The Newport Folk Festival: 1968

Torn between two worlds: a review of the music fest

Buddy Guy and Junior Wells at the 1968 Newport Folk Festival. Credit: Julie Snow/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The 1968 Newport Folk Festival was an incongruity at best. With interest in traditional forms of folk music apparently at a low ebb, the Festival was torn between the presentation of big names who brought out the crowds, and traditional artists who, for the most part, generated little attention or enthusiasm.

The Festival needs the big names to attract the kind of attendance it needs to support itself financially. However, the price it pays for presenting Joan Baez, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Arlo Guthrie on the same program with Fred McDowell, Ken Threadgill and Libba Cotton is that the audience comes to see the stars and cares little about the actual "folk."

The best evidence of the problem that this situation created could be seen at Saturday afternoon's workshops. The brochures advertising the workshops had announced that no vocal or instrumental amplification was going to be used this year. The idea was to make the programs relatively intimate. However, it is virtually impossible to have intimate programs with an audience of eight to nine thousand people, as was the case Saturday afternoon.

Instead, the majority of those present congregated around the main stage at Festival Field for the blues program which was scheduled to include the big names. I was there at the beginning of that program and Buddy Guy, a festival favorite, was first to play. Naturally, he required both vocal and instrumental amplification. At first an effort was made to keep the vocal amplification down so that it didn't carry all over the field where it would disturb the twenty other programs in progress. But the thousands up near the front— including myself — screamed for them to turn it up so that Guy and then Junior Wells could get into their music. And the volume was increased.

Touring the field after Guy was done, I realized that turning up the main PA system had virtually destroyed every other program taking place. Way in the back of the field one could actually hear Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys doing some beautiful bluegrass for an audience of maybe twenty people. In another corner, the Charles River Valley Boys seemed to be trying to fit their songs in during the breaks up on the main stage. It was sad to see Elizabeth Cotton sitting with a group of not more than fifteen people trying to play "Freight Train" over a jug band group that had followed Buddy Guy on the main stage. After a while most of the genuine workshops folded. The audience had come for a show and most people weren't interested in the kind of intimate communication between artist and spectator which workshops are capable of providing.

Of course, this situation was an obvious consequence of the Festival's generally confused programming. No sympathetic environment for real folk artists could be created in an atmosphere so lacking in direction. For example, while Roy Acuff could not possibly be made to feel he is playing for an audience just like the one back home in Nashville, he ought to at least feel that there is an interest in learning about his music. I don't know how what Roy Acuff felt about the polite but generally unenthusiastic response he get, but I felt that most of the people were just waiting for the stars. I didn't happen to like his performance but I felt the Festival was better for having him and I wished there was some way in which a more effective context for him could have been established, instead of having him precede Theodore Bikel and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

But to get to the main events: Friday and Saturday nights' concerts offered almost all of the featured artists of the Festival. Friday night's program was disappointing by any standard. The program's first half was devoted to the Onward Brass Band, various freedom singers from the South, the Pennywhistlers and Arlo Guthrie. The second half was comprised entirely of Joan Baez and the Bread and Puppet Theatre. Of the actual attempts at folk music, the Pennywhistlers' offerings were among the most attractive. I am no authority on the subject, but it seemed to me that their full rich vocal sound was often enthralling, and, also, believable. Elizabeth Cotton, on the other hand, was simply out of place. Not because she isn't good enough to perform at a folk festival, but because a massive field and an audience of nearly ten thousand people is not the appropriate setting to listen to her pick "Freight Train." Unfortunately, I missed the Onward Brass Band, who had opened the program and who, in the brief spot I was able to catch, were quite exciting. They are a semi-Dixieland band with Creole overtones, and are genuine in every sense of the word.

Arlo Guthrie finished off the first half of the program to an enthusiastic response. Rather than do "Alice," he performed a new one song monologue built around a children's song his father had written. The routine hit me as being pretty thin and Arlo seemed to be straining for both cuteness and laughs. Bill Cosby has definitely influenced his delivery, if not his material, and there was a studied or mannered quality to his diction which I found quite distracting. Personally, I wish he would sing more and talk less. He sings folk songs beautifully.

