Newport Folk Festival expands its scope

Plugged into 2011
By JONATHAN DONALDSON  |  August 1, 2011

NFF Elliott Main
REMEMBERING WOODY For 79-year-old Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, “deep scientific explanations” of folk music are beside the point — “it’s just part of the entertainment business.”

One look at the bill for this weekend’s sold-out Newport Folk Festival (the first advance sell-out of both days in the event’s history) shows that the good old spirit of dissent in the folk community is in healthy summer bloom. At one point in the spectrum, you’ve got the Starbucks-folk of M. Ward and the Decemberists. At another, you’ve got the hummable indie-pop of buzz bands Tegan and Sara and Freelance Whales. There is no folk queen in the guise of Joan Baez or Judy Collins, but there is a rockabilly queen (Wanda Jackson) and a gospel/R&B queen (Mavis Staples). Meanwhile the remaining vestiges of the ’90s New Folk Movement, such as John Gorka and Ellis Paul, are just glad to have a place under the side-stage tent. Somewhere in New England, someone in a Ben & Jerry’s T-shirt is losing his mind.

Indeed much has changed since the historic and genre-defining Newport Folk Festival resumed in 1986 after a 15-year hiatus. As expected, veteran musicians will be there to give the festival the credibility that dedicated fans have counted on since 1959. Bluegrass-pioneer Earl Scruggs makes his first appearance at Newport since the inaugural summer. National treasures like Pete Seeger, 92 years young, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, 79, will add credence. Meanwhile, musical omnivores like Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris (who have been more “folky” than straight-up folk on their records) now find themselves in the position of council elders despite having little connection to the festival in previous years.

Beyond these widely agreed-upon names, though, the high-profile indie and non-folk bookings of the 2011 bill make so many overtures to the tastes of ever-younger, ever-more-resourceful music consumers, that the very definition of the folk genre itself is again called into question. In the ’50s and early-’60s revival, “folk” music had a couple of different meanings. On the one hand, it was defined as folk by its participatory nature — an erasure of the line between performer and audience, the kind of song-trading that went on in the impromptu hootenannies in Washington Square, at Greenwich Village rent parties, and at the “workshops” of the original Newport Fest itself. The music tended to be decades- or even centuries-old: Celtic folk, Appalachian music, blues, and African-American spirituals — to the extent that in some quarters (as the late folk musician Dave Van Ronk has noted) original songwriting was looked at askance. In current parlance — in part because of Newport — folk has come to mean “acoustic.”

“A lot of people want to get a deep scientific explanation, but I usually don’t think that seriously about the whole thing, because it’s just part of the entertainment business,” says Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who can trace his personal folk-music roots to the ’40s. Elliott, born in 1931, ran away to the rodeo at 15 and later lived with and followed Woody Guthrie for four years, living the real folk life so often romanticized in folk songs. In Elliott’s vast experience, people have been trying to categorize folk music for years — just like Harry Smith categorized it in the early ’50s as comprising “Ballads,” “Social Music,” and “Songs” in his Anthology of American Folk Music. At almost 80, Elliott has been asked to describe the greased pig that is folk music as much as probably anyone. “I like to quote Bill Broonzy, who is one of my favorites,” he says with a pause and a wink in his voice: “ ‘Of course it’s “folk” music — I’ve never heard a horse sing.’ ”

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