Can folk music still be radical?


NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND — Ten years ago, Pete Seeger gave the organizers of the Newport Folk Festival a mission statement. “If you want to carry the torch, I need to know that you will continue to give voice to people who need a voice,” recalls Jay Sweet, executive director of the longtime festival, folk legend and festival . co-founder telling him during Seeger’s last appearance in Newport before his death in 2014.

What he meant was simple, according to Sweet. “My job,” he continues, “is to allow people to participate, to allow people who don’t have power to have a say in the conversation.” To do, in other words, what Seeger did as he crisscrossed the country playing protest songs on his banjo after Joe McCarthy blacklisted him in the 1950s: “To sing the truth to power”.

But what does it mean to sing the truth to power in 2022? For Sweet, that feels like booking the Roots, the first authentic hip-hop act to play Newport Folk’s main stage. That of the group performance this year, in some ways, reignited a point of contention between Sweet and Seeger, who yearned to preserve the traditional bluegrass, gospel and roots genres celebrated at the festival’s early gatherings. But in Sweet’s view, the Roots’ mix of jazz, hip-hop, soul and political poetry – the way Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, drops his lyrics “like machine-gunning verbal bullets” – is truer to the deeper lessons Seeger imparted. .

Sweet made this argument to Ahmir Thompson, aka Questlove, to convince him to come to Newport. “‘Ahmir, I promised Pete,'” Sweet recalled pleading. “If you really want people to tell the real trials and tribulations of what it’s like to live in this country, then the Roots are more folk music than any other artists I have there.”

And it had to be this year, insists Sweet. “The world is rocking,” he says. “The Roots can go play 15 other major festivals and that would be awesome. But doing it here is a bigger statement than doing it anywhere else in the world.

“Here” is not only the abandoned 18th-century naval fort that the festival calls home, but also its specific place in the American popular imagination. The first event, in 1959, united the collection of American folk songs with the populist – and often radical – liberal aspirations to which the genre owes much of its mid-century revival. Its founders, Seeger and the late George Wein, represented “that group of people who felt they weren’t represented elsewhere,” says Sweet. (In addition to their musical and political tastes, Sweet notes that the two men were also in interracial marriages at a time when such unions were banned in much of the country.)

Acoustic guitar artists who arrived in Newport during its first decade did so in this spirit of defiance of the status quo, performing a mix of traditional labor anthems and anti-slavery protest ballads alongside originals that registered their contemporary political discontent. “There has to be an alternative to whatever lifestyles are offered to them – Democrat, Republican,” Joan Baez said in an interview for Festival, a 1967 documentary about Newport’s early years. “I’d like to offer some kind of alternative, somehow, or help.”

The same goes for a number of artists who have appeared on Newport stages in the past week and have taken on the musical and political role of Baez. Nashville singer-songwriter Valerie June spoke about the unique dangers that deerThe reversal poses to black women before singing “Wagoner’s Lad,” a traditional folk song that includes lyrics about “confined” and “controlled” women. DakhaBrakha, a Ukrainian folk quartet, paused between songs to remind the crowd of the six million Ukrainians who fled their country. “My job is to create a safe space where the truth can be told,” says Sweet. “It has never been so threatened, whether by Covid or by presidential administrations or the music industry.”

He sees this work in grandiose and radical terms. “I don’t believe there’s a genre called ‘folk,'” he told me from his backstage office on Sunday afternoon. “I have the impression that folk only connotes people who come to see the music. Newport Folk is the audience. It’s a cute, if somewhat dubious, analysis. We are surrounded by the event logo of a seagull carrying an acoustic guitar. A performance by Joy Oladokun, a singer-songwriter deeply steeped in folk tradition, buzzes in the background as we speak. That evening the festival would celebrate the songbook of Joni Mitchell, one of many folk artists – practically only folk artists – who have earned this kind of lifetime commemoration as a Sunday night highlight event.

