's one of the oldest music festivals in the country. This is the 50th anniversary. The acts aren't quite as political as they used to be, but there are exceptions.

(Soundbite of song, "There is Power in a Union")

Mr. BILLY BRAGG (Singer): (Singing) There is power in a factory, power in the land. Power in the hands of the worker. But it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand. There is power in a union.

HANSEN: That's Billy Bragg singing "There's Power in the Union." Joining us now from Newport, Rhode Island, is NPR's Bob Boilen, host of All Songs Considered. And good morning to you, Bob. I'm surprised you're up this early.

BOB BOILEN: Good morning, Liane. We have another great day ahead of us.

HANSEN: Lovely. I know it's going on all weekend. Tell us, though, about this merging, it seems, of pop and politics - which, of course, was going on back in 1959.

BOILEN: Exactly. It really - I mean, this - the whole festival was trying to mirror what happened in 1959, and that was what was going on. You had the Kingston Trio, and you had Pete Seeger. You had good spiritual and socially conscious music. And I think the festival organizers - in fact, I know the festival organizers made a point to try to mirror the festival 50 years ago.

HANSEN: Sure. Tell us about one of the acts, Gillian Welch. She almost didn't make it to the festival.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOILEN: She - it was one of those, you know, airplane nightmares. And she's just driving as fast as she can. And all of a sudden, as she's driving down the road heading to the festival, she's surrounded by police cars and all of a sudden realizes she's in the middle of a police escort to get her there on time. She gets here with 30 seconds to spare, walks on stage without - it was too sweaty for her glasses. She didn't have her contacts in. And she felt completely disoriented.

Now, Gillian Welch's music is absolutely stunning and gorgeous. You'd never know it in the crowd, but she was - she felt like she was in a dream. And at one point, she - I think she says to the engineer, could you just crank up the reverb about as much as you can, and make my voice sound as surreal as possible.

Ms. GILLIAN WELCH (Singer): Can you make me sound like I'm in a bat cave?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WELCH: Yeah? Just keep cranking it up, man. I'll tell you when to stop.

BOILEN: And then they break into "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane, which was a, you know, who would've thunk that she'd ever do a song like that? And it was absolutely stunning.

(Soundbite of song, "White Rabbit")

Ms. WELCH: (Singing) And you've just had some kind of mushroom. And your mind is moving slow. Go ask Alice. I think she'll know. When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead, and the White Knight is talking backwards and the Red Queen's off with her head. Remember what the dormouse said. Keep your head.

BOILEN: She really captured the crowd at that moment.

(Soundbite of song, "White Rabbit")

Ms. WELCH: (Singing) Keep your head.

HANSEN: One of my favorite singers, Mavis Staples, has been going to the Newport Festival since the early days. She's now 70. What did she perform?

BOILEN: She did a number of the hits that her and Pop Staples did in the early '70s. You know, "I'll Take You There" is the - was really, the one killer cut. She had a fantastic band. But I have to say that I missed this show. You understand, there are three stages going on at the same time. You sort of have to do this juggling act. Plus, we're broadcasting, so - but as I was walking around, people would come up to me and they'd say, Bob, did you see Mavis Staples? Did you see Mavis? I said, no, I haven't seen Mavis Staples. I haven't seen Mavis Staples.

And Rita Houston, who's the host of WFUV, said: This was the best thing I saw all day. And then I heard some of it, and it really was a knockout. She had an incredible band. She's always brought a socially conscious, spiritual side to the festival and has been a real mainstay of the festival. And I'm told, because I didn't see it, but she was out there dancing hard.

(Soundbite of song, "I'll Take You There")

Ms. MAVIS STAPLE (Singer): (Singing) I know a place (unintelligible), ain't nobody cryin', no, ain't nobody worried. No, no. Ain't no smilin' faces. No. Lyin' to the races. Help me, come on, come on. Somebody help me now. I'll take you there. Help me, y'all. I'll take you there. Help me now. I'll take you there.

HANSEN: I have to admit - and you know, this goes back to, I guess, Bob Dylan going electric. I have to admit I was surprised to see the Decemberists in the lineup. They're a little bit loud, but they're a very popular indie band.



BOILEN: That's true. But their roots, and if you listen to their words, I mean, they're all about the murder ballad. They're all about folk music. It's not a far stretch to think of the Decemberists there. One of the organizers, a fellow who helped put all of the bands this year together and - is this fellow named Jay Sweet - and Jay met up with a member of the Decemberists about four or five months ago after a concert.

And Jay had this dream. He said, you know, I really want people to sing along with things. And there's one song, he said to Chris Funk of the Decemberists, he says, one song that you guys do, called "Sons and Daughters," where the ending refrain over and over again is, hear all the bombs fade away. He says, I just want to imagine all the people in this setting - which is basically, there's a big harbor and there's boats and people who are listening to the concert on their boats, but then there's a whole crowd of people in front of an audience. He says, I want to hear them all sing over and over again, hear all the bombs fade away.

(Soundbite of song, "Sons and Daughters")

Mr. CHRIS FUNK (Singer): Move along, come on.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Hear all the bombs fade away.

Mr. FUNK: All the way out to the very back there. And the people on the sailboats, we wouldn't mind singing along as well. We need each and every one of you, stretching out as far as we can see.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Hear all the bombs fade away.

Mr. FUNK: Louder.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Hear all the bombs fade away. Hear all the bombs fade away. Hear all the bombs fade away.

BOILEN: And up to the moment of the Decemberists coming on stage, I don't think Jay Sweet knew whether they'd actually do it or not. But they did. And it sort of was the beginning of what happened next, which was Pete Seeger doing his sing-along.

HANSEN: He was the final set of the day?

BOILEN: He was. And he got on stage and, you know, this is his 90th year, you know, he played the Madison Square Garden show. And this has been a lot of focus on Pete, and Pete doesn't want a lot of focus on Pete. Pete wants it all to be about the people and about the music. He looked kind of frail. He started playing, you know, "Turn Turn Turn," and it wasn't very strong, though a friend of mine came up to me later and said that he had just tears going down his cheeks when it was happening.

And as the evening progressed, Pete filled the stage with some of the younger bands - Fleet Foxes, the Decemberists, Gillian Welch - and had the crowd, from the moment he walked out on stage, standing and singing along with him. I wandered through the crowd and - just to hear people's voices and it was so, so beautiful.

(Soundbite of song, "Worried Man Blues")

Mr. PETE SEEGER (Singer): (Singing with Group) It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long.

BOILEN: Really, you know, you can call some of this stuff a little hokey and soft and all that, but it really is just a beautiful moment. They could not have imagined 50 years ago having a moment like this, where Pete Seeger, you know, the spirit of this festival, he played there 50 years ago. George Wein, the fellow who did the organizing of the festival - he also did the jazz festival - both alive and both there, and both on stage with all these young musicians that they didn't know, but truly appreciated being there.

HANSEN: Bob Boilen of NPR's All Songs Considered speaking to us from the site of the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Bob, thanks a lot, have fun today.

BOILEN: Thank you. Will do. Bye, bye.

(Soundbite of song, "Worried Man Blues")

Group (Singing): I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long.

HANSEN: And if you're worried that you're missing out on a good time at the Newport Folk Festival, well, worry not. NPR Music's live coverage of the festival continues today from 11:30 to 7 p.m. Eastern Time at the new npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of song, "Worried Man Blues")

Group: (Singing) Well, I asked the judge, what's going to be my fine? I asked the judge, what might be my fine? I asked the judge, say, what's going to be my fine? Twenty-one years on the Rocky Mountain mine.


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