After intermission we were favored with Joan Baez Harris. I happen to be one of those who is captivated by Miss Baez's voice. My admiration for her notwithstanding, her performance here was garishly tasteless. She began with a competent version of a Gil Turner protest song called "Carry It On." After that, it was pathetic. She did a flamenco-sounding Spanish song in which she accompanied herself on guitar in a style reminiscent of Peter, Paul and Mary and sounded every bit as authentic as Jose Feliciano.

Joan's unaccompanied "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" managed to combine the phoniest affectation of a Southern accent I've ever heard with irrelevant bursts of near operatic virtuosity. And she topped it all off with a version of "Suzanne" during which her guitar was obviously out of tune. Beyond that, she didn't take the time to learn either the words or the chords well enough to prevent her from muffing both at least once. Her only salvation was a pair of duets with her sister Mimi. Mimi's modesty and the demands of duet singing forced Joan into a brief period of self-restraint. The results were the two best songs of the evening.

It is hard to tell whether such a performance is the product of indifference or lack of sensitivity or both. Whatever its causes, it is necessary to state that singing a country song with a southern accept doesn't make one a country singing and saying "Amen" after a gospel number doesn't make one the new Marion Williams. Style-hopping is unbecoming to a performer not equipped to do justice to the diverse traditions present in folk music. As a politician Joan Baez may get my vote, but as a musician I fault her for the same thing she is so quick to fault others: she doesn't seem to care.

Saturday evening's program was a vast improvement over Friday's. It was top heavy with the major names of the Festival. George Hamilton IV started things off with his country versions of contemporary folk-songs. He performed with a bassist and an excellent Nashville guitarist who gave Hamilton a distinctly country sound. Hamilton himself was thin and somewhat boring over his six song stretch.

Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys came on after Hamilton and they too did country music, but they were surely no bore. Stanley has been recording straight blue-grass for twenty-five years (for the last ten on the King label). Although he is a first rate banjo picker, his group is probably most appreciated for their vocal work. The Stanley Brothers gospel records rank with Bill Monroe's as the best country gospel available.

Stanley seemed somewhat ill at ease and treated his audience with the kind of excessive deference characteristic of all the southern performers at the Festival. Nonetheless, his performances of "How Mountain Girls Can Love," "Man of Constant Sorrow," "The Hills of Roane County" and "Sally Goodin" made me nostalgic for the days when I was a bluegrass fanatic. Stanley has what Ralph Rinzler calls the "high lonesome sound." He sings country music with a depth and style more commonly found in blues, and the type of feeling he created in me was not unlike what I feel about the music of B. B. King. When Ralph Stanley sang I could hear someone's whole life singing for me. Hearing him at Newport was a pleasure.

B. B. King finished off the first half of the program. A sold out Festival Field (17,000) was not the ideal setting for his intimate kind of blues but he made do. I think B. B. King is the greatest blues singer I have ever heard and probably the greatest guitarist as well. He made Buddy Guy and Junior Wells' afternoon performance look mighty tame by comparison. But because he was not fully at home with the performing situation he hammed it up a bit too much. Being theatrical is King's way of testing an audience. If you can show him you know the blues he'll work his ass off and play from his guts. If you just come for a show, that's what you'll get. And the show was fine. Still, it was nice to see him break loose towards the end and put down a mean, mean, "Sweet Sixteen." To really dig B. B. King you can't sit on your chair and watch. You have to be able to move your body, and do what you want to do. And that was impossible within the concert setting at Newport.

The second half of Saturday's program was a battle of nerves. It is safe to say that at least half of the audience had to come to this concert as if it were to be a Big Brother concert with supporting acts. Such people were forced to wait through numerous folk acts with dwindlingpatience. While there were no disturbances there was some tension. Among the better things preceding Big Brother were a group Jim Kweskin's Jug Band had found in Texas on one of their cross country tours. Ken Threadgill and his Hootenany Hoots were made up of Threadgill, relatives, and friends. They consisted of three amplified guitars and Threadgill's singing.

