Festival: Who Knows What’s Gonna Happen Tomorrow?

From a certain age and vantage point, the experience of the summer music festival in its present form—with its complex configurations of portable toilets, its vast and hierarchical lineups, its lurid bacchanalian atmosphere—may appear more harrowing than fun. To invoke any ideology beyond remorseless capitalism and self-promotion for such an event would seem naive now, almost two decades into the twenty-first century, when the idea of the festival as a significant cultural or political happening is a thing of the past. But Murray Lerner’s 1967 documentary Festival, shot at the Newport Folk Festival from 1963 to 1966, reminds us of the original model: a gathering of like-minded people who were drawn not only to the populist music they were playing and listening to but also to genuine engagement in the larger questions that were agitating their society.

When Lerner began making the film, America was in a state of existential tumult. In 1963 alone, a series of extraordinary things happened: Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique; Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Soon thereafter, Lyndon Johnson pledged continued military and economic support for South Vietnam. When Sam Cooke recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come” in January 1964, following his arrest three months earlier for trying to check in to a whites-only Holiday Inn in Shreveport, Louisiana, it was a statement more of portentous fact than of hopeful imagining. People were anxious and outraged. The future must have seemed nearly incomprehensible. What Lerner documents in his film is this moment of profound volatility, as creatively fertile as it was frightening. 

The Newport Folk Festival had grown out of the Newport Jazz Festival, which had been founded in 1954 by the socialite Elaine Lorillard and her husband, Louis. The Lorillards enlisted jazz promoter George Wein to manage the event, and in 1959, Wein established a sister festival, which ran on a separate weekend and featured only folk artists. From the start, fissures between the spirit of the Newport Folk Festival and the excesses of its Rhode Island host city—the habits of whose wealthiest Gilded Age inhabitants had prompted economist Thorstein Veblen to coin the phrase “conspicuous consumption”—were apparent. “Folk” was defined expansively at Newport: it referred to music that in some significant way reflected the inner experiences of hardworking people, or else transcended the personal by expressing a social conscience. Musical concerns were secondary to a shared ethos—a progressive political ideology that valued authentic lived experience above anything else. What was going on at Newport felt urgent and essential almost immediately. A folk revival had been afoot in Greenwich Village and around Harvard Square for nearly a decade, but here was a destination where like-minded acolytes from all over the country could gather to play, hear, and learn about folk music—as well as to organize (for equality; against the war) and share ideas.

In 1963, Lerner was just thirty-six—not so much older than the fans thronging Freebody Park that year. After graduating from Harvard in 1948, Lerner had established his own production company; he made commercials and industrial films for clients like Gulf and Firestone and eventually saved enough money to buy the microphones and 16 mm cameras he would use to make Festival. At first, Lerner was involved merely as a volunteer, donating his time and vision to create a material record of the festival. But he sensed that something bigger was developing—that the counterculture was coalescing in some vital and unmistakable way, and that Newport was becoming its de facto town hall. Over the course of the next few years, Lerner and his crew trawled the grounds, interviewing attendees and musicians, working hard to capture whatever ineffable thing hung in the air over that stretch of coastal Rhode Island in the midsixties, as young people tried to imagine what kind of reality their adulthoods would play out in.

As a filmmaker, Lerner has always been interested in acquiring a complete and evolving view of a closed system, in seeing how things change with time. Secrets of the Reef (1956), the first feature Lerner worked on after graduating from college, explores life and death in and around a coral reef; he and his collaborators spent three years shooting it at Florida’s Marineland, an aquarium and underwater movie studio. In Newport, his microcosm was a subculture: the folk revivalists and activists who traveled to Rhode Island to take part in something significant. In Festival, Lerner deliberately blurs the chronology, making it hard to know what was filmed when or, for performers who appeared in multiple years, which years’ sets are being shown. His film is less about particulars than the macro view: what happened at Newport during those four years, and what did it mean? You get the feeling that if Lerner could have kept zooming his camera farther and farther out—until eventually he was considering the festival from outer space, in the context of the whole universe—he would have. 

