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Newport Folk Festival Music Aimed 'To Bring Out The Good In People' Print-ready version

Meriden Morning Record
July 24, 1969
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The music was blues, rock, country western, gospel and soul; the place was the Newport Folk Festival, where, from last Wednesday through Sunday, crowds of enthusiastic old and young people gathered to hear the voice of the folk—the raconteurs of the past, the protestors of the present, the visionaries of the future. Spirits were never dampened by intermittent rain.

The atmosphere was casual as groups of young men and women costumed in bellbottoms, bolero shirts—“in their own thing”—sprawled out over the festival grounds, improvising on guitar and harmonica, kazoo and jew’s harp, or clapping and singing in accompaniment to the Festival performers.

Peace and Freedom

And the songs the performers sang, the songs the groups of young men and women sang—their theme was black liberation, freedom, and above all, peace. Putting it in a nutshell for all the performers and audience, veteran folk singer Pete Seeger said, “If music could only bring peace, I’d only be a musician.”

During the week, concerts and special events fill the hours with festive entertainment. A children’s day with singing, dancing, puppets, and other activities, a small concert and dance, and a hootenany entertained the early-comers. Friday night’s concerts featured such greats as Big Mama Thornton, Muddy Waters Blues Band and Taj mahal.

We arrived in time for the Saturday afternoon workshops, and attended the Saturday evening concert and Sunday morning gospel concert.

Two Workshops

Two workshops, expressions of the spirit of the times—Black Roots and Songs of Liberation—drew the largest crowds and tumultuous applause. Black Roots, which traced Black music from haunting African melodies to the limbo beat of the British West Indies to American blues and rock, featured such groups as Muddy Waters Blues Band, Jean-Bosco Mwenda, Big Mama Thornton, and the Key West Junkanoo Band. The beat grew faster and louder as the concert progressed, and the crowd exploded into ecstatic clapping and dancing in the aisles.

Songs of Liberation workshop was the rich, sonorous folk sound of protest; the light flowery aires of peace and hope. Pete Seeger, long a paragon of the American protest movement, spoke to the crowd with two favorites, “Children of the Sun” and “Letter to Eve.” He left his group of delighted supporters with his simple formula for peace and a better world—“I think we need to bring out the good in people.”

Writes Own Songs

Len Chandler, a young black folk singer who trained in classical music, writes his own songs from newspaper clippings and the events of today. Mocking the President, Chandler drew loud applause saying, “I often wonder when Nixon is sitting in a room alone if anybody’s there.” He likes participatory songs—“there are too many spectator sports”, he said—so the crowds joined in on many of his songs. A happy air with rounds, “Run Come See the Sun” was his closing song and his concert ended on a note of hope.

Songs of Liberation workshop closed with the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, and his brother, the Rev. J. L. Kirkpatrick, black spiritual leaders who preach the healing of wounds between black and white with songs. A powerfully expressive slave song, “Steal Jesus.” Mr. F. D. Kirkpatrick explained “Away Home to Jesus”—was the first slave ship—climaxed by his sermon for everyone.

Spirit of Bob Dylan

Saturday evening’s concert was the spirit of Bob Dylan—country folk—and the spirit of gospel and soul. Featured performers included Joni Mitchell, New Lost City Rambler, the Everly Brothers and their father, Ike Everly, and Arlo Guthrie.

The New Lost City Ramblers opened the concert with a spritely old time dancer’s tune “Old Joe Clark”. Their hoedown, country western-beat set the rhythm for many of the evening’s performers.

The Everly Brothers were enthusiastically received by the crowds of young people, who reminisced their junior high school days during such “pre-war” songs as “Susie Q” and “Bye, Bye Love.” Pa Everly joined his sons, Phil and Don, on stage and the audience “grooved” on his Tennessee style.

Joni Mitchell Applauded

A young Canadian girl, who made her debut at the Festival a few years ago, Joni Mitchell held the audience spellbound with her “pure folk” songs on guitar and piano. Her own song “He Played Real Good for Free” which relates the story of an old man who plays his clarinet for free on the streets of New York, and the audience request “The Circle Game” were rich, soulful folk sounds, which contrasted with the frolic-some aires of country western.

After intermission, the concert swung into the gospel and soul sounds of the Cook County Convention gospel singers and the B.C. Harmonizers. The Rev. Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick and his brother had some more preaching in “Burn, Baby, Burn.” The audience grew restless with the gospel sound—unfortunately, the amplification distorted the dissonant, soulful quality-and during one number “Testify”, the crowds began to do just that and started dancing in the aisles.

Guthrie A Disappointment

Last to appear in the concert—the one everybody was waiting for—Arlo Guthrie was probably one of the greatest disappointments of the program. Said one disappointed fan, “He just didn’t give us what we wanted.”

Guthrie, son the late folk singer Woody Guthrie, has not virtuoso’s voice, but his ramblin’ storyteller style, in such songs as “Alice’s Restaurant”—the song of the draft protest movement—has won him many fans. His all too short commentary on Moses and the Pharaoh was delightful and received cheers and encores from the crowds; audience requests went unheeded. Sunday’s gospel concert reiterated the themes of the Folk Festival with calls for peace and black freedom. The service was ecumenical and of today; it was the moving, spiritual religion of the folk singers, singing for freedom and peace, and the young people present, working for the goals of a better world. In sum, the Folk Festival this year was not built on name-brands—there was no Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Collins. And perhaps this says something for the young people today, who are spending a lot of time thinking and acting on our social ills of poverty and war. It doesn’t matter so much who socks it to ‘em, but rather what the message is. The Newport Folk Festival had a lot to say about peace, freedom, and Black liberation to anyone who tuned in.

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