A few days before the weekend of the Newport Folk Festival, I wrote 900 words about what the term “folk music” means. I concluded that I don’t really know. All of the definitions I considered were insufficient or unnecessary or unsatisfiable. There doesn’t even seem to be what Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance.”
Despite the metaphysical problems, the festival went on. While Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers played Friday, I was at work. My partner-in-reportage Ben and I attended Saturday. I attended Sunday solo in hopes of scoring an interview with the festival organizer, Jay Sweet.
The strange truth is that after the preliminary research, the preparation, and a total of at least 10 hours on-site, it’s hard for me to compose anything. Most of the notes I took are mere information now and resist meaningful curation. My impressions would fill more pages than could hold anyone’s attention. Nevertheless, despite the fatigue and against the noise there whispers a hoarse voice. I will only hear what this voice is saying by speaking its words.
The first thing it says is that it doesn’t matter what “folk” is. The festival was self-defeating. If it exists, folk music can’t survive the festival artifice. Folk music is about oral history and interpersonal communication. Folk music is intimate. The NFF was not.
According to two volunteer production staffers, the festival is homey and friendly. Both men contrasted the pleasant ambiance to Bonnaroo. “You don’t get people asking you for drugs,” is how Ron put it. He was generally right; the NFF is a family festival.
Families responded by acting as though they were in their living rooms. The primary mode of being, especially at the main stage, was lounging. The lawn was covered in chairs. Besides listening, many attendees read, tanned, cuddled, and slept.
The secondary mode of being was wandering or traveling between the three stages. The two kinds of pathways were through narrow corridors, policed to lubricate flow, and along rows of kiosks. These loci of consumption represented not only the corporate sponsors but food vendors, craftspersons, and henna tattoo artists.
At base, a music festival is a carnival. Having never before attended a large-scale music festival, I was impressed by the sheer mass of bodies, equipment, commodities, and noise. There was no escape, naturally, and the otherwise spacious Fort Adams Park quickly felt limited.
I asked one of the producers how many production staff there were, but he could only admit that it was a great question and that he had no idea. According to Rolling Stone’s coverage, there were 18,300 attendees this year. As many words as I could spend describing the sea of pasty faces capped with palm-leaf hats, most indicative of the constructedness and mediation of the event was my quest for Jay Sweet.
Sunday began with an 11:29 AM text from Jay’s media liaison, Drew Granchelli, asking whether I’d like to talk to Jay for a few minutes later in the afternoon. I called my friends before they were too far down the road to Newport. At the press trailer, Drew informed me that I’d already been checked off for both Saturday and Sunday. I showed him my ticket from the previous day, marked only “Saturday.” He apologized but assured me that I could get in. When I asked him about my +1 (slated for the friends who’d given me a ride both days), he said that he was already low on tickets and that mine was “kind of a courtesy at this point.” Deeming it futile to present him with an email he’d written himself, I returned to my friends with hung head. One fortunate scalper later, we passed entrance security into the crush.
In the media tent, Ron told me that if I were looking for Drew, I should keep an eye out for a guy with a baseball cap. “He has a certain presence.” Outside the park, such a description would have been laughably inadequate. In the land of fedora- and cowboy-style straw hats, it was no less than I needed, even if Jay’s hat was more trucker than baseball.
I saw Jay on maybe five different occasions throughout the day, and he looked extraordinarily busy on every one. The first was behind the main stage, where he shuffled back and forth, talking to every other person he passed. He did have a certain presence, a frenetic composure.
The second encounter was after I received another text from Drew, which is worth reproducing verbatim: “Hey, there is a secret Avett Bros at 4 PM on the point/near beer garden.” Ron came to my aid again with directions to the point. It turned out to be at the end of a sort of jetty with Port-o-Potties. As I approached, I joined a conspicuously young, predominately female crowd trailing a golf cart bearing the swooned-after Avett Brothers. They disembarked and boarded an accordion-style blue-painted lift. After Richie Havens departed the main stage, the Brothers proceeded to play a virtually inaudible acoustic set to their adoring fans and other bemused onlookers. A girl of about 7 standing behind me told her mother, “I’m so excited. It’s my first real concert.”
For the day on which the small stage was less obviously geared toward young people, Jay had probably organized the stunt to make them feel unique. It was a wink their parents might not catch, even if their parents looked on approvingly.