Lerner knows, however, how revelatory a more idiosyncratic vantage can be. In Festival’s opening scene—a few minutes of Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band performing in some shady little grove—his camera is close up on Mel Lyman, who is cupping a harmonica. (Lyman shortly thereafter founded the Fort Hill Community in Boston; a 1971 Rolling Stone feature exposed the group as a cult, declaring Lyman “the East Coast Charles Manson.”) In footage of an amateur sing-along, Lerner lingers on the foot of a man wearing a loafer, no sock. Later, he pauses on an unashed cigarette, then someone waking up from a nap, then a banjo with a for-sale sign taped to its case, then a woman wandering across the sand. All these details—captured in sharp black and white, with grace and wit—become telling documentation, the purest indicators of time and place. Though Newport has become synonymous with a handful of significant musical moments, good narratives of its culture are rare. Festival is a stunning one.

In his 2015 book Dylan Goes Electric!, music historian Elijah Wald writes that by 1963 George Wein was hoping to make the festival “an event that would take advantage not only of the music but of the idealism of the folk world, and felt the way to do that was to put its helm in the hands of someone who ‘would uphold—even embody’ those ideals.” Wald quotes Wein: “I needed Pete Seeger.”

It’s hard to imagine a figure more earnestly devoted to the populist dreams of the folk revival than Seeger, who fought tirelessly for equality in all things and earnestly believed that folk music could transform ill will into kindness, or at least understanding. He put together a board of directors that included the actor, musician, and activist Theodore Bikel; Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary; the Appalachian ballad singer Jean Ritchie; Bill Clifton of the Dixie Mountain Boys; Erik Darling, who had recently replaced Seeger in the Weavers; and Clarence Cooper, then of the Tarriers. 

Beginning in 1961, an organization called Friends of Old Time Music had been hosting folk performances at a schoolhouse in Greenwich Village and inviting overlooked rural musicians—artists such as Dock Boggs, Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley, and Joseph Spence—to perform. This kind of homage to a deep and varied tradition quickly became a cornerstone of the folk revival, and Newport continued the practice. Seeger and his board booked enough popular contemporary acts (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins) to ensure that crowds would gather, but they also brought back into public consciousness older folks like Bill Monroe, Maybelle Carter, Fred McDowell, Son House, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James, and, perhaps most incredibly, the country-blues singer and guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, who had recorded a handful of transcendent 78 rpm sides for Okeh Records in 1928 but hadn’t performed in public since. 

In early 1963, Hurt was located by the amateur musicologist Tom Hoskins—after his sessions for Okeh, he’d returned to sharecropping in his hometown of Avalon, Mississippi—and his reappearance at Newport inspired dozens of others to go scouring the Southeast for long-forgotten visionaries. (“If John Hurt could live in obscurity for thirty-five years, how many other hidden treasures were scattered across American soil?” Wein later recalled wondering.) Lerner’s footage of Hurt performing “Candy Man Blues”—an undeniably filthy song about a man with a nine-inch-long stick of candy (“If you try his candy, good friend of mine / You sure will want it for a long, long time,” “His stick candy don’t melt away / It just gets better, so the ladies say”)—while audience members thoughtfully nod their heads remains hilarious. “I just like music. You know, I read in the Bible that older men teach the younger ones. I’m glad I’ve got something that they want,” Hurt tells Lerner. “‘Candy Man,’” he chuckles. He starts laughing harder. “They like ‘Candy Man.’” Only a small boy of maybe nine or ten seems to get what is happening. He stares at Hurt with his mouth agape.

The credibility Seeger and his team lent the festival in its early years was paramount to its success. Lerner’s interview subjects—it is difficult, sometimes, to know whether he is talking to a performer or a fan; everyone is dressed modestly and speaks plainly and carefully—express their belief in the profound polarity between folk and commercial recordings, a deeply held sense of the sanctity of this music and the change it could empower. “It gives me a lot more than the popular music of our own time does. I don’t like to feel like I’m being conned! I like to hear about the way things really are,” we hear the singer Tom Paxton explaining. If the vibe was anticommercial, it was also, to an extent, against inequality of any kind, including an enforced division between performer and audience. People came toting guitars, banjos, harmonicas, and whatever else; nearly as much music was being made offstage—in impromptu song circles, in afternoon gatherings of friends and strangers—as onstage. 

