Can folk music still be radical?

NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND – A decade ago, Pete Seeger provided a mission statement for organizers of the Newport Folk Festival. “If you want the torch, I need to know that you will continue to give voice to the people who need a voice,” recalls Jay Sweet, executive director of the long-running festival, the folk legend and festival co-founder told it to him at Seeger’s last Newport appearance before his death in 2014.

What he meant was simple, according to Sweet. “My job,” he continues, “is to let people participate, to give people without authority a say.” In other words, to do what Seeger did as he criss-crossed the country and on played protest songs on his banjo after Joe McCarthy blacklisted him in the 1950s: “Singing the truth to power.”

But what does it mean to sing the truth to the Force in 2022? For Sweet, it looks like booking The Roots, the first true hip-hop act to play a mainstage set at Newport Folk. the bands perfomance In a way, this year reignited a point of contention between Sweet and Seeger, who sought to preserve the traditional bluegrass, gospel and roots genres that were celebrated at the festival’s earliest gatherings. But from Sweet’s point of view, the roots’ blend of jazz, hip-hop, soul and political poetry – the way Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, drops his lyrics “like bouncing verbal bullets” – corresponds more closely to the deeper lessons, which Seeger mediated.

Sweet argued with Ahmir Thompson aka Questlove when he convinced him to come to Newport. “‘Ahmir, I promised Pete,'” Sweet recalls pleadingly. “If you really want people to portray the actual trials and tribulations of life in this country, then Roots is more folk music than any other artist I have locally.”

And it had to be this year, Sweet points out. “The world is changing,” he says. “The Roots can play 15 other major festivals and it would be great. But doing it here is a bigger statement than anywhere else in the world.”

“Here” is not only the abandoned 18th-century naval fort that the festival calls home, but also its specific place in the American imagination. The first event, in 1959, united the American folksong book with the populist—and often radical—liberal movements that gave the genre much of its mid-century revival. Its founders, Seeger and the late George Wein, represented “this group of people who felt like they weren’t represented anywhere else,” says Sweet. (In addition to her musical tastes and politics, Sweet notes that both men were also in interracial marriages at a time when such unions were illegal in much of the country.)

The acoustic guitar-carrying artists who arrived in Newport in the first decade did so in a spirit of challenging the status quo, performing a mixture of traditional work anthems and anti-slavery protest ballads alongside original compositions that expressed their contemporary political disaffection. “There has to be an alternative to the ways of life that are being offered to them — Democrats, Republicans,” Joan Baez said in an interview for festival, a 1967 documentary about Newport’s early years. “I would like to offer an alternative or help in some way.”

So did a slew of artists who took to Newport’s stages last week, assuming Baez’s musical and political mantle. Nashville-based singer-songwriter Valerie June spoke about the unique dangers that come with it roe‘s inverted poses for black women before singing “Wagoner’s Lad,” a traditional folk song that contains lyrics about women being “restricted” and “controlled.” DakhaBrakha, a Ukrainian folk quartet, paused between songs to remind the crowd of the six million Ukrainians who have fled their country. “My job is to create a safe space where the truth can be spoken,” says Sweet. “It’s never been more threatened, whether it’s by Covid or by the presidential administration or the music industry.”

He sees this job in big, far-reaching terms. “I don’t think there’s a genre called ‘folk,'” he tells me Sunday afternoon in his backstage office. “I feel like folk just means the people who come to see the music. Newport Folk is the audience.” It’s a cute analysis, if a little dubious. We are surrounded by the event logo of a seagull carrying an acoustic guitar. As we speak, a performance by Joy Oladokun, a singer-songwriter deeply rooted in the folk tradition, hums in the background. That evening, the festival celebrated the songbook of Joni Mitchell, one of many folk artists – virtually only Folk artists – who deserve this kind of lifetime commemoration as the Sunday night headlining event.

