A jaded reader might find it difficult to get past the specter of Bob Dylan and his role in the early narrative of George Wein’s Newport Folk Festival. Certainly Rick Massimo took on that unenviable task in I Got A Song: A History of The Newport Folk Festival. Rather than fall under its weight, though, Massimo gives us a clear and at times compelling story (especially the Dylan July 1965 chapter roughly in the middle) of one man (George Wein) and his quest to put on a folk festival in the beautiful Rhode Island seacoast city of Newport.
It’s also about Pete Seeger, that iconic American folk troubadour who kept the flame burning for what he saw as authentic folk ballads. Seeger came to terms with the cataclysm of change Dylan represented when he plugged in that fateful summer, and nothing was the same after that night. More than Wein, Seeger, Dylan, or Alan Lomax (who does not come off well in this narrative), this book is about the slippery status of true believers who kept the torch burning for “authenticity” at any cost, even if it meant cultural appropriation, commercial compromising, and the always risky quest for musical sincerity.
In his preface, Massimo thanks, among many, Elijah Wald, whose 2015 book Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties would seem to have been the first and last word about the festival. On the contrary, both writers clearly developed their narrative with the understanding that no single person was the focus of this festival, on that night or through its entire run (from 1959-1969, then 1981 to the present.) It’s about capturing the songs and spirit, though the presence of Seeger is an irresistible way to bookend this history.
Massimo opens with a scene from 1959, the festival’s first year. Curmudgeonly radio host and legendary interviewer Studs Terkel introduces Pete Seeger as “America’s tuning fork”. Seeger, who at that point had been persevering under the weight of the McCarthy-era Blacklist, came out to play “Bells of Rhymney” and to teach historical context and to involve the audience in a singalong. Fifty years later, 2009, a 90-year-old Seeger again rules the stage, this time joined by British folkie Billy Bragg and American rocker (with Progressive politics running through his veins) Tom Morello. The songs remain the same, maybe a little more tired, and the faces are different, but the sentiments are no less pure after all that time.
Massimo notes that while Dylan’s 1965 performance might have ignited a manageable brushfire, the earth he left behind was forever scorched. By 1965, particularly with Dylan’s truly incendiary performances of “Maggie’s Farm”, “Phantom Engineer,” and “Like a Rolling Stone”, the world of the staid, clean-cut, and painfully earnest white-washed collegiate guitar-strummers was tired. Peter, Paul, and Mary might have provided some white female perspective to the still predominantly white male folk world, but it remained an uncomfortable, if non-threatening, world where one faction simply wanted to retain the old ballads as they were played in the 19th century, and another was eager to use the forum for didactic preaching to the converted. Think of the Almanac Singers and The Weavers of the ’40s and ’50s, Woody Guthrie, and early Bob Dylan. The Festival gave a forum to the booming voice of Odetta Holmes, the all-star group performance of “We Shall Overcome” in 1963, and Dylan, but there was much more than that. Joan Baez (from 1959 to now), early Michelle Shocked, the out and proud dynamics of The Indigo Girls all had a safe and crystal-clear forum at the Newport Folk Festival.
Authenticity — that struggle to identify and maintain “truth” in the creation and execution of the perfect folk ballad — always proved problematic for the American folk music movement. Massimo notes early in this book, (citing historian Ronald D. Cohen, that there were two clear camps when it came to the collection and dissemination of folk music. One side chose to see themselves as evolutionists, and to them, folk music was best relegated to the status of traveling museum artifacts. What was created on a certain instrument and sung by a particular people with a distinct style had to be maintained that way. Nothing could be altered. In this camp were people like Alan Lomax, who collected the “vox populi”, if you will, providing a forum for people like ex-convict Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter to sing his songs (like “Goodnight Irene”), but the convict could never step out of his persona. Dress the man in a horizontally-striped uniform, give the impression through publicity that he’s dangerous and primitive, and his humanity is suppressed in favor of the darkness in the songs. In effect, through the theatrical promotion of the impression of danger, racism was perpetuated.
