Folk Music Isn't What It Used to Be—and That's More Than Okay

The Newport Folk Festival, held last weekend in Rhode Island, keeps traditions alive while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of what "folk" means as a genre.
Beck performs at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival. (AP / Joe Giblin)

In The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer's best-selling portrait of a post-'60s generation, folk music exists as a symbol of nostalgia. Susannah Bay, a long-haired former folk icon, is left behind as the times go a-changing, abandoning the peace and love themes of her heyday to try to keep up with the changing trends of the next decades. On a steady decline from her days playing with Dylan and Baez and bringing First Lady Rosalynn Carter to tears, Bay releases an ill-advised "disco folk" album, then more or less fades into obscurity.

Like the aging Bay, who scarcely resembles "the winsome hippie girl in the poncho" in her later years, little of the legendary Newport Folk Festival any longer looks like those early days of folk. Appreciation for the type of music it champions hasn't diminished, but it has changed. The bands and singer-songwriters who took to the festival's three stages last weekend in Newport, Rhode Island, were "folk," though they rarely played anything the fictional Bay would recognize from her own time. German audio-electronics company Sennheiser hosts additional sets that can only be listened to using its wireless headphones; NPR meticulously documents the entire weekend for live-streaming online. Still, the festival has remained true to the genre's spirit in the ways that count: I caught the occasional whiff of pot in the air, and booths hawked beaded jewelry, vegan purses, and peasant skirts. In other words, Newport was a music festival hip enough for its mostly young crowd, but also a good place to bring my mom.

The Newport Folk Festival and its jazz counterpart were first held in 1959, and it was granted nonprofit status in 2011. That summer, it sold out for the first time. This year, advertised as its 54th annual (although it didn't take place from 1971 to 1985), organizers added an extra day, fitting in more than 50 musicians, from Old Crow Medicine Show, who headlined on Friday night, to Beck, who closed out the show on Sunday.

Unique among summer music festivals, Newport is relatively small in its audience size -- about 10,000 people attended over the course of the three days -- and selective in whom its organizers invite to perform. Those who attend, as singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer marveled repeatedly during her Friday afternoon set, are enthusiastic but civilized: Alcohol is relegated to a few out-of-the-way beer gardens, and chairs are set up for the two smaller stages. The main stage looks out across an expanse of lawn and lawn chairs, although there's room for dancing up front -- a new addition that concertgoers took advantage of during the Avett Brother's raucous Saturday evening performance.

Fifty-four years after the inaugural Newport Folk Festival -- which was chaired by Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, and Oscar Brand -- a new guard has taken over. Today, the event's official advisers include Ramblin' Jack Elliott, but also My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James and Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, all three of whom also performed this year. Deer Tick's John McCauley, popularly referred to as the festival's mayor, has started up an insanely popular tradition of festival after-parties at the Newport Blues Café. Curious about how he sees himself within the festival's history, I asked him how the music last weekend differed from the fare of the its early days.

"I don't know," he replied, "I wasn't there."

Which is a fair answer. I wasn't there either. Neither was my mom. As the Avett Brothers sang at their headlining set on Saturday night, "It's in with the young, out with the old." In with the very young, in some cases: I spotted a little boy with his dad who knew every word to The Mountain Goats' songs, and I lost count of cute toddlers dancing in the grass.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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