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.
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