The Newport Folk Festival Paradox

Without doubt, the Newport Folk Festival is the best kept secret on the summer festival circuit. There is little about the event that isn’t attractive. Every year an abundance of nationally recognized acts grace the stage while equal attention is paid to exciting up and comers, and all at an affordable price.

Newport doesn’t over-book limited stage time unlike other festivals, and neither do they pack in much of a crowd. Only 10,000 weekend passes were available in total and those sold out the first hour of availability. Newport holds an allure for the musicians themselves, and in many cases they compete to play. Organizers don’t pay much nor are they constantly expanding the grounds and bringing in corporate sponsorship — they don’t need to. Newport is a buyer’s market.

One couldn’t ask for a better location. Many music festivals favor expansive lots in fields gone fallow or else desolate industrial sections of conjoining metropoli. Newport’s consolidated grounds are housed inside the ruins of Fort Adams State Park. This crumbling beachfront Civil War era edifice situated along the emerald green New England coast has the beautiful Claiborne Pell Bridge serving as a backdrop. Its towers are striking, looming out of harbor waters cluttered with so many sail powered skiffs and yachts. Picturesque is the appropriate term, dreamy even, and the location seems more amenable to the glit and glimmer of the film industry — think Aspen or Cannes — than a self-styled salt of the earth working man’s summer retreat.

Maybe it’s the crumbling fortress environ, or it could be the long list of legends who’ve played Newport in its 50-plus years of history, but when interviewing musicians on festival grounds the subject of heritage will be foremost on their lips. Indeed, it’s often given up willfully from the stage, by none moreso this year than Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Friend and contemporary to Woody Guthrie, the appropriately nick-named Mr. Elliot is unique in that his life and career has been everything Newport celebrates.

Among the younger musicians there exists a type of envy, even lust, for an idealized vision of a simpler time that likely never was. Ask ol’ Jack if you will (I did). Oral history is just as important as any of the silly songs we choose to believe in, steal lines from while courting, and sing along to live with thousands of others, but it’s important not to forget this is the entertainment industry and a bit of myth building might be taking place. Thanks to musicians like Guthrie, Elliot, and Dylan, writers like Steinbeck and Hemingway, and then too many more artists, writers, and filmmakers to list here, there’s a collective illusion about a certain dust bowl era between wars that pitted the enlightened individual against the dullard monolith of American society as a whole. It is a dream in which virtue and determination, self-reliance and goodwill, six strings stretched against a hollowed box, and an outstretched thumb could get you cross-country, facilitate the triumph of good against evil, secure the defeat of fascism, and subvert the tyranny of capitalism. In that dream, and maybe for some over the course of the weekend, there was an understanding that we’re all in this together.

That being said, the very concept of folk music, with everything the name alone implies, seems to be facing a crisis of identity in our modern age. At its roots, folk music was passed down through generations orally and aurally because most in those bygone centuries couldn’t read. Universal literacy cannot be overstated as an American accomplishment, and with the abundance of information available on the internet, the very vehicle by which you read this article (perhaps even from your phone), one can’t help but question how the genre balances its interpersonal populist roots against the mass consumerism that defines our society today.

No group’s career better fits the definition of modern folk nor reflects the crisis of identity experienced therein than Newport ’13 headliner Old Crow Medicine Show. Discovered busking outside a Carolina drugstore by Doc Watson, the group only became famous through half-pirated Dylan lyrics. While this firmly establishes lineage, OCMS’s recent abandonment of Nettwerk for Dave Matthews’s ATO label would imply a grooming for mainstream success completed by an introduction to the popular music charts. “Wagon Wheel”, OCMS’s signature track, recently minted platinum and carried over into into the Top 40 charts by Darius Rucker, has cemented Mr. Secor et al as the rare outsider success. One cannot reserve animosity for Old Crow about this transition, though — it is a practical move on the part of a group no one can deny has paid its rightful dues. Old Crow’s last and most successful album to date, Carry Me Back, didn’t sacrifice an ounce of integrity while being commercially pleasing.