Their performance included four songs, all in the 1920's country style of Jimmie Rodgers. Threadgill, who must have been in his late fifties, told how in 1928 he had been working as an usher in a theatre in Austin, Texas, where he still lives. There he saw Rodgers and from that moment on he had been "baptized." He freely admitted to being obsessed with the music of the greatest white country blues singer of them all. He did three Rodgers songs with absolute fidelity to the style. It was a modest but moving performance and when he finished singing I felt that he had reached me with something I hadn't really experienced before. Threadgill's life was the more understandable for his having sung at the Festival. If anyone cared to understand it.

Roy Acuff tried unsuccessfully to give the audience a taste of the Grand Ole Opry. He was too corny for most people's taste and I didn't think he sang very well. He introduced his dobro player as "a boy who has been playing with me for thirty years."

When Acuff was finished it was near midnight and people were restless for the stars. But wait. A guest performer too big to be ignored wanted to perform. Theodore Bikel proceeded to do five or six songs to an increasingly tense audience. This last minute addition seemed to be noticeably out of place and a serious lapse in programming.

At last, Big Brother. They were unquestionably the hit of the festival. All the repressed quality of a folk concert where one sits and passively listens gave way to the spontaneity and excitement of rock and roll, as the stage was being set for their performance. People were now free to move their bodies and one could see in an instant why folk music could never have remained the music of the young: It isn't physical enough.

Having said that, let me say that from my point of view, Big Brother was not very good. The group is apparently trying to find a way of translating blues and soul over to a straight electric guitar context and, as a secondary concern, trying to mix blues and soul with various eclectic bits and pieces from other musical styles. Whether the resulting sound jells into a style with depth is subject to dispute. I don't think so.

The group started off with what I expect will be their first single: "Piece of My Heart." The song was written by the late Burt Burns with Jerry Ragovoy and recorded on Shout records by Aretha's older sister. Erma Franklin. Big Brother's arrangement is modeled fairly closely after the original and suffers by comparison. Instrumentally, their rhythm section doesn't do what it should. The guitar solo was strained, unmusical, and irrelevant.

And then there is Janis. Talent, yes. A fantastic voice, yes. A great singer, no. To me, her melodrama, overstatement, and coarseness are not virtues. They are signs of a lack of sophistication and a lack of security with her material. The need to overstate is almost always the product of fear of what would happen if one understated. The attitude seems to be that if you don't hit people over the head they might miss the point. Maybe so, but Janis is a little too obvious for my tastes.

Or, put it another way. Erma Franklin's version of this song has soul. Janis Joplin's has balls. Take your pick.

On "Summertime" Janis started off with some soulful, wistful singing but again did it into the ground by the end of the song. Instrumentally, the band proved itself to be truly lame; Mike Bloomfield was being charitable when he described them as such. Gurley and Andrew don't know a decent rock or blues chorus between them, judging from their performance here. And the rhythm section never happens. The whole band drags her at every turn.

The weakness of the band became supremely evident when other members of the group sang lead, the reasons for which evaded me entirely. The harmony was sometimes simply misarranged, as the huge Newport amplification system made plain. Still, Janis was able to salvage some of their version of "The Cuckoo" by singing excellent harmony with the lead guitar figure.

By the time they got to "Ball and Chain" it wasn't even interesting. Janis did the song as it is — a straight blues — while the band cluttered things up with lead guitar noises. What excitement she herself possesses had been spent. She had already used every gimmick of which she was capable and was simply repeating herself. It was a bore. Of course, I should note the audience loved every minute of it and that I was singularly isolated in my reaction. "Ball and Chain" brought them a massive standing ovation. Janis' personality and act had predominated against any artistic flaws that were present in her performance and she and the audience just beamed at each other through her two encores. Then they left. So did I.