Thoughts on Newport Folk 2019

Having just returned from another year of Newport Folk Festival, here are some scattered thoughts on the 60th anniversary of this legendary festival:

NEWPORT CELEBRATES ITS HISTORY

Tributes to the artists and mission of the original 1959 festival abounded throughout the weekend in a passing the torch multi-generational diverse lineup demonstrating the ever-expanding definition of folk music in the 21st century. John Cohen, of New Lost City Ramblers fame and one of the last living links to the original festival, not only performed a few songs that he had played at the original festival sixty years earlier but also mused that in both 1959 and 2019, he was in the only traditional string band at the festival, subtly pointing out the festival’s longtime commitment to a diverse definition of folk music. From the festival’s earliest days, traditional string band music, indigenous world music and contemporary pop, blues and country were all accepted under the Newport Folk umbrella.

Other nods to the festivals earliest heyday included appearances from Alice Gerrard, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Judy Collins and Mavis Staples, as well as a surprise appearance from James Taylor who had played fifty years earlier.

NEWPORT CELEBRATES WOMEN IN MUSIC

Saturday’s headlining set, generally the marquee slot for the entire weekend, was billed as ‘The Collaboration’ with a set (curated by Brandi Carlile) designed to pay tribute to women in music and acknowledge the effects of the musician gender gap. While the collaborative set featuring an appearance from none other than Dolly Parton was the highlight of the festival for many, I left with some mixed impressions. Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that I am a huge Jason Isbell fan, I found his presence as a sideman an almost distracting focus and a conflict with Brandi’s ‘Newport is going to have its very first all-female, headlining collaboration’ proclamation. The band also featured the (male) Hanseroth twins from Carlile’s band, and minor gripe though it may be, a set billed as the first all female collaboration at Newport surely could have featured an all-female backing band. Like Our Native Daughters or the First Ladies of Bluegrass, just to name two who were present at the festival.

Having said that, the festival offered much more than just a showcase headlining set for women. Even with a history dedicated to diversity and inclusion with unquestionably more female artists than your typical festival, Newport 2019 featured more female artists than ever before, to outstanding results. In addition to high profile sets from the Highwomen and Kacey Musgraves, Yola seemed to generate the most buzz among the crowd of anyone at the festival, while Erin Rae stunned an intimate crowd at the festival’s indoor museum stage and sat in with everyone from Liz Cooper to Deer Tick. 85-year old Alice Gerrard shared her songs and stories that blazed the trail for women in bluegrass and 80-year old Judy Collins reminded the crowd of the role she had in truly shaping the festival, from headlining several times to serving on the board and petitioning George Wein to allow Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell on the bill. The Dolly Parton appearance will get all the attention, but the festival made sure to support this crucial cause up and down the lineup throughout the weekend.

COLLABORATIVE SPIRIT

As always with Newport, collaborations were everywhere – from the loosely rehearsed scheduled collaborative sets (an all-star tribute to Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners as well as Saturday and Sunday’s headlining sets) to old friends meeting up on stage (John McCauley with Dawes, Warren Haynes with Phil Lesh) to fresh combinations like Yola backed by Dawes or the Infamous Stringdusters with Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Too many to list them all, culminating with…

100 YEARS OF PETE SEEGER

The festival concluded with a collaborative set celebrating what would have been Pete Seeger’s 100th year and the contributions he made to the festival spirit and music from the very beginning. Simply put, there wouldn’t be a Newport without Pete Seeger and honoring his legacy was a perfect conclusion to the weekend. Highlights included Our Native Daughters delivering an impassioned ‘If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus’, a remarkably moving take on ‘Eyes on the Prize’ from Mavis Staples featuring Rhiannon Giddens, and, of course, the opening duet of surprise guests Kermit the Frog and Jim James that kicked the set off.

Particularly in the years of Donald Trump’s presidency, the festival has reclaimed its initial utopian spirit imparted from Pete Seeger. 60 years after the festival fought segregation by showcasing black delta blues music and lodging black and white musicians together, it’s heartening to see this year’s dedication to promoting a diverse and inclusive definition of folk music.

Hard to choose just a handful, but 5 favorite sets from the weekend:

  1. If I Had A Song, celebrating 100 years of Pete Seeger
  2. Mavis Staples (late night show at Jane Pickens Theatre)
  3. Judy Collins
  4. Alice Gerrard
  5. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

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