Not as much could be said for fellow headliners the Lumineers. It’s too early to tell if the rags to riches success of their debut self-titled album can be sustained, but anyone with a radio and even the slightest interest in pop music is undoubtedly familiar with “Hey Ho”. What is blatantly apparent is fan adoration and artist abhorrence. Their main stage performance easily drew the largest attendance over the weekend, but casual reference to a multitude of artists (who will remain unnamed) was met by tight lipped glares. To be completely fair, the Lumineers have done nothing wrong. Their label Dualtone is as respectable as they come, independently releasing multiple critical and commercial successes through the Alternative Distribution Alliance. And damn it all, the Lumineers are fun to listen to. If mainstream success can’t be justified even via extra-industry routes then some people will never be pleased.

Foremost amongst the displeased was Father John Misty, and God bless him for it. If folk music is exemplified by social commentary, then no one does it better than Mr. Tillman. Fear Fun was consistently touted as a ‘Best of 2012’ by a wide range of publications, and no one worked the audience harder at Newport ‘13. While delivering numbers bitingly critical of the current state of the world, Pa John dripped of sex. Posturing like a young Mick Jagger, shaking his hips and winking at the crowd, it was hard to take his tirades against the music industry, consumers, the state of affairs in general, and the Newport Folk Festival too seriously, but then again, in his own words that ended one such outburst during ”Funtimes in Babylon”, “It’s okay for me to say these things, I’m not a folk singer!”

And perhaps an outsider is needed to properly illustrate the contradictory, some might even claim hypocritical, aspects involved with Newport. Is folk simply another style of music, or is the rich heritage incorporated into this festival indicative of something more? Much unlike most festivals, the Newport Folk Festival, along with its sister the Newport Jazz Festival, is organized and put on every year by a registered non-profit: the Newport Festivals Foundation. This 501c3 non-profit guidance would seem to fit easily into the left leaning political parameters of most of the audience goers and musicians. However, it seems a bit odd that a festival celebrating the populist inclinations of peace and freedom should be staged on a military installation, no less during a time of war, and then without a single billed artist ever mentioning the fact.

And let’s not be too naïve — while there were banjos and fiddles galore over the weekend, they were surely outnumbered by smart-phones and Ipods. Beards have come back in style, but long gone are the Carter Family values. Detroit is bankrupt and the unions have failed us. We do not trust in the Lord’s benevolent providence nor the human condition so much as we do the dollar’s buying power. No amount of Avett Brother sing-alongs concerning the unity of love and interconnectedness of people could ever strip us away from the universes we’ve built around our individual social media platforms, the instant gratification of 140 character feedback, or the cred of posting, “Yeah, I was there.”

We are all in this together, but now more than ever we are all hopelessly alone and apart. Three days of trading licks at Newport won’t change anything, but in the words of Joe Fletcher, “Without Newport, what alternative is there? No folk at all?”

It’s okay to be sentimental about a time that likely never existed (at least not in the highly romanticized, idealized way we imagine it). One can even build an entire career around it. It may only be a dream that the better angels of our shared nature may guide an event, that we can collectively slip away from the bonds of this horribly impersonal modern world and reconnect to a long chain of musicians reaching unbroken back to our ancestors. But at least we can share in that dream, for a time anyway. In the unfolding drama that is life, the Newport Folk Festival accesses something ineffable and pure, a slice-of-life Americana that will only become increasingly harder to retain in the coming years.

Time will progress as it’s wont to do. Elliot and Dylan and Simon will pass. This season’s openers will become next season’s headliners and so on and so on until the collective consciousness in a future as dim to the imagination now as the history and heritage we celebrated over the course of the weekend recognizes Hurray for the Riff Raff or Spirit Family Reunion, Shovels and Rope or Andrew Bird as legends. Those future generations will look back and glorify the good times in 2013. They will say, “I wish I was there,” and the myth will continue. May the circle be unbroken. Newport’s secret is that it isn’t a music festival at all. It’s a time machine.