Sunday was a quintessential Newport Folk Festival day. The sun was in full force, festivalgoers were smiling contentedly, and the music continued to impress, one set after the other. Unfortunately, that means there was an issue that was impossible to ignore, too—the same one that haunts the festival year after year, but this 2017 edition in particular. Newport Folk Festival has a major race problem, and its legacy shouldn’t make that justifiable.
Walking around Fort Adams State Park, it’s depressing to take in just how few people of color attend the festival. Scanning the lineup usually reveals why. If there’s a failure to represent people of all ethnicities, why would a diverse crowd show up? There’s easy jabs to make here about New England’s overwhelmingly white percentage or Newport’s wealthy history as other indications of such. Instead, lets breakdown the reason as to why few people raise this as an issue: Newport Folk Festival prides itself on, and often succeeds on, creating a seemingly-effortless event of uplifting music, positive audience interactions, and tangible activism. This festival boasts more non-profit, hands-on, educational booths than any other festival I’ve been to, ranging from larger organizations like the EPA to a conservation for Newport’s local waters. Each years brings a new round of anti-government protest songs and audiences who yell as loudly as they can in support of the lyrics. There’s a wholesome quality to Newport Folk Festival’s details, but organizers and attendees throw up blinders because of that. In turn, that allows the festival’s current mode of booking to carry on as if festivalgoers marked it with a giant stamp of approval, one by one.
After all, there’s a lot to fall in love with at Newport Folk Festival. The Museum stage offers a quiet, cozy, intimate setting to watch staggeringly talented bluegrass acts work their way across their fretboards. Noam Pikelny unfurled a set of soothing numbers like “Waveland” in the brick building, and the audience looked on in awe. Later that day, the Punch Brothers teamed up with Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan for an acoustic performance, the group of superstars taking turns injecting their own flair in acoustic, classical, and old school folk numbers. Then came Pinegrove, by far the most rousing set of the day and most in-touch with the audience. The New Jersey country-rock act turned the volume up considerably, dawning a tighter-knit performance than they usually offer at festivals, each song winning the audience over more and more until they finally rose from their seats, one by one, to cheer in the middle of “New Friends,” marking one of Sunday’s most memorable moments.
On top of that, Newport Folk Festival succeeds in one area that nearly all other music festivals fail: combating industry-prone ageism.The festival closed with a set from folk icon John Prine. Those who may have doubted his relevancy were immediately proved wrong. He cracked jokes nonstop (“Where’d that sixth string go,” he said at one point, cutting himself short at the start of a song. “Oh, there [it is]. I knew there was a reason they gave me a six-string guitar.”) and played fan favorites (“Cake and Eggs” and “Fish and Whistle”) that saw the crowd swooning with gentle smiles, no matter how old they were. He then went on to bridge the gap by inviting a selection of modern day folk celebrities—Justin Vernon, Margo Price, Jim James—to join him for various songs. Of course, folk’s origins are so old that booking a wide range of ages at a folk festival is inevitable, but Newport Folk Festival tries its hardest to avoid tokenizing those picks, helping the cause by adding a handful of middle-aged acts to balance out the young and the old. That eye towards age in regards to their booking allows audience members to come out confidently, too. During Nathaniel Rateliff’s surprise set on Sunday, several late-40s security guards began dancing in the aisles, running around with the type of free spirit usually associated with tweens. Let’s not forget the grandmother who climbed on top of her chair during that set either.
Yet throughout all of this, there’s a blatant neglect of representation for people of color. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a regular staple at the festival, kicked things off at 11:15am, a slot most people miss due to traffic. Michael Kiwanuka and Rhiannon Giddens followed shortly after, and both of them were slated against acts like Dr. Dog and Whitney, bands whose hype drove the masses to opposing stages. To the festival’s credit, they placed Giddens and Kiwanuka on the main stage and stuffed the fan favorites on the Quad. They turned the biggest spotlight they had on the artists of color performing. But was it enough? When Kiwanuka sang an extended jam version of “Black Man In A White World,” he repeated the titular phrase (“I’m a black man in a white world”) over and over to an audience that seemed unaware of the depth of his words. Factually, sure, they know he is, but do they feel it? Have they lived it?
