About This Festival
Founded by festival pioneer George Wein in 1959, who began the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, Newport Folk Festival’s roots stretch almost the deepest of any other fest. Wein began Newport with the assistance of board members—the likes of Pete Seeger, Albert Grossman, and Theodor Bikel. From the get-go, Newport’s gone beyond simply questioning and redefining folk music, not so much blurring the edges but smearing them. In the 1960s, for example, it invited country singer Johnny Cash and blues artist Howlin’ Wolf to perform.
Newport may be the oldest folk music festival, but it’s not the longest continuously operating one. Between 1971-1985, folk music (and jazz, to some extent) took a back seat to disco, new wave, and heavy metal music, but that’s not necessarily why it ceased operations during those years. It took a break as a matter of safety. In 1970, on the heels of Woodstock, festivalgoers believed music to be their free right and stormed the gates of Newport Jazz Festival, overwhelming the proceedings and swelling the crowd to an unmanageable size. When Newport re-emerged in 1985, it did so with folk revivalists on the roster such as Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Sweet Honey in the Rock and Arlo Guthrie—and a very young Alison Krauss.
Through the years, some amazing things have happened. Artists know how to use this stage to their advantage—and champion the careers of others they admire. In its inaugural year, Bob Gibson called onstage a relatively unknown Joan Baez. A few years later, in 1963, Baez returned the favor and invited Bob Dylan onstage for what’s generally considered his national debut performance. A couple of years later, in 1965, he infamously went “electric,” with a backing band of plugged-in instruments—to some boos and hisses in the crowd, who felt he was abandoning his roots. Later in the decade, in 1969, country singer Johnny Cash introduced Kris Kristofferson—heretofore known in certain circles as a great songwriter but not a performer in his own right. Years later, in 2005, the raucous indie rock band the Pixies pulled a reverse Dylan and went acoustic for a whole set.
A Rich, Unconventional History
As a microcosm of the larger musical landscape these days, Newport’s expansiveness feels so organic and natural that it’s hard to fathom how adding country to a folk music festival was a big deal. Or that bringing in reggae or an alternative rock band would be unseemly, unorthodox. If Newport is not simultaneously traditional and progressive, occasionally prone to raising some eyebrows, then it’s not Newport. It does its own thing. Jay Sweet, who inherited the job from longtime producer Bob Jones, says he doesn’t necessarily pay attention to artists’ album cycles or what’s trendy. Instead, he likens the whole operation to organizing a family reunion; many are repeat players.
Since Sweet took over in 2007, the rosters reflect the ways in which much of contemporary roots music freely and happily borrows and acknowledges its shared influences. Lately, the lineups showcase the gamut—folk, blues, country, bluegrass and other genres such as alt country, indie folk and folk punk—across four stages. In recent years, the likes of Fleet Foxes, Avett Brothers, Neko Case, My Morning Jacket, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Richie Havens, Judy Collins, Levon Helm, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, the Decemberists, and Andrew Bird. The summer of 2014 brought about 65 artists to its four stages, including fest favorite Mavis Staples—who’s played with Pete Seeger and Ramblin’ Jack. Jenny Lewis, Houndmouth, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and Nickel Creek are also sharing their talents.
Don’t expect a full-blown, comprehensive release when it comes to the lineup: it shares its lineup on a rolling basis and many artists just show up, unannounced but always welcome. “We are probably the only festival that doesn’t know its full roster until the day after it’s over,” says Sweet.
Newport Folk Presents—a concert series of Newport-minded artists—launched in 2013 and has been bringing rising artists such as Hurray for the Riff Raff, Lord Huron, and Spirit Family Reunion to the greater New England area (Providence, Boston and Cambridge). Newport also hitched a wagon and traveled west for Way Over Yonder, a smaller-scale production in Fall of 2013 newpo(October 5-6) at the Santa Monica Pier—a similarly beautiful, waterside storied location—with the likes of Conor Oberst, Neko Case, First Aid Kit, Justin Townes Earle, Calexico, Brett Dennen, and more. 2015's lineup included Roger Waters, The Decemberists, Hozier, Angel Olsen, Nikki Lane, and '65 Revisited among other stellar artists.
Food, Family & Crafts
The Family Stage features entertainment that appeals to the whole family, and often includes surprise guest visits from main stage headliners. In fact, the first ten rows of the audience are dedicated to kids 10 and under. The Craft Market abound, and food lovers have more than their share of good eats, and you can expect local and national brews in the Quad Beer Garden (where performers such as Dawes have been known to engage in ping pong matches), and regional vintages in the Wine Garden.