Sweet names several artists he sees as tonal descendants of the festival’s early formative acts. “It’s very easy to go from Pete Seeger to the Beats to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead and then everything that came out of that,” says Sweet. “You can literally get off goose to Pete Seeger in about three moves, I imagine.” Gospel legend and Newport mainstay Mavis Staples has a say in Sweet’s booking decisions each year. “The Staples Singers were the first gospel group to actually play music festivals,” says Sweet. “There’s definitely a Mavis test,” he adds, pointing to contemporary Newport artists who uphold their legacy, like them Black Opry revue and this year’s Gospel Showcase, curated by North Carolina instrumentalist Phil Cook.

Lineage is serious for Sweet, who values ​​bringing new voices to the stage with their inspiration. Those considerations set the stage for headliners like Paul Simon, who has emerged from a four-year retirement surprise the crowd on Saturday night they sing alongside Nathaniel Rateliff, Marcus Mumford and Lucius. “It was weird asking a bunch of 20-year-olds, ‘Are you going to get blown away by Paul Simon?'” says Sweet. “It was really nice to see that this generation knows that there is a Mount Rushmore of American songwriting.”

But simply celebrating the Simon songbook isn’t enough for the Newport of the 2020s as, like other liberal institutions, it strives to evolve with the times. That came from Rhiannon Giddens who sang Simon’s “American Tune” as Simon accompanied her on guitar. He was silent as Giddens changed his lyrics — swapping “We come on the ship they call the Mayflower” for “We didn’t come here on the Mayflower” — to reflect their Black and Indigenous roots.

“Their move to a very simple tapestry of lyrics bombed the entire festival in beauty,” says Sweet. “It’s intentional – it’s very intentional.”

The question remains who this statement is for. This is an event that hosts a voter registration booth annually, but finds fewer than 100 among the 10,000 attendees who are not yet registered. Where you come across a boomer white man wearing a t-shirt that says “Maggie Rogers Wants You To Vote”. Where you meet someone who has Elizabeth Warren’s face tattooed on their ankle. Where audiences are overwhelmingly white — so much so that performers of all races often comment while gazing out at the sea of ​​pale bodies.

With every Rhiannon Giddens lyric exchange or Valerie June monologue, there are moments like when Brandi Carlile suggested that the silence of 10,000 Newport attendees listening to music “could be more powerful than any government” and the kind of power it presents , which “is tyrannical to world leaders.” Carlile’s comments sounded good but were hollow in content, especially after such a devastating tenure on the Supreme Court and a largely deadlocked Democratic majority. (In fact, governments probably love the idea of ​​10,000 silent white liberals.)

Perhaps it felt truer when the blacklisted Seeger serenaded audiences in the first Newport in 1959, at a time when right-wing politicians had banned him from radio and television. Seeger himself got a bit of a blur that year when the United States Postal Service put the fierce anti-war critic, card-carrying one-time Communist and lifelong radical on a stamp. The stamp, featuring the words “Pete Seeger / Folk Singer / Forever,” was debuted in Newport this year, to the delight of many and some raised eyebrows at the irony. James Blount, one of the few black artists who performed at Thursday night’s stamp unveiling tribute concert, told the crowd it was an honor to be able to honor Seeger’s legacy, but wondered how performative it would be to have Seeger’s face on a stamp published by an agency run by Republican mega-donor Louis DeJoy.

These tensions are their own brand of Newport folk tradition. Rolling Stone‘s to ship of the 1969 event, Seegers praised “talents and right-thinking populist leanings”, but added that the “exact relevance of his music, either to the buttoned, horned or the deliberately unshaven and unwashed majority, is unclear”.

In her festival In the interview, Baez reflected on her uneasiness about idolatry and all the fans who come to visit her, perhaps unrelated to her radical politics. “The fact that they ask for things like ‘We Shall Overcome’ and they know what it’s about, most of them,” she said, telling herself. “Anyone who asks knows what it’s about. I think that’s wonderful.”

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