The Newport Festivals in those days, specifically the 1964, '65, '68 and '69 versions that I attended were nothing like the event that happens every summer in Newport these days. While I do not mean to disrespect the new version of Newport - I think it is great - back in the 1960s it was entirely different in a couple important respects. In those days the entire event was designed to encourage interaction on a personal level between the performers and the attendees, at least during the daytime events. Plus there was a level of excitement about getting to hear performers who you may have heard of or heard on records (remember them?) but would probably never get to hear in person otherwise. Remember, this was another time when no one could even vaguely imagine the immediacy of communication and exposure that we enjoy today.
The festival ran four full days, with three major evening concerts and the performers were an amazing collection of knowns and unknowns, not just in "folk music" but also in blues, bluegrass, gospel, British Isles music and much, much more. Some of the evening concerts have become legendary, such as the night that Dylan "went electric" - I was there for that and was fortunate to sit a few rows from the stage. The stories that have circulated since that night about what happened have become half-truths and gross misrepresentations of what really happened. There was no near-riot; I did see Pete Seeger standing in the wings with his hands over his ears, glaring at Dylan, but I did not see him running around trying to unplug the amps.
But for me and my friend Barry who accompanied me to a couple of the Festivals the highlights were the daytime events. Festival Field was divided into a large covered stage area with seating for a few thousand people and the much larger "field" which was just that, with a fence around it and scattered all around the edges, a series of stages of varying sizes and one slightly larger stage in the middle of the field. Now here's the kicker - almost none of the dozen or so stages had PA systems, so the audiences tended to be small. Music would be going on at a few of them at the same time, which afforded the chance to hear a huge variety of music over the course of the day. Cost of admission: Four dollars!
Our favorites were always "The Blues Stage" and "The Ballad Tree." If you happen to own a copy of the Donovan album, "Catch the Wind" and look at the small photo of Donovan at Newport on the back, the person in the background looking into the camera is my friend Barry. I was right beside him but I was cropped out!
One day at the Blues Stage we had the pleasure of sitting a few feet from some of the greats of acoustic blues, including Rev. Gary Davis, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Bukka White, and best of all, Mississippi John Hurt. After the performance was over we timidly approached John and asked him to sign our programs. Well, to this day I can still see his wide grin and hear him say, "Sure boys, I'd be happy to do that!" But when we handed him a program he struggled to form each letter in his famous name and Barry and I just couldn't understand how someone whose fingers had just flown all over the neck of this old Guild could have so much trouble writing. At the time, it never occurred to two young white boys from Connecticut that this son of a sharecropper, and grandson of a slave was functionally illiterate. But John Hurt was determined to sign and he did it even though it took a few minutes and was obviously a huge effort. Much later in my life I surmised what he must have felt at that moment, a man who had grown up in poverty in the deep South and no doubt dealt with deep racism his whole life, being asked to do something that celebrities did, for two young white boys.
On another occasion, Pete Seeger was walking across the field after having given a workshop on constructing and playing some sort of reed flute. Barry and I approached him and and said, "Mr. Seeger, could you tell us what the chords are to 'Waist Deep in the Big Muddy'?"
Pete looked at us and saw Barry holding his guitar case. "Well you boys have a guitar. Take it out and let me have it and sit down!" And then the father of folk music in the 20th Century proceeded to give us a guitar lesson! "See? You go Em to D to A to G, back to Em and then B7. Got it? Goes like this...." and he began to sing a verse. Barry and I just sat there trying to look like this was something we did every day - get a lesson from Pete Seeger! By that point a small crowd had formed around us and Pete proceeded to play a couple more tunes, then handed the guitar back to Barry and walked off.
That was what Newport was all about way back then.
Jerry Jeff Walker with David Bromberg - it was then that I realized that it was possible to play improvised lead guitar on an acoustic, watching Bromberg accompany Jerry Jeff singing "Mr. Bojangles" - me sitting about 10 feet away! Hearing the late Mike Bloomfield with the Butterfield Blues Band and learning that white boys COULD play electric Chicago-style blues with the best of 'em. Seeing Janis Joplin with Big Brother in '68 - what the heck they were doing on the bill I still don't know (her blues based vocals, perhaps?) and wondering with the interest of 16 year old if a.) she could really hit those notes night after night, and b.) would her dress fall off in the middle of a song?!
I absolutely HATED bluegrass at that time, which was too bad because almost against my will I heard Flatt & Scruggs, the White Family (featuring the late, great Clarence White of guitar) and even Bill Monroe. Again, always from no more than 100 feet away.
In 1969 I sat down at the back of the crowd gathered near the the stage in the middle of Festival Field. I was wondering why so many people were there for the "New Artist" showcase. Then I saw it was Tom Rush performing, who I had just discovered and really liked so I sat down to listen in spite of the fact that I couldn't hear all that well. Tom was great of course, but there were three other people seated on stage, and I was suitably impressed when they each took a turn singing. Their names were James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. James got the biggest hand when he did a jazzy send up of the latest Coca-Cola commercial that was on the radio at the time, "Things Go Better with Coke" I couldn't understand why the crowd hooted and cheered and was laughing at the end and wondered why James would even bother to play a commercial?
Standing outside the back of the Tennis Hall of Fame in the pouring rain in 1964, the place where the evening concerts were held before they moved to Festival Field the next year. I stood there by myself while the concert was going on inside, hoping to get an autograph from my heroes, Peter, Paul and Mary. I was hoping against hope that they had not already arrived. Sure enough, a big car roared up and out stepped my heroes and a couple other people. Peter rushed past me as I held out my program and a pen without giving me so much as a glance. Paul stopped and with a big grin, signed the program. Then, there she was. Right there in front of me, not two feet away. The most gorgeous woman on earth, in my 13-year-old mind. She reached out and put her hand on my shoulder! "I'm sorry," she said, "but we're really late and we need to go on. I just don't have the time to sign!" She smiled and turned away. Two thoughts raced through my mind. "if she'd just shut up she would have had plenty of time to sign!" and "I'll never wash that shoulder again!"
I went back inside where my friends the Rookers were waiting for me in our front row seats - Wes was the purser of the Festival, and our family friend. I will never be able to repay the gift he and his wife gave me by nurturing my love of music. They were a bit perturbed that I had disappeared for so long, was soaking wet and had missed quite a few acts. But when I explained what had happened I think they understood.
Then the lights dimmed and the announcer said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Peter, Paul and Mary!" And out they came and immediately launched into the most intense, passionate version of Dylan's "The Times, They Are A-Changin'" It was a transcendent moment. You can still see it from time to time on PBS in a show they produced about Newport. And I was there. Not more than 50 feet away.
I'll say it one last time: That was what Newport was all about.
Well, thanks for putting up with my nostalgia. As always, I welcome comment.
Peace & good music,