NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND - The 1969 Newport Folk Festival was a happy and peaceful event. The crowds, large but not enormous, were never in a mood to rumble, as they did once at the recent Jazz Festival, and there were only minor invasions of the box seats and the press area. Peace, the theme of so many folk songs, prevailed, and the music was, as it should be, the central concern.
The Festival opened on Wednesday, July 16, with a Children's Day and a small evening concert and dance. The traditional hootenanny, hosted this year by Oscar Brand and Pete Seeger, was held on Thursday afternoon. The performs chosen by lot, were allowed one song each, and a variety of good, if not extraordinary young talent did its thing. Among those who stood out where Tret Pure, a young lady who sang and played guitar nicely; the Ham Fat Spasm Band, a guitar and banjo duo; Norman Freeman, who offered a groovy harmonic solo; Chris & Barbara, who ran a Hatha Yoga school and sang "Buddah's Birthday"; Jay Silver, who did a parody of a slick deejay show; the Newport Bridge & American Devil Association, a sport three-guy, two-gal aggregation; and the Panacea Jug Band, who got the biggest hand of the hoot (the group also got another big hand at one of the workshops).
The Thursday evening concert proper began with Spider John Koerner and Willie Murphy (The Key West Junkanoo Band entertained prior to the concert and won the approval of the audience with some very facile limbo dancing). Koerner and Murphy play in a style that draws upon folk, ragtime, blues, jazz and a little bit of rock. Koerner is an excellent guitarist (he plays a nine-string electric) and he has a funky voice that goes well with his material. Murphy plays a pleasant piano and does occasional vocals.
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Len Chandler was next on the bill. A topical writer who was active in the Civil Rights movement and still concerns himself mainly with the cause of freedom for oppressed minorities, Chandler is, as a performer, too effusive for our taste and not quite believable. His songs, because of their subject, have a ready audience, but as songs, they are not, in our opinion, very exciting.
Buffy St. Marie had rock backing for some of her performance. Whether it was the first time she had it, we don't know, but it worked nicely without Causing too much of a stir. A few years back, when Bob Dylan went rock, there was a riot, but since then, styles have been mixed so often by so many artists that almost no change would cause a disturbance. It would, of course seem strange to see Pete Seeger with an electric guitar, but that will never happen.
Buff Ste. Marie got good hands for her now very familiar songs ("Unknown Soldier," "Piney Wood Hills" and others), and for an encore, she sang a cappella one of the songs of the Cree Indian tribe, of which she is a member.
The Oldtimer's String Band, three gentlemen from North Carolina, gave a very pleasant performance of traditional music and were extremely well received by the audience, who wanted an encore (which time did not allow). Oscar Jenkins played banjo and Fred Cockerham and Tommy Farrell were on fiddle. One of them, we couldn't tell which, sang.
Billy Ed Wheeler, country artist and songwriter ("Jackson" and "High Flying Bird" are among his compositions) won over the crowd with his quiet, low-keyed humour. His most successful number was "The Interstate Is Coming Through My Outhouse."
Johnny Cash and his troupe brought the evening to its climax. First, the Tennessee Three, Cash's back-up group, came out and played a couple of numbers. They were then joined by Carl Perkins, who sang three or four tunes, including his famous rock and roll hit, "Blue Suede Shoes." A young performer-writer, Chris Christofferson, did a few of his own songs. The excitement really began with Doug Kershaw, Cajun singer and violinist and writer of "Louisiana Man." Kershaw, who is on stage (and some say offstage) and engaging madman, played and sang and stomped about with an abandon that totally won over the audience. He could conceivably become a left field star.
Cash himself was for some reason nervous, but he gave the audience what it wanted. He sang "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Still Miss Someone" and several other numbers solo, and then he and his wife, June Carter, did "Jackson." Carl Perkins came back on and helped them do his own song, "Daddy Sang Bass." Cash was not at his most powerful, but he got a big ovation and was called back for an encore.
On both Friday and Saturday afternoon, from 11 am to 4 pm, workshops were set up on Festival Field. A wide variety of music could be heard at close quarters within a short period, and admission was only $2.00 per person for each afternoon. For this reason and because in many cases they approximated the conditions under which folk music was originally performed (i.e. a bunch of people getting together informally to play and sing for their own pleasure), the workshops were more enjoyable to some people than the evening concerts.
Among the many workshop categories were Guitar Styles And Instruction, Ballads, Fiddle Styles, Contemporary, Religious, Piano, Sting Bands, Topical, Blues Styles, Ragtime, Harmonica and Bluegrass. A number of the concert performers, as well as many other artists took part in the workshops. Jean Ritchie, Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, Jim Rooney, Doug Kershaw, Frank Proffit, Jr., Artie and Happy Traum, John Hartford, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Joni Mitchell are just a few of the artists who participated.
