Review of I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2017
260 pp., illus. 20 b/w. Paper, $24.95
The Newport Folk Festival—in Newport, Rhode Island—was first offered in 1959. It was not the first folk festival. Performer and collector Bascom Lamar Lunsford had offered The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, in Asheville, North Carolina, since 1928. But Newport, now just short of 60 years later, is an American musical institution and memory touchstone.
As a journalist, Rick Massimo covered the Newport Folk Festival for nine years for the Providence Journal. As a researcher compiling a book, Massimo conducted extensive interviews with the festival's producers, some if its biggest stars, and the fans who watched and listened.
Massimo's new book, I Got a Song, is the first-ever book exclusively devoted to the history of the Newport Folk Festival and tracks its influence over our understanding of today's folk music. It is an interesting read, not only as a history of the folk festival but of the music itself, but also how it evolved from acoustic singalongs to electric performances.
As with any good story, there is a backstory, the story behind the story. Early on, Massimo says there were two camps, each seeking to set the course for the Newport Folk Festival. The evolutionists felt that folk music belonged to an early stage of cultural development and so required respect and preservation. Functionalists felt folk music might come with a cultural heritage, but offered a dynamic present that might involve more people in cultural and political struggles, like racism and oppression.
If, as Massimo writes, "old folk songs could have a dynamic present and serve practical purposes, how much better would be a new song written specifically for the times?" (p. 13). For example, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and others traveled around the country fighting the class wars with guitars and protest songs old and new.
Both approaches came to the fore in the late 1920s-early 1930s. Their influences were felt at the first Newport Folk Festival, which featured singalongs, the first major public performance by then 18-year-old Joan Baez, and a closing by The Kingston Trio that continued the debate about whether folk music was traditional music or what the audience wanted to accept as traditional.
Each year following, the Newport Folk Festival struggled with questions. What was folk music, and what could it do? Could folk music originate from the city, or only in fields, hollows, rural communities, and prisons? Is it folk music if performed by a professional musician? Is it folk music if it is not popular? Is it folk music if presented with help from corporate sponsors?
On 25 July 1965, the big question at the Newport Folk Festival was, is it folk music if it has an electric guitar? The Butterfield Blues Band and the Chambers Brothers used electric guitars in their performances that year. The year before, in 1964, Muddy Waters, whose instrument had always been an electric guitar, performed. But, at the closing concert, in 1965, Bob Dylan, Michael Bloomfield, Sam Lay, Barry Goldberg, Al Cooper, and Jerome Arnold provided an answer that to this day is still being debated.
Dylan, a twenty-two-year-old folk troubadour, clad in denim and black leather, singing songs about war, discrimination, capital punishment, and exploitation, while accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar, was the high-priest of folk music culture. It was widely rumored that Dylan planned a performance from his recent record album featuring drums, a Hammond organ, and electric guitars. Everyone expected a gauntlet to be thrown. Nobody knew what would happen.
Introduced by Peter Yarrow—of Peter, Paul, and Mary—as "a person who has in a sense changed the face of folk music" (p. 74), Dylan and his band launched straight into "Maggie's Farm." They followed quickly with "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" and "Like a Rolling Stone." Three songs, fifteen minutes, and then a quick "Good night" and Dylan walked off stage. That was the apogee of the Newport Folk Festival.
The effect of Dylan's performance, on folk music in general and the Newport Folk Festival in particular, says Massimo, changed the nature of folk, as a musical and performance genre. Massimo provides a compelling overview of the following years, each offering lineups of traditional and contemporary musicians, acoustic and electric. Folk music was redefined with each annual iteration of the Newport Folk Festival.
In 2015, a tribute was planned for the fiftieth anniversary of Dylan's electric—literal and figurative—performance. A number of festival performers participated in a Dylan tribute, both acoustic and electric. The band Dawes took the stage to begin the electric segment of the tribute. Rumors flew through the audience that Dylan, or someone equally great, would appear. Instead, Dawes front man, Taylor Goldsmith, played "Maggie's Farm" on the same guitar Dylan had used 50 years earlier. Once again, the Newport Folk Festival came full circle.
In concluding his account, Massimo asks more questions. "Who decides when a tradition is being upheld? Who decides when a tradition is being betrayed? Opinions can coalesce, but there's never one answer" (pp. 198-199).
Instead, there are many answers, and many stories, woven together like a thread binding us to the past, leading to the future. The Newport Folk Festival, Massimo says, "not only contributed to the history of folk music, rock music and other musics, but made a history, an ethos and a tradition of its own" (p. 198).
Folk music has evolved over decades, absorbing influences from many different musical sources. And folk music has been at the center of changes in American life. Massimo argues convincingly that the Newport Folk Festival provided a center for many of these changes throughout its history. I Got a Song tells the stories, big and small, of those musicians and fans, who, for generations, have come to Newport to sing folk songs, and who, looking back, have helped define and shape an identity and culture that survives even these current, fractured times.