Pete Seeger Keeps Folk Alive at Newport Folk Festival

Written by August 4th, 2009 at 7:46 am


Half a century ago, Pete Seeger helped found the Newport Folk Festival, a weekend notorious for its dichotomies- Rhode Island high society and scrappy folk singers, old time traditions and new sounds, social rebellion and responsible activism. At this year’s 50th anniversary, the festival came full circle for Seeger and other Newport regulars.

In addition to appearing and performing for the umpteenth time, Seeger was honored with an all out stage show courtesy of indie rockers the Decemberists. With frontman Colin Meloy narrating and guitarist Chris Funk playing the part of Seeger, plus Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) as Bob Dylan, the crew reenacted an infamous scene from the 1965 festival: the moment when Bob Dylan “went electric.” According to Rolling Stone, while Funk was miming a frazzled Seeger attempting to unplug Dylan’s raucous reinvention, Meloy quipped, “This was back in the day when the PA system was fueled entirely by burning wood. Pete was back there cutting the wood, and he became so overwhelmed with emotion that his hatchet almost slipped and severed the power cables.”

Seeger knew the sketch was all in good fun and soon joined the Decemberists on stage for a sing-a-long. Gillian Welch, Fleet Foxes, and even Seeger’s grandson Tao joined in on the jam. The 90-year-old legend even cranked out a solo or two. After all, as festival promoter George Wein said Saturday, “Pete Seeger is the Newport Folk Festival.”

Over the course of the weekend, festival-goers found themselves entertained, inspired, and sometimes insulted. Billy Bragg took time away from his set to sarcastically shout out at “all the people who could only afford to pull their yachts up to hear us for free.” He went on to cover a few Woody Guthrie tunes, as well as covering the gamut in the way of outspoken leftist politics. Tom Morello (a.k.a. the Nightwatchman) also took time to uphold the Newport tradition of activism.

As far as the actual music goes, some of the festival’s standouts were the least traditional. While artists like Del McCoury and Guy Clark played solid shows, the Avett Brothers brought down the house. Audience members were blown away by a brand new sound that is nonetheless irresistible. Previewing tracks like “Kick Drum Heart” and “A Perfect Shape” from their upcoming I and Love and You, the formerly folk-punk brethren surprised many with poppy piano tunes.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings played some quality unreleased material like “Throw Me a Rope” on Saturday and also unleashed their take on Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Some of Welch’s biggest fans got some attention, too. Seattle folkies Fleet Foxes were ecstatic to be at the festival. Commenting on the experience of playing with his “big heroes,” Robin Pecknold joked, “I’m getting a sailboat tattooed on my chest to commemorate this occasion.” An audience member joked back, “I want to live in your beard!”

The weekend closed out with consecutive sets from folk legends Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger with Judy Collins. “Hello 50 years later,” Baez said in amazement, having played at the very first Newport Folk Festival at age 18. Guthrie imparted some words of wisdom for posterity, addressing those who are “trying to tell businessmen apart from ordinary criminals,” he reflected, “It’s amazing—seems like a lot of them would fit in right into today’s world.”

Seeger and the whole crew wrapped up the festival with a rousing rendition of “Well May the World Go (When I’m Far Away).”


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