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.