The third Sweet spotting was at the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performance, which featured Jim James. It seemed like every other Sunday performance featured same, who had gone on stage Saturday as “Yim Yames of My Morning [Y]acket.” Clad in suit and obnoxious shades, bearded ham Yames jerked around stage giving hugs before singing a couple tunes as an aggrieved Jim Crow-era black man. He whipped an apple out of somewhere and took a snack break while Andrew Bird took some violin and whistling solos (maybe I’ve got that backward). In any case, the set closed out with Pete Seeger’s grandson Tao belting “We Will Overcome,” at which point I felt both like crying and screaming, to shock the cheering, comfortable white faces if nothing else.
I held my lunch and made it to encounter #4, the What Cheer? Brigade parade. Jay seemed a little panicked when the Brigade announced a march to the main stage, revised to the Yachting Museum. The parade actually terminated at the hill far-side of the middle stage, where the No Standing/Sitting corridor was formerly enforced.
I had talked to a member of What Cheer? earlier in the day. When I told him I thought they were the most “folk” act of the festival, he seemed incredulous, both that I’d picked them and that I believed something as ridiculous as that something could be more folksy than something else. When asked whether their unspecified, off-stage appearances were intended to undermine the festival format and pretense in some way, he reminded me that they had been hired and that the festival probably knew what they were getting into. Still, it was nice to move with the musicians and engage them on the ground rather than receive the music from on high through monstrous speaker systems or from the screens of the jumbotron or media tent TV.
The fifth and final missed interview opportunity was at day’s end behind the main stage, when Jay got a moment with wife and kids. A family man at his family festival.
Officially, it’s George Wein’s Newport Folk Festival, surely a deliberate attempt to invoke the roots festival’s roots. Exposure was more explicit when the jumbotron displayed a short documentary clip of someone explaining over black-and-white stills the importance of Bob Dylan’s 1963 electric performance. Dylan haunted the festival all weekend, his name gracing shirts, his voice aped at one point by The Low Anthem, his legacy institutionalized as necessity. As hard as it is to imagine thousands of people sitting still for an acoustic set, it’s harder to imagine controversy at the NFF. Booing an artist is at least a form of dialogue …
Dialogue at a music festival? It’s too ridiculous to scoff at, even.
Another t-shirt worn by a middle-aged man read, “Music is the weapon of the future…” which is too dated and obsolete an idea to repeat ironically, even. Besides CLIF Bar’s 2 Mile Challenge (seemingly not widely taken-up), a local foods stand, and a mention of mountain-top removal (possibly by Ben Sollee and Daniel Moore), the festival was deliberately apolitical. Iconography of meaningful resistance was redeployed as polished consumer complacency. The festival t-shirts, $23 each, sported the words FOLK ON above a hand holding aloft an acoustic guitar. This seemed to confirm both Ben’s observation that all the music was just rock after all, and the intuition that folk music belongs to dead or superseded generational paradigms.
Ten thousand people had paid upward of $75 each to spend a beautiful day outside at a giant marketplace full of loud, shiny things. This begged questions that didn’t demand answers so much as hold them between their lines. When Drew texted me for the last time at 8:54, “Hey sorry jay was so busy. […] we could do a phoner next week,” I knew that the interview wasn’t as important as the assumption of an interview.
Here are the questions I never got to ask:
1. I think there might be as many conceptions of folk music as there are listeners. What does “folk” mean to you?
2. I listened to the interview you did on NPR two years ago. You talked a little bit about programming for a “psychographic” rather than a demographic. Could you expand on that?
3. How does the festival lineup this year reflect a given psychographic, and how does it relate to your conception of “folk?”
4. In the same NPR interview, you said that folk isn’t major-label. How do you reconcile that conviction with the artists performing on the main stage?
5. You also said folk is a voice outside the mainstream. How do you reconcile that with most of the artists at the festival?
6. Finally, you said that folk music speaks about and for the people. Which people do you imagine folk speaking about and for, and are those the people who attend the festival?
7. What does it mean to put on a folk festival in the present era?
Either before or after pan-festival staple Andrew Bird butchered his best song by improvising its melody, he dropped on his audience a rebuke in the form of a question.
“Well, is everybody okay? How can you not be?”