FOLK OFF “Can you imagine going to a jazz fest where they only played jazz, and how fucking regressive would that be if it didn’t push the boundaries of the genre?” asks Eugene Hutz (standing, third from left) of Gogol Bordello, one of the many genre-defying acts at this year’s Newport Folk Festival.
If we take Big Bill Broonzy up on the open-minded spirit of his words, then we could perhaps re-imagine the too-oft discussed 1965 Newport Folk Festival (the one where Bob Dylan controversially went electric) through the modern-day lens of 40-year-old Newport co-producer and Paste magazine editor-at-large Jay Sweet. Would Sweet have invited the country-tinged Ricky Nelson to the 1965 festival? How about the Ventures, who were the day’s greatest progenitors of the endangered instrumental surf-rock genre (a black-sheep cousin somewhere in the roots-music family tree)? Why not bring Lesley Gore on stage to sing the proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me”? Hell, could even the Animals have folked it up? Maybe. Possibly. Why not?
Sweet cites the Stephen and Damian Marley performance at the 2008 festival as one example of how he thinks about folk music in an elliptical manner. “We did think they were folk artists when they decided to come and do a set of their father’s music, because Bob Marley is one of the biggest folk artists of all time, and I think a song like ‘Redemption Song’ is equal to anything Woody Guthrie has ever done for the folk canon,” says Sweet. Sweet defines folk music not as a genre but as a “spectrum,” and one that is partially defined by the Newport Folk Festival, no less. So, although folk may have something to do with the rustic look and feel of the acts, it is also rooted in the tradition of the festival. But despite the number of acts that do acoustic sets at Newport (examples this year include Costello, Tegan and Sara, and Gogol Bordello), Sweet mocks the idea that any artist can just be unplugged and run through the “folk-izer” to become Newport-ready.
“Tegan and Sara started out as just the two of them playing acoustic guitars, playing songs that, to them, were not pop songs,” says Sweet. “I’m not comparing Tegan and Sara in any way to Joan Baez, but are they comparable to Ani DiFranco? Are they a modern-day Indigo Girls?”
In the words of Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz, the boat must be rocked. “Once the thing has happened, it’s already dead,” says the native Ukrainian on the phone from New York. “Can you imagine going to a jazz fest where they only played jazz, and how fucking regressive would that be if it didn’t push the boundaries of the genre?”
Despite the fact that they have never produced anything close to what Newport audiences generally understand to be traditional folk music, Gogol Bordello’s debut at Newport this year is one of the absolutely-cannot-miss performances (another is singer-songwriter Gillian Welch). A radically international and radically genre-proof band who mix influences diverse as Russian folk, samba, French chanson, and Americana, Gogol Bordello know a thing or two about the long climb out of the genre ghetto. “We never thought of ourselves as exotic,” says Hutz. “We are just hard-core New Yorkers.”
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