In his book I Got A Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival, author Rick Massimo doesn’t quite say that the Folk Fest came to be solely because of kids listening to folk in Cambridge. But his book — the first full-length to cover the history of the festival — does dive into the influence of Cambridge venues, like Club 47 (now Club Passim), on the festival’s founder.
George Wein had already held his first festival in 1954 (The First American Jazz Festival) in Newport, Rhode Island, when he booked Odetta at his club in the Copley Square Hotel in 1958. Massimo relays Wein’s impressions of seeing crowds “packed with college kids from across the river in Cambridge” and realizing there was a new, untapped scene: “When I saw the young people filling the club Sunday afternoon, drinking ginger ales, a crowd I had never seen before, I realized that we had enough for a folk festival.”
Wein as a businessman and unlikely folk figurehead is one centerpiece of Massimo’s book, out today (June 6) by Wesleyan University Press. The book traces the festival, and shifting perception of folk and its relation to culture, from its origins to present.
This year’s Newport Folk Festival line up, held July 28 to 30, includes Fleet Foxes, Wilco, The Avett Brothers, Regina Spektor, Angel Olsen, Billy Bragg, and more. Reading the lineup, core questions of Massimo’s book come to mind, especially one in particular: What is folk music?
“Is it folk music if it’s a professional musician singing?” Massimo asks. “Is it folk music if it has an electric guitar? Is it folk music if it’s popular? Is it folk music if it’s not popular?” And what can folk music do?
Inevitably, many of these questions were first asked in the aftermath of the 1965 Newport Folk Fest.
Massimo, who covered the Folk Festival for nine years with The Providence Journal, is an old school reporter (the book came to be after interviews he conducted for the festival’s 50th anniversary in 2009) but the Dylan-Goes-Electric chapter reads like deconstructed poetry. Eschewing editorial in favor of juxtaposition, Massimo tells the story of Bob Dylan’s ‘65 folk fest appearance through a series of quotes from “taped evidence, the recollections of participants and audience members, both in the moment and decades later, and the heated debates in the folk music magazines of the time and the sober histories many years down the road and lays them end to end without commentary.”
It’s a wise decision from Massimo on a story that’s been oft-told, both illuminating and, at times, bluntly comedic. Dylan was booed for poor taste; he was booed for a bad audio mix; the crowd was betrayed; the young people were elated; Pete Seeger went postal; actually, he was fine.
“We ran backstage and there was mayhem going on… I understand Pete Seeger had an axe and was gonna go cut the electric cables and had to be, you know, subdued.”
— Maria Muldaur
“Several accounts of this fateful night have suggested that Pete threatened to cut the power cables with an ax. That wasn’t the case.”
— George Wein
“I said, ‘God damn it, it’s terrible. You can’t understand it. If I had an axe, I’d chop the mike cable right now.’”
— Pete Seeger
The night Dylan went electric may be the reason many first pick up the book, but details on recent years — especially regarding current festival executive producer, Jay Sweet, who became Wein’s “new native guide to a new folk music world” — are equally compelling. Despite the bandying of terms from supporters and naysayers like “authentic musician” or “singer-songwriter” or “revivalist” (Sweet himself avoids the word “rock”), the festival has, as of late, created a formula for sustainability. And, in the end, the mix of opinions and blend of firsthand accounts are very much in line with
Massimo’s own reporting, which details evolution, tradition, evolving tradition, and capturing a spirit through storytelling.