On Saturday, the Contemporary Workshop drew a great many people and became, in effect, a series of small concerts. Jerry Jeff Walker got a good hand for his well-known "Mr. Bojangles." Joni Mitchell did very well, though the amplifiers kept going out while she was one James Taylor, who records for the Beatles' Apple label, got a standing ovation, as did Jamie Brockett, a folksinger and songwriter who's been around for several years but who waited to make a record until he could make it the way he wanted. His first album, "Remember The Wind And The Rain," on the new Oracle label, was released a few months ago. Brockett earned his ovation with a long song about how the Titanic sunk because the crew was stoned on grass. In an unscheduled workshop, a gospel group called the B. C. Harmonizers cause a lot of excitement, and the Key West Junkanoo Band drew a nice crowd. The Songs of Liberation workshop turned into an event of some size. Pete Seeger sang a fine new song (whose title we didn't get) and one of his early compositions, the powerful "Letter to Eve," and he got everyone to sing along with him.
Two concerts were help simultaneously on Friday evening - the main concert at Festival Field, and a subsidiary concert, "Fiddle Around The World," at Newport's Rogers High School. Performers at the Fiddle concert, which we didn't see, were Bozinos Belios, Lera and the Macedonian Ensemble, Tex Logan and Don Stover, the old Fiddler's Club of R.I., the Penn. Tambouritza Orchestra, the Riendeau Family, Mike Seeger, Bjorn Stabi & Ole Hjorth and the Turkish Cabaret Orchestra. Theodore Bikel was the host.
The main concert was devoted to the blues. Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachel did a nice set, with Estes playing a pleasant guitar and Rachel playing an equally pleasant electric mandolin. Big Mama Thornton, a blues belter who was born and reared in Alabama, really turned the crowd on. Not only did she sing; at one point she pranced back to the drummer, usurped his post and grooved on the sticks to everyone's delight.
Jesse Fuller, famous for writing "San Francisco Bay Blues," offered that song and a number of others. A sort of one-man band, Fuller sings and plays guitar, harmonica, a food pedal-operated string base of his own design called a "Fotdella," and a small, muted high-hat cymbal.
The Muddy Waters Blues Band closed the evening with a long set of gutsy Chicago blues. Water stood on the stage like the proverbial immovable object and sang and played his electric guitar with a strength that expressed itself through solidity rather than the wild motions that some blues artists employ. Muddy's methods were effective, and he got a standing ovation. His harmonica player, whom we thing, but aren't sure, was James Cotton, involved his whole body in playing and turned in a very strong performance.
As with Friday evening, the Festival offered two concerts on Saturday night. The Rogers High School concert, which, again, we didn't see, was called "The Bluegrass Story" and included Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys; the Oldtimer's String Band; Carleton Haney; Bill Keith; Tex Logan & Don Stover; Don Reno and Bill Harrell and the Bluegrass Cutups; Jean Ritchie; and Mac Wiseman.
The New Lost City Ramblers (Mike Seeger, John Cohen and Tracy Schwartz) opened the main Saturday evening concert. The Ramblers specialize in string band music of the 1920's and 30's, and they are technically excellent performers who play fiddle, guitar, mandolin, autoharp and banjo with perfection. Their singing is pleasant, and their performance in general, good, but we wished they would cut loose once in awhile.
The Everly Brothers gave what to us seemed on of the best performances of the Festival. Fine showmen, their material, consisting mainly of their old rock and roll hits ("Wake Up, Little Susie," "Bye, Bye Love," "Dream") and medleys of currently popular tunes such as "Aquarius" and "Hey Jude," did not seem out of place at the Folk Festival. The Everlys can trace their roots back to country folk music, as was proved by the presence of their father, Ike Everly, who displayed some facile picking on the guitar solos he did. The Everlys had good electric backing, which tended to drown out or at least subdue the effect of, their own acoustic guitars, but they obviously wanted things set up as they were, and their vocal harmonies, which were the strongest aspect of their performance, came through loud and clear. The Everlys have matured and mellowed considerably since they were teenage stars, and their old material sounds, or at least sounded at the Festival, better than it did on their hit records.
After their performance, Don Everly, introduced Doug Kershaw for a special appearance, and Kershaw again did his thing to the audience's delight.
Joni Mitchell, probably now the foremost female songwriter-performer on the contemporary scene, gave a very successful performance. Her songs, amount them "Both Sides Now" (or "Clouds"), "Night In The City," "Chelsea Morning" and "Circle Game" are widely respected for their beauty, depth and imaginativeness, and she performs them excellently. Her voice has a very wide range, her guitar style is fresh, and she plays good piano. With her album "Clouds," currently selling quite well, she is on her way to becoming a star.
