By Bruce Sylvester
Aside from strong music, last weekend’s Newport Folk Festival reached a milestone: the first time in the fest’s 52-year history that it totally sold out in advance. Why? Because the lineup has embraced rough-edged post-punk retro Americana acts along with a few veterans of the legendary 1959-70 events: banjo maestro Earl Scruggs (age 87), Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (who turned 80 this week), Mavis Staples (who played ‘60s Newports in the Staple Singers) and the grand old man of folk music, 92-year-old Pete Seeger, who co-founded the festival back in the Eisenhower era.
The Wailin’ Jennys opened the three-stage event with meticulously arranged three-part harmonies. Their “Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie” came from Leadbelly, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” from Dolly Parton. There was little concern for purism here (unlike at the ’65 festival, where Bob Dylan controversially went electric and Seeger tried to chop his power line with an axe). Conservatory-trained Heather Masse — a Maine native among the trio’s two Canadians — lent jazz touches, while backup violinist Richard Moody (brother of the Jenny’s Ruth Moody) provided classical grooves to the pristine Jenny sound. (And no, the Jennys haven’t heard from the family of Waylon Jennings.)
The ‘60s folk scene could turn stiffly academic (and couldn’t survive since, as its stalwart Tom Paxton said, people couldn’t dance to it). Sure, there were scholarly moments at Newport 2011, but they were fun. The David Wax Museum delved into Mexican underclass music suppressed by the Catholic church. The Carolina Chocolate Drops arose out of research into 1930s black stringband music. They originally had no idea that their jubilant re-creations of jigs would become so popular. Fortunately, the Chocolate Drops aren’t purists. Rhiannon Giddins will insert traditional Scottish mouth music followed by jazz scatting into a set, not to mention Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style” and Ethel Waters’ “No Man’s Mama.” In its own way, this is historically appropriate, since bygone stringbands too included whatever they liked in their sets.
For the sake of variety, Newport rarely books an act two years running, but they made an exception for St. Louis-based Pokey La Farge and the South City Three (one of my fave discoveries in 2010) with their Prohibition era swing. In period garb, they include vintage hokum (“Stick Out Your Can, Here Comes the Garbage Man”) with Pokey’s retro compositions such as “Drinkin’ Whiskey Tonight” and “Head to Toe” from their new CD, Middle of Everywhere, and “La La Blues” from their previous Riverboat Soul. Naturally, they revved up “St. Louis Blues.”
The legendary ‘60s Newports embraced that era’s causes: civil rights, the Vietnam war. Aside from Emmylou Harris’s “My Name Is Emmett Till” (about a 1955 lynch victim) and Seeger’s fest finale “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (talk about ‘60s flashbacks), it was tiny powerhouse Mavis Staples who carried the sociopolitical torch, taking us back to the picket lines and South Side Chicago churches of her childhood, when Rev. Martin Luther King convinced her late father, blues/gospel/rock guitarist/bandleader Roebuck Staples, that he and his children should sing music for a cause. Exhorting her audience like a preacher on “Freedom Highway,” Mavis testified, “I’ll be on that highway until Dr. King’s dream has been realized!” and, after their pre-disco hit “I’ll Take You There,” “The Staple Singers have been taking you there for 60 years and we still ain’t tired yet!” Reaching across a range of bygone black religious music, she did Alex Bradford’s poised “Too Close to Heaven” and blind Rev. Gary Davis’s bluesy “I Belong to the Band, Hallelujah.”
Banjo hero Scruggs’ band has been largely a family affair since Flatt & Scruggs disbanded in disharmony about 40 years ago. Jon Randall sang the late Lester Flatt’s part in “Ballad of Jed Clampett” from The Beverly Hillbillies TV show. They bluegrassified country blues standard “Step It Up and Go.”
Mavis was so good that I totally missed Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s simultaneous set. Two people told me that Seeger joined him briefly and that, toward the end, testy Jack grew irritated when photographers ignored his requests to stop distracting him by taking his picture so he abruptly walked off the stage in the middle of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
My fave discovery this year was Vermont/Austin/formerly Santa Cruz trio The Devil Makes Three. Cynicism courses like whiskey through the veins of post-punk Americana music, and this rowdy trio takes the rancid cake (“The world is a car and you’re a crash test dummy.”), even veering near a Legendary Shackshakers-like purgatory in biblical “Help Yourself” from Do Wrong Right. By the way, red-bearded banjo frailer Cooper McBean’s tattoos were the coolest I saw all festival long.
At any festival that’s worth its salt, we forgo famous acts we esteem to stick with an unknown one we’ve just found. Thanks to Devil Makes Three, I only caught Gillian Welch’s last two songs, both from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack she helped to create. “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” was adapted from an Alan Lomax field recording of Mrs. Sidney Carter. As Welch and partner David Rawlings san “I’ll Fly Away,” white seagulls soared over our heads. (O Brother helped to trigger the current trad revival. To mark its tenth anniversary this year, a two-CD expanded package will soon emerge including, this time, tracks recorded for the film but then not used.)
As recent Newport Folk Festivals have moved into Americana, I’d wondered if they’d ever book rockabilly grandmother Wanda Jackson. This year they did as she rides the success of her current The Party Ain’t Over (produced by White Stripes’ Jack White, recalling Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy producing Mavis’s recent You Are Not Alone). At 73, she’s kept her sense of humor and throaty growl. Satirizing danger, her band turned ominous with Link Wray’s “Rumble” before Wanda erupted with “Riot in Cell Block Number 9” and “Fujiyama Mama.” Oklahoma girl Wanda was on the country charts before she was even out of high school. Fortunately, her boyfriend back in her teen years, Elvis Presley, convinced her to try rock ‘n’ roll.
OK, folkie purists (if any still remain) may ask if Wanda is folk. Pete Seeger reportedly tried to lay such questions to rest years ago by saying, “I suppose if folks sing a song, then it’s folk music.”
It was a festival filled with doghouse (meaning standup) basses and other acoustic string instruments. Few of the acts are on major record labels.
Any other particularly memorable moments? Libidinous Gogol Bordello’s world dance party. The Decemberists’ “Mariner’s Revenge Song.” The Civil Wars’ sublime harmonies as they closed their set with Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Seeger, stronger in spirit than in voice, figuratively passing the reins in the lyrics of “Quite Early Morning” and joking about advancing age in trad “Never Wed an Old Man.” (Given his healthy life style and good genes, he’ll probably be at future festivals.) Surprises included sets by Dawes and Low Anthem as well as a troupe of Irish step dancers. Leaving the festival grounds as the gulls soared overhead, people encountered Boston-based Cactus Monkey busking in the parking lot. That’s the spirit of folk music too.