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Newport Folk Festival 1965
<! Newport Folk Festival 1965 Program booklet image>
The earliest festivals were practically academic seminars, featuring musicians fetched from forests, front porches, five-dollars-a-night tin-roofed Mississippi barrel-houses, lefties found wandering the vast cement canyons of NYC, bluegrassers rescued from country music oblivion and tourbuses packed to the roof with ethnic singers and dancers. Folk music in the fifties and earliest sixties was considered a non-commercial side-railing, if not a derailing, best left to politicos, beatniks and overly-earnest undergrads. To consider it an area ripe for commercial plunder would have been unthinkable.
The 1959 Newport program featured seven ads, a polite mix of record companies ("Elektra Records - The home of superlative folk music"), guitar makers, and the first of what was to become a lengthy tradition of ads from local suds makers (Narragansett Beer was first). In that year, if the advertising is any clue, there was little interest in folk music outside of three record companies (Elektra, Vanguard & Tradition), two instrument manufacturers (Goya and Vega), Izzy Young (at the NY Folklore Center), Narragansett Beer, and the people reading the program.
By 1965, "folk" was an indefinable quantity capable of having its day on television, in the press, and even on Top Ten radio. The audience had been pinpointed as a target for commerce in the embryonic days of business demographics and folk music had been declared to be a marketable commodity at its peak. Though Peter, Paul & Mary would take out a full page ad in that year's program thanking Pete Seeger "for all the things he's done for folk music", most interest would focus on Bob Dylan's two-page allegorical story, and New York Times columnist Robert Shelton's essay advising the folk world to open their eyes to the music around them, rock, pop, folk, slop, bop - anything with notes; things were moving.
Forty ads dressed up the 64 pages of that year's program, with everything and everyone from managers (six) showcasing their now extensive stables of performers, record companies (five) including Columbia Records ("The sound of folk music"), and Verve ("Great names in records are now the name in folk music") flogging their contact with the soil, music publishers looking for fodder, American Airlines staking out a full page (for all you musicians on the run) and Ford Mustang parked inside of the front cover. Though there were nine guitar ads (including España Guitars, "Sweden's finest!"), the Goya one now featured a diversity-challenged Julie Andrews in a plug for The Sound of Music.
The times they were a-changin'.
<! --------------------- What it is and how it got that way ----------------------- >
Newport Folk Festival - what it is and how it got that way
Newport Folk Festival is the "income-producing event" for the Newport Folk Foundation.
Originally created as a commercial concern in 1958 by George Wein and his business partner, Albert Grossman, beating the Newport Folk Festival into a workable shape took almost a year. By 1959, the Festival was ready for action. Concerts were to be held within the city limits at Newport's Freebody Park, with workshops cluttering the grounds of what was then known as The Casino (in name only - it was a lawn tennis court, and now home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame). It was to be spread over two days, July 11th and 12th, in what would later be remembered as the year Bob Gibson brought up an eager-to-perform Cambridge amateur, Joan Baez, during his set. With a roster of about 28 performers, it closed the weekend in a meteorological soaking as well as a financial one; the only people enriched were the fans. In an unusual move, even for those times, recording rights to the whole festival were put up for bids, with the high-bidder, Vanguard Recording Society, producing three LPs to document the event. While never topping the charts, these recordings never lost money either. Combined, the sales of the first three probably rocketed into the low double-digits.
Freebody Park, a Victorian park completed in 1897 to allow for the playing of baseball and quickly augmented with an open-air Vaudeville theatre in 1902, was again the venue for the festival in 1960. The event was upped to three fun-filled days and nights, running from June 24th through the 26th. This time around, the festival featured about 32 performers, with Baez not only an invited performer, but also the only performer to be given two consecutive evening concert spots. Two LPs were produced, again by Vanguard. One of the refreshing signs of the times was that Vanguard had won the recording rights not only by a show of cash, but also by showing a good set of manners. According to Sing Out!, the agreement allowed other companies to issue any taped performances not used by Vanguard on their own LPs. Company President Maynard Solomon's original bid had been accepted when his main rival failed to understand the nature of the festival and had intimated a willingness to "bury" any unused tapes. As a result of Soloman's generosity, Elektra was able to release its own LP (in "Panoramic Stereo") in an ill-conceived plan to replicate Vanguard's "rocketing" sales on the Newport releases. A grumpy Moe Asch of Folkways records decides the other labels are sticking to those he terms "the crowd pleasers", and so he opts to issue two LPs of what he considers the more traditional performers from the 1959-60 festivals. It was not a path any others would leap to follow. Though that year the sun shone brightly all across this great, wide festival, Wein and Grossman took another bath. Following riots that year by overzealous louts at the now heavily-commercialized Jazz Festival, the corporation went bankrupt, temporarily putting a halt to both festivals.
Though Grossman shortly was to strike out on his own, following his interests in the popular music scene (and folk music at the time was the popular scene), jazz-fan Wein gradually turned his attentions back to the Jazz Festival. In 1962, largely through the efforts of Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel, Wein agreed to restart the folk festival, albeit this time as an intentionally non-profit affair, to be run by the newly formed Newport Folk Foundation. Again according to Sing Out's article, the Foundation was to have two functions: "First, to present folk music in a situation free of the usual economic necessities, and second, to help preserve the traditions upon which the current revival are based." In other words, to water the plant without rotting the roots - promoting a folk music balanced between big names and home-grown talent without one burying the other and without anyone going broke again. They intended to plow the profits back into rescuing America's folk traditions: performers, regardless of commercial stature, were to be paid $50 a day, plus transportation, food and lodging. Many of the bigger names handed back their pay and assumed their own expenses. Any money earned by the festival would go, not only to pay for producing the festival, but also to research, to grants and donations to fund and encourage local folk music activities and, occasionally, for something with more immediate results, like buying a guitar for Mississippi John Hurt.