The other camp in this mid-20th century development of folk as an art form in the American music world was called the functionalists, and it’s the struggle between these two worlds that forms the crux of I Got A Song. The functionalists included Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers. Pete Seeger seemed to be equally comfortable in both evolutionist and functionalist worlds, but the latter proved a little more problematic for Seeger and many in his generation. Functionalists believed old folk songs could be of great immediate service in modern and difficult times. The Weavers might have been seen as compromising the authenticity of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” and Woody Guthrie’s “So Long (It’s been Good to Know You)” with producer Gordon Jenkin’s string arrangements, but the recordings met the needs of the marketplace. Fans heard the songs and sought out the original sources. Massimo nicely illustrates this through examining the dramatic difference between The Kingston Trio’s ’50s-era version of “Tom Dooley” and the decidedly more morose original source material, Frank Proffitt’s 1934 version.
There are many characters in this narrative and Massimo does an admirable job of weaving them in and out of the 50 years of the Festival, the times before and the possibilities after. Harry Smith’s 1952 release of the six-album Anthology of American Folk Music was a benchmark for that generation, and we get a little of that story. Albert Grossman, a clear functionalist and manager of (among others) Bob Dylan until 1968, took no nonsense when it came to representing the new frontier of American folk and commercialism in the ’60s. In “Utopia” (chapter 3), Massimo elaborates on the manifesto with which the seven-member Folk Festival Board of Directors set forth the principles of the Festival. In part, their purpose was “…to underwrite research of ethnic material… to the benefit of the entire field of folk music.”
Of course, all manifestos are meant to be burned, demolished, re-appropriated and ignored; the idealism with which the Board set forth its mission. Massimo manages to evoke what seemed to be a sense of unease and distrust from all sides in the folk community through the ’60s. Disregard, for a moment, the notion that the rock world had appropriated the music of black America and commercialized it for mass appeal. Here, the question was not whether or not the (primarily white) Paul Butterfield Blues Band had the competency (or “chops”) to play the music. The question was whether or not they had the right.
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Massimo effectively deals with the elephant in this narrative, Bob Dylan, by building an entire chapter (“A Limited Amount of Time” Ch.7) around the night in question, 25 July 1965, so closely detailed in Elijah Wald’s 2015 book that it would seem impossible to provide a different take on the story. Rather than deal with the story in flowery hyperbole, Massimo assembles a collection of quotes from Dylan biographers, those on the scene at the time, the execrable introduction from Peter Yarrow (“…you know him, he’s yours.”) Phil Ochs claims Dylan assassinated the audience. The story about whether or not Seeger wanted to take an ax to the electrical cables and cut Dylan’s rock performance short might not ever be conclusively told, but here we’re given the impression that Seeger’s father was upset that he couldn’t hear the lyrics to “Maggie’s Farm”. Dylan, dejected after the abbreviated three-song set, reportedly asked of that afternoon’s emcee Peter Yarrow: “What have you done to me?”
Dylan did return to the Festival in 2002, performing both electric and acoustic songs, but this time with long stringy hair and full beard under a white cowboy hat. He performed a typically idiosyncratic set list of folk covers and (to some) intelligible garblings of his own classics. To some, it was the culmination of a dream that this prodigal son had returned, but to Dylan, it seemed to be just another gig. In the final chapter of I Got A Song, Massimo ends with a beautifully succinct understanding of dramatic sweep he’d covered of the Festival’s history and its meaning to folk music:
“A study of the Newport Folk Festival…reveals that the tradition lies in the tension — the uncertainty…[it] is not a tradition until it’s carried on by someone other than the originator… until someone argues that it’s been betrayed. If either the form or the tradition have any value, both of these developments will eventually happen.”
In this engaging and at times touching look at how The Newport Folk Festival both reflected and instigated elements of its time, Massimo has provided a carefully researched and compassionate look at some great artists and activists who found songs and learned how to sing them.