Groundbreakers: Newport Folk Festival

With the explosion of events on both sides of the Atlantic in the last decade you could argue we are living in the festival era. But there’s something about the festivals of the 1960s and the 1970s that their modern-day equivalents will never emulate.

They were groundbreaking. Their carnivalesque vibe, radical politics, sense of freedom, escapism from the banal were all untainted by the hands of commercialism. Unfettered by today’s laundry list of health and safety regulations, they had an edge. An edge that admittedly wasn’t always good, but gave festival-goers both a thrill and the feeling that they were a part of something that had a purpose beyond just having fun and hearing the music they loved.

In the UK, it was Glastonbury and the Isle of Wight festivals. In the US, it was of course Woodstock. But a precursor to them all was the Newport Folk Festival, held in the historic port city of Newport, Rhode Island.

Founded in 1959, the festival quickly acquired a reputation for launching the careers of musicians who went on to achieve legendary status. The likes of Joan Baez and mostly notably Bob Dylan broke through at the festival.

In fact Dylan and the festival will forever be associated, after the infamous ‘electric Dylan controversy’. In 1965, allegedly outraged by promoters’ criticism of a peer’s performance, Dylan decided to break with Newport tradition and play a portion of his set with amplified instruments. The Newport faithful responded with a strong mix of cheers and boos. Check out Scorcese’s Dylan biopic No Direction Home if you want to hear the reaction for yourself.

Controversy hasn’t always revolved around the music either. Riots associated with participants of the 1960 event led to the cancellation of the final night of the festival and the following year, Freebody Park (the original venue) was completely free of jazz.

Over 50 years since its inception, the festival is undergoing something of a resurgence. Tickets for this year’s event sold out in three months – the fastest since it began in 1959.

Wilco headlines a small bill of three acts for a kickoff in Fort Adams State Park. As of writing, tickets are still available for the ‘Folk Friday’ kickoff show.

The line-up for the main festival on Saturday and Sunday feature a whole host of up-and-coming artists along with the likes of My Morning Jacket, Iron & Wine, Jackson Browne and Conor Oberst.

Written by insider city guide series Hg2 | A Hedonist’s guide to…

(Image: wileymcb)

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