The 1963 Newport Folk Festival (July 26th-28th) was now spread between evening concerts at Freebody Park and all-day workshops held in small grass fields behind the buildings at St. Michael's School, just a bit down Memorial Boulevard from the park. Featuring over 100 performers in a dazzling array of twenty-one workshops and three evening concerts, the festival featured not only the first appearance of my 9th grade Latin teacher's daughter, Raun MacKinnon, but also the first festival appearance by a rising Bob Dylan. Coincidentally both appeared in the Friday night concert and again, in the Saturday morning Ballad Workshop. Vanguard issued six LPs, including thematically arranged anthologies from the workshops. Topical songs, blues, country music and bluegrass were added to two collections from the evening performances. Per the same Sing Out! article (as are all stats to follow) about 45,000 people attended, earning net profits of $52,000. A splendid time was guaranteed for all - before, during and after.
By 1964 folk music, originally touted as the "pure" alternative to a rock music dulled by corporations and tainted by payola (rock being a soulless, dishonest music as contrasted with folk music--created by amateurs playing their own instruments and making their own joyful noise), was no longer seen as anti-commercial, or even non-commercial, by either audiences or performers. The performers had become aware of the possibility, in addition to it being a better gig than the saltmines, that they could actually make a living at being a Folk Musician, a rippling roar not totally unheard by record companies and instrument makers. 1964 would be the year that older, more traditional musicians sensed the dreaded heat of Ambition sparking more fires than just the passion for enthnomusical purity and unbroken traditions among the hunter-gatherers. Indeed, it was also the year they proudly saw social justice and politics take a musical front seat, albeit in a Corvette.
The '64 Festival was held in Freebody Park and St. Michael's again, from July 23rd to the 26th. Dylan was back. Way over 100 performers spread out between the 13 workshops and 6 concerts, and the curiously commercial concept of Headliners came into play at a festival where all performers had previously been considered more or less equal. Expenses doubled, with the artists' costs ballooning by more than double, net profits dropping to $27,000 but attendence rising to 64,000. Vanguard womped out seven albums - two of blues, two of traditional music, and three for the evening concerts. And yet... Though nobody knew why exactly, things seemed to be turning into that which Monty Python later described as something that's "brown and sounds like a bell".
For this website, we can zoom in on the fact that Joan Baez canaried her cadenzas at four different times spread over two days, three workshops, and one concert. Somewhere in the process, she premiered "Birmingham Sunday", an understated ballad about the previous year's racially-motivated Birmingham, Alabama church bombing that resulted in the deaths of four African-American girls (and only after almost 40 years, is a trial set that might reach a conviction). The song came with a melody borrowed (as was a well-criticized norm during the era of the Folk Revival, though an honorable, traditional folk norm in most other eras), from - among others - "The Trees They Grow High" and/or the old Scottish "I Once Loved a Lass". New words had been inventively supplied by Joan's brother-in-law, Richard Fariña, who was driving cross-country with his friend Alfredo Dopico. Mimi, on the other hand, was keeping her sister Joan company at the festival (in the 1966 documentary Festival, Joan is shown at St. Michael's School grounds, fighting off a friendly mob of autograph seekers, when she looks off to her right and asks, "Hey, is my sister okay? She's very little...")
The 1965 Newport Folk Festival was Folk Judgment Day. Almost anybody who'd been somebody prior to that point was about to sink peacefully beneath the waves of popular music, now blessed with what was labeled, and co-opted, as "folk-rock". Either that or they would be consigned to return to the smell of roasting careers on the small club circuit. Anybody who was able to surf the wave was about to change their swimsuit in mid-motion; a very few were about to not only hang-ten and walk the board, they were about to ride it halfway up the beach.
But the festival itself would never recover.
The 1965 Festival brochure promised "4 evening concerts", along with workshops and panels. The whole weekend could be yours for about $30, assuming you made the rounds of workshops ($2 got you into an entire day's workshops), hit both the morning and afternoon concerts on Sunday (@ $2 each) and got the expensive ($5.50) boxed seats at the evening concerts. Your investment earned you access to 26 workshops, 4 evening concerts (as promised) and, on Sunday, additional morning and afternoon concerts. You could watch Joan Baez, still blanched from the Dylan tour filmed for the Don't Look Back documentary and not eager to renew his personal society, emerge on stage with the UK's Donovan. You could watch Bob Dylan shock and stun those who swore to be his True-Blue Best Fans on Sunday night when his possibly badly-mixed and ear-splitting Sunday night concert told his contemporaries that following your own muse was allowed. It was an audience who, though partially His True-Blue Best Fans, was still able to pretend they hadn't bought his last album, nor listened to Top Ten radio, nor read anything in the press for the past year. And you could see Dick and Mimi Fariña ride out three miles of bad beach and leave their audience both drained and filled. For once, the audience got soaked, and would have gladly paid to do it again.
Attendance rose to 71,000 while artists' costs, no longer constrained by artistic altruism, hit the $65,000 mark. Administrative costs, at $40,000, matched the amount the Foundation was to give away in grants and donations. While total income had almost doubled since 1963, to $267,000, expenses had almost tripled and net profit, at $23,000, fell to less than half that earned two years earlier. Vanguard finally gave up the ghost on their LP project, issuing only one album, promising more, but shutting down operations before it was too late.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...
© 2002 by Greg Pennell
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