The Rev. FD. Kirkpatrick and his brother, the Rev. J.L. Kirkpatrick, were also on the bill. F.D. Kirkpatrick is a freedom fighter, dedicated to the cause of equality for the blank man, and the songs he sings deal, directly or indirectly, with the problems of the Negro. J.L. Kirkpatrick, singer and electric guitarist, plays blues in the style of B.B. King.
The Cook Country Singing Convention, a mixed gospel group from Chicago, offered a program of cappella spiritual numbers, which they sang in a very dedicated manner. So involved, in fact, was the leader, that he went into a rapture, knocked over a microphone, bumped into the singers and had to be restrained.
The all male B.C. Harmonizers had electric backing. Their gospel singing, the highlight of which, of course, is harmony was extremely exciting to the crowd, which gave the group a standing ovation.
The last performer at the Saturday night concert was Arlo Guthrie, who is now 20 years old and who has been a folk-contemporary star since his long song-monologue, "Alice's Restaurant" catapulted him to fame at the 1967 Folk Festival. At the 1969 Folk Festival he turned his wit on Moses, and preceded a performance of "Oh, Mary Don't You Weep" with a tale about how Moses got his people to cross the Red Sea by getting them stoned on grass (any resemblance to Jamie Brockett's Titanic song is, as far as we know, coincidental). Arlo also sang "Meeting At The Building," "Walking Down The Line" and some of his own material. He exchanged his guitar for piano for about half of his performance (he's a fine guitarist and plays enjoyable piano). Needless to say, his set was a great success
On Sunday afternoon, following a free gospel concert in the morning, a young performers concert was held. John Allen Cameron, a singer and guitarist from Cape Breton, Canada, was the first performer. Cameron came on decked out in Scottish finery, kilts and all, and he gave a pleasant performance of traditional tunes. Frank Proffit, Jr., son of the well-known Smokey Mountain folk singer, sang and played dulcimer and banjo in a style learned from his father. The banjo he plays is fretless and was made by Frank Proffit. Sr.
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Van Morrison came next. Morrison, who had a rock hit or two on the Bang label a couple of years ago, seemed to maintain a distance between himself and the audience. He performed with a funky inner intensity which got to some people but not everyone.
Happy and Artie Traum did a set which caught fire when a sing-along number got the whole audience happily involved. The two brothers, who sing, play guitar and write songs, were accorded a standing ovation.
Another singer-songwriter-guitarist (there are so many of them around that the term ought to have an abbreviation), Steve Young, who has an album out on A&M, turned in a good, but not exciting set.
The Pentangle, a group whose style is made up of folk, jazz, rock, contemporary and gospel elements, go the second standing ovation of the afternoon. The group, which records for Reprise, has a two-record album out called "Sweet Child."
It was a day for standing ovations, and Jerry Jeff Walker got the next one. Jerry Jeff, who is (guess what) a singer-songwriter-guitarist, wrote a song called "Mr. Bojangles" a while back, and his recording of it on Atco hit the charts. He sang that number and several others he's written. Great interest was shown in his lead guitarist, David Bromberg, about whom a lot more may well be heard.
James Taylor, who closed the young performers concert, got a huge ovation, the biggest of the afternoon. His singing and guitar playing, and his material, which he himself writes, are straightforward without obstruction. He was the first artist signed to the Beatles' Apple Records, which is something of a distinction in itself.
The closing concert of the Festival, held on Sunday evening, July 20, began with Pete Seeger and the Hudson Sloop Group. The Hudson Sloop Group is made up of crew members of the sloop Clearwater, build and sponsored by the Hudson River Sloop Restoration Inc. The purpose of this organization, the brainchild of Pete Seeger and his wife, Toshi, is to get the people of the Hudson River Valley to renew their pride in the river, to recall the days when it was beautiful and unpolluted and to start cleaning it up. The Clearwater sales up and down the Hudson, docking frequently to let people come on board. The crew sings songs, and townspeople are invited to join in. Membership in the Hudson River Sloop Restoration, Inc., is open to everyone for $10 (students $5). Contributions may be sent to P.O. Box 265,Cold Spring, N.Y. 10516.
While at Newport for the Festival, the Clearwater was docked by the Goat Island causeway, and a workshop was held on board her Saturday afternoon. At the Sunday concert, the crew was joined by the Rev. F.D. Kirkpatrick, Jimmy Collier and Len Chandler, as well as Pete Seeger. Many songs relating in one way or another to the cause were sung. A group of sea chanties, performed by the entire ensemble, was one of the highlights of the performance, and the group got a standing ovation for "This Land Is Your Land." Another standing ovation was given to Jimmy Collier, a freedom singer who often performs with F.D. Kirkpatrick, when he sang "Burn, Baby, Burn."