Sweet cites several artists he considers sonic descendants of the festival’s defining early acts. “It’s very easy to go from Pete Seeger to the Beats to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead and then everything that spawned it,” Sweet says. “You can literally get goose to Pete Seeger in three moves, in my mind. Gospel legend and Newport mainstay Mavis Staples has a say in Sweet’s booking picks each year. “The Staple Singers were the first gospel group to perform at music festivals,” says Sweet. “There’s definitely a Mavis test,” he adds, pointing to contemporary Newport artists who carry on her legacy, like the Black Opry Review and this year’s gospel showcase, hosted by North Carolina instrumentalist Phil Cook.

Lineage is serious business for Sweet, who enjoys bringing new voices together with their onstage inspirations. These considerations create the conditions for headliners like Paul Simon, who came out of a four-year retirement to surprise the crowd on Saturday nights, singing alongside Nathaniel Rateliff, Marcus Mumford and Lucius. “It was curious to ask a bunch of 20-somethings, ‘Are you going to be blown away by Paul Simon?'” Sweet says. “It was really nice to see that this generation knows there’s a Mount Rushmore in American songwriting.”

But simply celebrating Simon’s songbook is insufficient for 2020s Newport as it, like other liberal institutions, strives to move with the times. This comes from Rhiannon Giddens, who sang Simon’s “American Tune” as Simon accompanied him on guitar. He remained silent as Giddens changed his lyrics – swapping “we come on the ship they call the Mayflower” for “we didn’t come here on the Mayflower” – to reflect his black and Indigenous roots.

“His move to a very simple lyrical carpet bombarded the whole festival with beauty,” Sweet said. “It’s intentional – it’s very intentional.”

There is a lingering question as to whom this statement is aimed at. This is an event that hosts a voter registration booth each year, but finds less than 100 of the 10,000 attendees who are yet to register. Where you’ll meet a white Boomer wearing a t-shirt insisting “Maggie Rogers wants you to vote”. Where you will meet someone with Elizabeth Warren’s face tattooed on their ankle. Where the audience is overwhelmingly white – so much so that performers of all races often comment on it as they stare at the sea of ​​pale bodies.

For every lyrical exchange from Rhiannon Giddens or monologue from Valerie June, there are moments like when Brandi Carlile suggested the silence of 10,000 Newport attendees listening to music could be ‘more powerful than any government’ , showcasing the kind of power that “terrifies the tyrannical.” World leaders.” Carlile’s comments were good to hear, but hollow in substance, especially after such a devastating tenure on the Supreme Court and a largely stalled Democratic majority. (Governments, in fact, probably like the idea of ​​10,000 silent white liberals.)

Perhaps that was truer when the blacklisted Seeger serenaded the audience at the first Newport in 1959, at a time when right-wing politicians had him banned from radio and television. . Seeger himself got something of a softening this year, as the United States Postal Service put the fierce anti-war critic, ex-Communist cardholder and lifelong radical on a postage stamp. The stamp, with the words “Pete Seeger / Folk Singer / Forever”, debuted in Newport this year, much to the delight of many, and some eyebrows raised at the irony. Jake Blount, one of the few black artists to perform at Thursday night’s stamp-unveiling tribute concert, told the crowd it was an honor to be able to celebrate Seeger’s legacy, but wondered how. not it was performative to put Seeger’s face on a stamp. issued by an agency headed by Republican megadonor Louis DeJoy.

These strains are their own kind of Newport folk tradition. rolling stoneit is dispatch of the 1969 event praised Seeger’s “talents and populist inclinations to correct thinking”, but added that the “exact relevance of his music, whether for the buttoned-up, horn-rimmed majority or the consciously unshaven and unwashed, was unclear.

In her Festival interview, Baez reflected on her discomfort with idolatry and all the fans who come to see her without, perhaps, being connected to her radical politics. “The fact that they ask things like ‘We Shall Overcome’, and they know what it’s all about, most of them,” she said, speaking to herself. “Those who ask know what it is about. I think it’s wonderful.


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