There’s a lot of possible solutions for the festival. The most obvious choice is to, duh, book more folk artists of color. Anyone who argues there’s a lack of options is a person who willingly won’t do their homework, given artists like Ben Harper, Josephine Oniyama, Helado Negro, Xenia Rubinos, and Moses Sumney are in plain site. Considering the festival’s embrace of soul and indie rock-tinged acts, it’s fair game to reach out to artists like Vagabon, Jam Som, Ibeyi, Syd (or the whole of The Internet, really), or any other artist fresh off new records in the last two years. They could even reach into their own backyard by booking Boston-based artists Esperanza Spalding, Mal Devisa, or Crumb. Newport Folk Festival sells out before their lineup is announced in full because they’ve cultivated, maintained, and appreciated their attendees. The festival can afford to take a so-called “chance” on artists of color because doing so won’t jeopardize ticket sales. They have that privilege. There’s no reason not to use it.
Alternatively, Newport could book non-folk artists who can strip down their performance, a restriction that not only can be done—NPR Music’s famous Tiny Desk Concerts are known for asking louder rock acts or rappers, such as Anderson .Paak or T-Pain, to strip down their material for an in-office set, to which the artists happily oblige— but should be done. The festival has been in flux with its definition of folk the last few years. They should extend that liberty to artists of color the way they did for Beck, Tune-Yards, Tom Morello, and J Mascis.
At the very, very, very least, Newport could note the lack of representation at times when it isn’t represented. Case and point: the tribute to Chuck Berry. With backing band The Texas Gentlemen playing through the material, a handful of surprise artists stepped onstage to cover Berry to honor his passing in March of this year. The rock ‘n’ roll legend was a pioneer that came from Missouri but soundtracked the ’50s and ’60s across America at large, nevermind the decades of rock that followed suit. But as Charlie Sexton, Shakey Graves, Deer Tick, and others walked out to pay tribute, things became tone-deaf. Of course, Chuck Berry may have influenced them personally—rock ‘n’ roll at large would be significantly different without him—but they can’t understand the gravity of his influence to people of color, especially musicians of color. Why not note that? Not a single musician acknowledged what it meant to perform his music coming from that background of privilege, or noted that they couldn’t fully deliver Berry’s music through his eyes. It goes without saying, but not saying anything felt remarkably ignorant.
One of Newport Folk Festival’s best moments each year is watching surprise guests take the stage. Sunday’s slotted performance for that, Speak Out, was a treat. Billed as “a celebration of the power of song” to challenge injustice, fight for equality, and exercise freedom, the performance saw a range of protest songs (“When the Saints Go Marching In”, “Why We Build the Wall”, “Working Class Hero”) covered by an even bigger range of musicians (Sharon Van Etten, Shakey Graves, Billy Bragg, etc). The backing band was comprised of The Decemberists’ Chris Frunk, John Moen, and Jenny Conlee; My Morning Jacket’s Patrick Hallahan and Carl Broemel; Kyle Craft; Nate Query; and Casey Neill. A total of 22 musicians appeared onstage, not including the individual members of Preservation Hall Jazz Band or Berklee Gospel and Roots Choir—solely because there were too many members to count that quickly. Only those two groups, Preservation Hall Jazz Band or Berklee Gospel and Roots Choir, featured musicians of color. As empowering as the songs were, it felt dispiriting to watch guest after guest waltz onstage and only worsen the ratio in the process. Especially in the era of Trump, representation matters, and a series of protest songs comes across blind and ignorant if it excludes large groups of the American population who need to be represented in this fight for equality.
This is not an attack. Newport Folk Festival excels at knowing its audience and giving them what they want to see in regard to musical genres and rising talent. What they need to do in the years that come is push themselves to represent what folk is all about, and what folk’s earliest innovators—from Lead Belly to Odetta to B.B. King—sang about nearly a century ago. It’s possible to hold the festival accountable while still loving the great moments you’ve had there. You know its worth, you know they strive to be better, and you trust that they’re capable of enacting change to better represent what folk was about and what folk is about. So hold them accountable. That change won’t happen on its own.
At the very end of their set, Pinegrove told audience members that their songs, mainly those on 2016’s Cardinal, are about love: platonic, romantic, familial. “When I wrote them, they were about my friends and family and people I knew, but they’re also about the people you don’t know, or at least that’s what I’ve changed it to mean now,” said frontman Evan Stephens Hall. “We should learn to have love for other people.” There’s no lack of love on the festival grounds at Newport, but perhaps there needs to be a change of direction. Newport Folk Festival needs to look outside its bubble to showcase the other side of folk. The festival succeeds year after year thanks to its large heart. Next year, one can only hope that heart makes sure no one is missing.
Read our recap of day 1 at Newport Folk Festival here.
Read our recap of day 2 at Newport Folk Festival here.
Check out more of Tim Bugbee’s photography from the festival by clicking on the picture below.
Created with flickr slideshow.