Jean-Bosco Mwenda, a singer and guitarist who was born in Lubumbashi, Africa, was brough all the way from his native land for the Festival. His "picking" style is interesting and really not so different from American folk styles as one might think. The songs he sang at the Festival were graceful and low pressure, and the crowd enjoyed his performance.
Swedish fiddlers Bjorn Stabi and Ole Hjorth, who had participated in the workshops and the "Fiddle Around The World" concert, were invited to make a special appearance on Sunday evening. Stabi and Hjorth play in a folk style derived from Swedish country dances. The style, known as The Spelmarslage, calls for the players to improvise in harmony and with much ornamentation upon old Swedish tunes. This Stabi and Hjorth did with great facility.
Contemporary songwriter-performer Jon Hartford came on with his banjo (he also plays guitar) and sang some of his own material, including the famous "Gentle On My Mind." He got a nice hand.
Ramblin' Jack Elliot was in an engaging "I don't give a damn" mood and told the audience, among other things, that he had twenty-six albums out from which he didn't receive royalties and he didn't care whether anyone bought the records or not. Among his numbers was a very contagious version of "San Francisco Bay Blues."
Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, two of the most famous folk-blues artists, turned in a pleasing performance, Terry sings and plays harmonicas, which he keeps in a special shirt full of pockets. McGhee sings and plays guitar in a low-keyed, but very facile manner. One of the highlights of their performance was the title song from their current BluesWay album. "A Long Way From Home."
"The Leadbelly Legacy," a tribute to the great black folksinger, Huddy Ledbetter (known as Leadbelly), closed the Sunday evening concert and the Festival. The tribute was not as well organized as it might have been. No one person was in charge. Leadbelly records were played sporadically over the loudspeakers, and pictures of Leadbelly and scenes of Southern Negro life were projected at odd intervals on a screen set up at the back of the stage. Leadbelly was not explained thoroughly enough by the brief addresses made by some of the participants of the tribute.
Still, there was pleasant singing, and some idea of what Leadbelly was and did could be gleaned from the proceedings. Those who wanted to know more could read Frederic Ramsey, Jr.'s excellent article, "Leadbelly: A Great Long Time" in the Festival program.
Leadbelly was born about 1885 in Louisiana. He left home at sixteen and did a lot of rambling, working at odd jobs and as a ranch hand. He performed on Saturdays at pool halls and saloons and picked up different kinds of music, including dance tunes, blues and cowboy songs. Negro life in the south was rough, and so was Leadbelly. He did long stretches for assault and murder crimes of which he was probably guilty, though the conditions under which he committed them, might, if fully known, show him in a kinder light. In 1934, he was brought to New York by the American folklorist and song collector, John A. Lomax, and came in contact with other folksingers such as Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston and the Young Pete Seeger. His powerful voice and twelve-string guitar playing impressed many, but he never became known to the general public. He made an abortive trip to Hollywood, and in 1949 he died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease which is especially severe when it strikes a very muscular person (Leadbelly, who had been "the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm on the state" in the Texas pen. was immensely strong). After his death, Leadbelly's reputation grew, and when the folk boom came in the 1950's he acquired many new listeners (though, perhaps unfortunately, perhaps not, never so many listeners as young stars like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez). Leadbelly's recordings, most of them now on the Folkways label, are as rough as he was, but his freshness, strength and vitality come though. Tracks like "Fort Worth And Dallas Blues," "The Ox Driving Song" and "C.C. Rider" are overpowering. There is nothing else like them on the face of the earth.
Performers who participated in "The Leadbelly Legacy" were Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, the Rev. F.D. Kirkpatrick, Bernice Reagon and Fred Gerlach. The biggest disappointment of the Festival, to us at any rate, was that the Weavers, probably the greatest of all fold groups, were not able to make their scheduled appearance in the tribute. Why, we don't know. Among other songs sung in the tribute were "Grey Goose." "Ha. Ha This-away," "We Shall Walk Through The Valley," "Black Girl, " "Bourgeois Blues" and "Rock Island Line." For the final number, "Goodnight, Irene," the participants in the tribute were joined by a flock of people from the wings.
How many of the songs he sang were Leadbelly's own compositions is uncertain. Many of them are traditional tunes which he changed here and there in performance. "Bourgeois Blues" is definitely Leadbelly's work, and he insisted that "Good Night, Irene" was his own tune.
With the final chorus of "Good Night, Irene" sung, the 1969 Newport Folk Festival was over. Withal, it was an enjoyable event and one which affirmed the enduring qualities of folk music.
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