The Newport Folk Festival, for decades now one of the premier showcases for roots-music artists, gets under way this weekend in Newport, R.I., with a stellar cast led by country-music outlaw Willie Nelson, Grammy-winning folkie Shawn Colvin and country-folk superstar Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Other significant performers who are scheduled for the two-day gathering at Newport, R.I.'s Fort Adams State Park include string-band ace guitarist Peter Rowan, cowboy balladeer Ray Wylie Hubbard and legendary folk songsmith and scene-maker Bob Neuwirth.
This year's festival also includes a humorous look back at one of its signature events. In 1965, a young festival favorite, Bob Dylan, scandalized the folk community by setting aside his acoustic guitar and performing in front of a rock 'n' roll band led by Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Mike Bloomfield.
It caused an uproar at the time, and led to Dylan's being castigated for selling out. That's all ancient history now, though, and in acknowledgment of that, Fordham University radio station WFUV is presenting "Bob Dylan Goes Electric Karaoke," in which artists and fans are invited to perform Dylan covers of their choosing.
This year's headliner, songsmith and guitarist Nelson, the elder statesman of maverick music, has been defying expectations himself lately, veering from the country sound he's long been associated with into blues and bluegrass, as evidenced in his jamming with W.C. Handy Blues Award-winning guitarist Susan Tedeschi at his Fourth of July picnic in Austin, Texas, and trading licks with bluegrass mandolin superstar Sam Bush at North Carolina's MerleFest.
After his MerleFest set, Nelson remarked that one reason he loves to play such gatherings is that he enjoys the mix of genres in the Americana format. Nelson's songs, from "On the Road Again" (RealAudio excerpt) to "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" (RealAudio excerpt), fit right in with the melding of folk, country and blues influences that fuel the Americana movement.
A Big-Name Lineup
This year's Newport lineup also includes bluegrass/jazz innovator Bela Fleck, songwriter Dar Williams Cape Breton, Canada, fiddler Natalie MacMaster, alt-country singer Stacey Earle, mellow-voiced folk troubadour John Gorka, urban-folk storyteller Lucy Kaplansky, singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer, folk-rocker Jess Klein, former 10,000 Maniacs vocalist Natalie Merchant and singer/songwriter Richard Shindell. Rowan's Texas Trio will feature ace guitarist Tony Rice.
There's a generous helping of rock, too, in the person of, for instance, the String Cheese Incident. "It's interactive music," said Bill Nershi, who plays acoustic guitar and writes songs for the band. "Each performance is very different from the one before and the one after. Each show is its own incident."
Since it began in 1959, the festival, which last year drew about 16,000 people, has been known for presenting the best folk performers of the moment. That's a legacy that stretches back to such leaders of the '60s folk revival as Pete Seeger, Dylan, Joan Baez, Carolyn Hester, Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs. Newport also was key in bringing greater attention to such blues artists as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt and Son House.
Though there's been criticism through the years that Newport tends to book predominantly commercially recognizable folk names, it has often provided a place where those performers are able to launch their own experiments.
Baez's career, for instance, took off from Newport in 1959, when Bob Gibson invited her to join him onstage for a duet on the gospel tune "Crossing the Jordan River." And in the '60s, Arlo Guthrie drew national attention to himself with his debut of the song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree." Ochs not only played his tunes of biting political commentary but also found an audience for his ballad of hope for the nation's future, "The Power and the Glory" (RealAudio excerpt).
Newport's Activist Role
In keeping with the folk community's bent for social activism, Newport also was one of the first national venues where black and white performers shared stages and joined hands while singing anthems of justice and equality, at the beginning of the civil rights era.
This year, Toshi Reagon, a rising African-American singer/songwriter in the urban-folk style, and the daughter of Freedom Singers members Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cornell Reagon, is scheduled to perform.
From 1959 to 1965, Vanguard Records brought vans of recording equipment and its entire engineering staff to Newport every summer to record the festival. From mainstage performances to blues workshops, these recordings not only brought the festival performances to eager audiences at the height of the folk boom but also have proved to be an important chronicle of a crucial period in the development of American music.
Vanguard continues to release artist- and theme-based collections from its archival recordings of those festivals, including Joan Baez Live at Newport and Blues Live at Newport.
In recent years, festival promoters have put the show on the road, bringing traveling versions of the festival with varying casts of artists to venues across the country. There are plans under way for a West Coast Newport Folk Festival tour in 2001.