What Woodstock Could Learn from the Newport Folk Festival

The mutual lovefest between Hozier and Mavis Staples symbolized the bonhomie of a weekend that felt purposeful and curated.

Why the Newport Folk Festival Was
Chris Willman / Variety

This year’s Newport Folk Festival, on the occasion of its 60th anniversary, was chock full of one great Woodstock moment after another — representing, you know, not the real Woodstock 50, should there still turn out to be one, but the Woodstock 50 that exists in our imaginations. Imagine a counterculturally oriented festival built on the foundations of (may we coin a phrase here?) peace, love and music, not hype, randomness and click appeal. It’s easy if you try … easier if you go to Rhode Island.

The spirit of musical community has rarely found a better manifestation, at least in recent years, than it did at Newport Saturday night, when Brandi Carlile curated an all-female headlining slot that included women as venerable as Dolly Parton and Judy Collins and as fresh as Maggie Rogers and Jade Bird — or the following night, when a sing-along tribute to Pete Seeger’s peacenik/protest legacy had Hozier alongside Mavis Staples and Jim James dueting with Kermit the Frog. Among individual sets, there was enough cross-breeding that you got the feeling that if the festival had just gone on another few days, everyone on the bill would finally have sat in with everyone else. (Jason Isbell, who wasn’t even on the bill, came pretty darned close.) It was a spirit of collaboration born out of some kind of shared ideal that humility and sharing are good things on- and off-stage. Who says we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969?

Of course, the 10,000 people who attend Newport annually must seem like small potatoes to a Michael Lang. (That’s not the number of people who want to go, by any means, though: the festival annually sells out in about 10 minutes without pre-announcing a lineup.) There’s a sense in which Woodstock ’69 was designed to be a bigger and better version of Newport, which pretty much started the outdoor festival movement a decade earlier, in 1959, with no small amount of help from its slightly older Jazz Festival cousin. But Woodstock’s ’94, ’99 and 50 haven’t aspired toward upsizing Newport, or even Bethel Woods; the real goal with all these sequels has been to do something comparable to Live Aid, or maybe, if you really want to be uncharitable, America’s own Rock in Rio — with bills that try to be all things to all people, which is just another term for uncurated. It makes sense that Woodstock 50 may well finally find life as a kind of telethon, which might almost justify the grab-bag lineup. A commitment to a more intimate spirit might’ve saved this Woodstock from the outset, but Lang just couldn’t get that “we were half a million strong” out of his mind. So you had to go to Newport if you really wanted to get yourselves back to the salt-water-fed garden.

You could argue that the original Woodstock lineup was largely based on then-current popularity, too, just like the latest attempt at an iteration — even if the Fifth Dimension and Tom Jones weren’t invited to represent the AM side of things — and that not everyone there was heavily invested in social justice or consciousness raising, so why impose that litmus test on Woodstock 50? It’s a fair question. But if that skepticism about the actual idealism of Woodstock ’69 is at all justified, then maybe it would be the current iteration’s job to do better at that than the original. Newport was proof that it’s possible to put together a whole weekend of performers who have at least the whiff of do-gooder-ism as partial, if hardly the whole, criterion. Even the band Portugal the Man, which is probably nobody’s initial idea of “protest music,” started off their set by bringing on the daughter of a Narragansett medicine man to briefly acknowledge the indigenous history of the area — not something they did just for show at Newport, but a tradition every night on tour. But each act on the bill had a designated recipient for a donation from the Newport Festivals Foundation listed on their webpage on the fest site, along with a quote about why the artist supports them. There’s no socially conscious litmus test for playing Newport, but there’s an energy to be had from walking through a festival where you sense most every participant would pass.

It’s not as if Newport is the great melting pot of all time, though it’s far melt-ier than the “folk” appellation would suggest. But the festival clearly has a commitment to trying to find racial diversity in booking from among genres that have skewed more than a little white over the decades — with a group like Our Native Daughters that’s explicitly devoted to exploring the legacy of slavery and its after-effects on black women in particular putting Pete Seeger’s hammer in the hands of those who’ve needed it most. And, as Brandi Carlile said to Variety over the weekend, “I’m just really fascinated by the due diligence that goes into making the festival 50/50,” gender parity-wise. “Always had. They were 50/50 before it was cool.” (You may search long and hard for where else in the festival world it’s cool, but we’ll take Carlile’s word it is, somewhere.)

Our Native Daughters is a supergroup, of sorts, even if the only one the average attendee might have already heard of is Rhiannon Giddens. They abounded at Newport — the official ones and the makeshift ones. The festival actually had three all-female megabands: besides Our Native Daughters, there were the magisterial harmonies of the bluegrass-oriented I’m With Her, and then, of course, the partly serious-as-a-heart-attack, half-mirthful Highwomen, Carlile’s new group with country star Maren Morris, songwriter Natalie Hemby and alt-country favorite Amanda Shires. They were the best example of how it’s possible to feel a part of history being made and also just having “a blast” (to quote a certain festival producer’s favorite phrase). It would’ve felt slightly like a revolution even before Carlile followed her side project’s debut up with the Saturday night showcase that felt like several unproduced years’ worth of Lilith Fairs packed into 85 minutes — a show that, besides a whole mini-set’s worth of vintage Dolly, also made room for virtually every other woman playing that weekend, from rock stars like Sheryl Crow to roots upstarts like Molly Tuttle.

The spirit of sharing was not foreign to the menfolk, either. Not that everyone had to put in a group effort to make an impression: Jeff Tweedy commanded the audience with just his acoustic guitar and some of the funniest stage patter this side of… anybody. But the weekend was notable for more “features” than there are on the Hot 100 right now. Dawes put on a 10th anniversary celebration of their debut album, “North Hills,” in which they outsourced nearly all the lead vocals to guests: the ubiquitous Isbell, the also ubiquitous Yola, the women of Lake Street Dive and original producer Jonathan Wilson among them.

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Chris Willman / Variety

By the time the Sunday night sing-along transpired — with songbooks handed out to the audience to join in the spirit of collaboration — a seeming cast of dozens rolled across the stage, in what the sunburned audience could only accept as cluster-luck. Benmont Tench (who probably tied with Isbell for most sets sat in on) sang a fiery “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” as if he’d been saving up all the vocal breath he never used in the Heartbreakers just for this moment. Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for “We Shall Overcome.” Carlile, making the last of her thousand or so welcome cameos, backed up Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra on “If I Had a Hammer.” Portugal the Band raised red Solo cups while making a peace-movement anthem out of the Kinks‘ “Strangers” … and it fit. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was the final guest, joined by a full cast that knew history counts when it comes to denouements.

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Chris Willman / Variety

But the late-blooming highlight of the festival — which is saying something when Dolly has made a nearly messianic appearance — came when Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats and James Mercer of the Shins recreated the harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash on their version of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (and “not the single version,” they pointed out). Toward the end emerged sweet Judy herself, with her namesake jeeper-peepers, singing along on the song written about her. “I told him, ‘It’s a good song, but it’s not gonna get me back,’” Collins explained afterward, in case anyone was wondering whether Stephen Stills ever got anything more out of it than a song.

It was a great Woodstock moment. That it was never destined to happen at Woodstock, but did elsewhere, is a lesson to keep in mind and maybe be learned from as we start the countdown to Woodstock 60.