Rhode Island has been inextricably linked with the music industry since 1959, when Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger, George Wein and Albert Grossman organised the first Newport Folk Festival.
This iconic musical gathering has been instrumental in launching the careers of a number of artists, most notably the legendary Joan Baez, who appeared at the very first festival as an unannounced guest of Bob Gibson and went on to shape the future of American folk music as much as her erstwhile lover, Bob Dylan.
While British folk music is easier to define, American folk is closely related both to Blues and Country & Western music and provides a convenient bridge that permits artists to cross over from one genre to another. Folk in the 1960s was perhaps characterised mostly as the voice of the anti-war movement, with singers and musicians using their musical talents as an instrument to oppose the conflict in Vietnam.
There was controversy of another sort on July 25th 1965 when Bob Dylan (who was managed at the time by Albert Grossman, one of the Newport Folk Festival’s founders) chose The Paul Butterfield Blues Band to back him. Electric guitars were anathema to the folk purists present and Dylan was soundly booed. This famous incident marked a shift in his focus and thereafter he pursued a sound more influenced by what was happening on the rock scene.
At the beginning of the 1970s the festival experienced problems with financing and ground to a halt, but in 1985 it was revived and now enlists the assistance of major sponsors such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
However, the purists who booed the “electric Dylan” performance in 1965 would not be pleased by the inclusiveness that now characterises the festival. These days many artists who are merely influenced by some aspects of folk are featured: in recent years performers as diverse as Alison Krauss, Nanci Griffith, Jimmy Buffett, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Vega, Alejandro Escovedo Stephen and Damian Marley, The Black Crowes, Lyle Lovett and Wilco have been invited to perform at Newport.
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Newport Folk Festival website.