If 1965 was Dylan’s year at Newport and 1967 Arlo’s, then 1969 should have been James Taylor’s. But 1969 was nobody’s year at the 10th annual Newport Folk Festival and that may have been what was wrong. In an attempt to stay away from the star system, the festival lacked excitement and direction.
Given a chance, Taylor could have smashed through. But, relegated to closing non-prestige daytime “Young Performers” concert on Sunday, he was cut off by a Festival official after eight numbers. When Taylor walked off after “Carolina,” the entire drizzle-soaked audience stood for a five-minute ovation.
To no avail. Impresario George Wein lumbered out and announced that the astronauts had landed on the moon: now top that. Then, smirking: “The concert’s over.”
Taylor, unaligned with any power group at the Festival, looked down backstage and murmured: “I waited all weekend for this … and they only let me play 15 minutes.” But those 15 minutes set a standard for clarity, wit and magnetism that was never equalled during the four days of the Festival.
The Festival, while aborting Taylor’s performance, tended to keep everything on that same old “Rock Island Line” of the folk music establishment. The last officially-blessed concert of the Festival opened three hours after Taylor’s set and it opened with Pete Seeger. There were no rush jobs on him. His talents and correct-thinking Populist inclinations are certified. With the crewmen of his Hudson River sloop Clearwater, Seeger did a quaintly merry set. Its exact relevance, for either the button-downed, hornrimmed or the conscientiously unshaven and unwashed majority, was unclear.
Whichever category the audience fell into they were unfailing polite, the niceness of contemporary folk music washing over them without the jibes and harshness of today’s rock. Not surprisingly, there were many more chicks in sight than at the more turbulent Jazz Festival which preceded it by two weeks. But if the vibrations were not aggressive, neither were they particularly agreeable.
This Festival, like the jazz-rock show, was, in fact, a series of concerts designed by programmers who find it natural to remain stationary on a 14-inch wide wooden chair for hours at a stretch. But for a generation whose primary entertainments have been records and television—both of which allow, if not demand, mobility—it was progressive uptightness as the hours went by.
And so at Newport the warmest vibrations were not at the formal evening concerts but at the daytime workshops and impromptu concerts scattered across Festival Field. In what was essentially a music bazaar, both featured performers such as Ike Everly and Pentagle and pick-up groups communicated freely and intimately.
The formal concert pattern was broken again on Sunday afternoon for those adjudged Young Performers. The 2,500 faithful who showed up in the moisture were permitted to sit wherever they chose, which loosened things considerably.
Van Morrison retightened it with the bitter romanticism of the short and stocky man. The audience fidgeted, but the first teeny-bopper scream of the four-day festival shot through the crowd. Then came Jerry Jeff Walker and Pentagle, the former energetic, the latter soothing, both professional. With their intricate harmonies and eclecticism, Pentagle was the most crowd-pleasing of the afternoon performers until James Taylor.
The Folk Festival opened Thursday evening (July 17) with rowdy performances by Spider John Koerner and Willie Murphy; a partially rocked-up Buffy Ste.-Marie; the toe-tapping Oldtimer’s String Band (one banjo and two fiddles, circa 1929 North Carolina); musical newscaster Len Chandler, and West Virginian Billy Ed Wheeler who capped the evening’s protest songs with “The Interstate Is Comin’ Through My Outhouse.”
The Johnny Cash troupe wrapped up opening night with the polished spit of Carl Perkins, cranking out a fuzzed carbon of “Blue Suede Shoes,” with Mrs. Cash, bouncy June Carter, displaying the only obvious brassiere of the Festival. Cash himself matter-of-factly served up his standards. The 7,500 in the audience gave him a warm down-home ovation.
Friday night, blues night: One-man band Jesse Fuller revved up the proceedings with his declaration that he is tired of the sad blues: “I had enough of them when I was little … these are the kind of blues I like,” and ripped into “I Got A Hump in My Back from Balling the Jack,” “Running Wild,” and his own “San Francisco Bay Blues.” Also playing were Buddy Moss, whose harmonica blowing was accompanied by Brownie McGhee on guitar; Sleepy John Estes with Yank Rachel; and Son House.
The plaintive monotony was broken by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton who made the concert shell her own splendid opera house. In a yellow beret, a plaid work shirt and truck driver’s trousers, Big Mama brought sinuous hips and hauteur to “Rock Me Baby,” “Mother-in-Law” and “Ball and Chain” and 200-plus pounds of delicate bumps and grinds to the song “I made Elvis Presley rich on— Hound Dog.” She got the first standing ovation of the Festival and, if for nothing else than showmanship, it was deserved.
Taj Mahal, promised as the closing act, didn’t show and there were rumblings that the Newport City Council had considered including him in the post-Jazz Festival ban on rock. Although that may have been what kept him away, Wein said he was expected. He was missed, as one of the few young black blues performers working today.
Muddy Waters and his band took the closing honors and carried them handily. With somber energy he beat out “Gypsy Woman,” “Hootchy – Kootchy Man,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “I’m A Man,” Got My Mojo Working.”
Saturday night was the Festival’s only concession to a star night and 18,000 people, capacity, showed up for the Everly Brothers, making their first appearance ever at Newport. The brothers laid the audiences out with their standards, but Little Suzy ended up a broken doll in a dusty corner when they brought extraordinary urgency and desperation to a medley of “Let The Sun Shine In” and “Hey Jude.” “Let The Sun Shine In” was no longer a happy hippy hymnal but, rather a heartbreaking plea. The audience, which had been singing along, stood up spontaneously, puppets on a string, as the Everly Brothers walked off, eyes on the ground. Phil and Don came back, to introduce their father, Ike, doing three country numbers. Finally, Arlo Guthrie was introduced by Pete Seeger as “an old friend of 20 years.”
Five thousand seats were filled for Sunday’s last concert (the total attendance for the Festival being 51,000, against 73,000 last year when Janis Joplin packed them in) despite a continuing drizzle and the moon walk. After a sampling of Congolese and Swedish music, Brooklyn Cowboy Ramblin’ Jack Elliot lurched back into contemporary America with his voice of plywood kleenex and the announcement that “this ain’t no rodeo.” And, with the dichotomy of his sharp city hostility and soft country songs, it wasn’t. For the first time, hard words, fucks, came lashing out of the loudspeakers. And they stung.
The Fesival came to a close with a tribute to Leadbelly. Nice songs, written with feeling and sung with feeling. But they were sung on the night that the “folk” stepped on the moon, to an audience that was herded in and out of the turnstiles for four days while being forbidden by the town officials to camp out in Newport’s Norman Rockwell-tidy parks and beaches. In the end, the feeling on stage just was not reciprocated from the audience.
It was the same old shuck. What will happen next year? Who knows but Mr. Wein who closed the Festival by saying: “During the last 16 summers of the Newport Festivals, it’s been the kids who’ve supported us. We’re still concerned with the kids. God Bless You.”