Lerner filmed several of these sessions. As snapshots of a moment, they are remarkable. Folk music was then so resolutely open and accessible as to feel utopian; the only qualification required for its practice, it seemed, was sincerity and access to something to bang on or strum. In his book, Elijah Wald describes Rhode Island senator Claiborne Pell announcing, before a performance by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, that folk music was the “only form of art whose creative roots stem from the soul of all the people, and not just from the talented few.” Talent, even, seemed like a pliable notion. In retrospect, some of folk revivalism’s righteous grandstanding about the inviolability of the genre can seem absurd, particularly given the relative privilege of the audience assembled at Newport; though the festival organizers worked hard to emphasize inclusivity and diversity, Lerner’s crowd shots reveal a sea of overwhelmingly white faces. The director seems to have regarded this disparity skeptically, even at the time. 

Festival also considers the way ideas about folk music—what it was and how it should work—were revised countless times between 1963 and 1966. Lerner was there, filming, when Dylan famously went electric in 1965. During his earlier appearances, Dylan is sleepy-eyed and gentle. In 1963, when he first performed, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his second album, had just been released, and “Blowin’ in the Wind” was on its way to becoming a world-famous protest anthem. In her introduction to Dylan’s set in 1965, Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers positioned him not only as a prophet but as someone the counterculture had collectively given body to—conjured. “This is a young man who grew out of a need,” she said. “He came to be as he is because things needed saying.” She paused. “I don’t have to tell you. You know him; he’s yours.”

Lerner also included footage of Dylan from that year, singing “All I Really Want to Do,” from 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan. As he plays, Lerner shifts his lens to the people in the crowd, some in sunglasses, some smoking, all seated, all listening intently. They move or speak only after Dylan finishes his set, unplugs his acoustic guitar, and mumbles, “Thank you very much, good-bye.” Then the crowd is on its feet, applauding, whooping, hollering “More!” To observe this kind of festival listening—devoted, still, quiet—now, in an era in which a singular focus on anything seems rare, is like glimpsing a forgotten practice. It feels as archaic as watching someone churn cream into butter. 

When Lerner interviews a cluster of attendees after Dylan’s performance, a few aren’t so sanguine about what Dylan embodies. “Everybody around here wants to be a bum and be famous for it,” one kid jokes. His friend, a young man in an unbuttoned plaid shirt, is unsure about Dylan’s significance now that he’s famous—is he irrelevant; is he the problem? “There he is; there’s the man, the god. But who needs him anymore? He’s accepted—he’s part of your establishment. Forget him,” he says. 

These moments—in which the ideological confusion of the folk revival is voiced—are particularly valuable for what they communicate about the emotional bedlam of the time. People wanted to help, to make the world more humane and habitable, but no one was certain of the most reliable path forward; no one knew what to do (“Everyone’s gathering together to be a nonconformist,” one attendee comments). 

Yet even if no one could ever definitively say what “folk music” meant, precisely—and Lerner asked, repeatedly—it still seemed like a reasonable thing to rally behind. The particulars weren’t important. Musical definitions were too limiting, social definitions too prescriptive. “For me, I just like it,” admits one young man wearing a harmonica. “I’m not picketing or protesting anything. There are a lot of things to be protesting against. But for me, the music isn’t a release, or an expression of that. Ask someone why they like strawberry shortcake—they just do.”

Others appear worried about the future and hope folk music might refocus the nation’s energy. “But if we don’t do anything about, say, the bomb—we could be playing along one day and have the whole situation come to an end,” a kid in a white T-shirt explains. “Personally, my outlook is that topical songs should be sung, because they’re the singer’s way of doing something to improve the lot, which he’s ignoring if he just kazoos off into the horizon or something.” 

“Who knows what’s gonna happen tomorrow?” another asks. His voice is defensive. “We might be in a world war tomorrow. We’ve got the car, we’ve got the radio, we’ve got public communication, everything. We know what’s going on in the world, and everybody is confused. Nobody knows where they’re going. I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow. Do you?”

One of the most powerful things Lerner does in Festival is to crystallize this strange, omnipresent anxiety—a sense, among the crowd, that nothing is guaranteed, including anyone’s tomorrow. It’s hard, watching Festival now, not to take a curious kind of comfort in this reminder that, only fifty years ago, the American experiment felt just as unstable, and the future just as tenuous, as it does today. The fear we see on the faces of Newport attendees is no different from the fear in the streets of our present-day cities and towns. And the music itself continues to offer comfort. “Folk music is really the personification of a human being extending his hand to another human being without losing any of his dignity,” an unidentified Peter Yarrow intones in voice-over early in the film. “We feel this way about it; walk with us.” 

The Newport Folk Festival didn’t directly solve any of America’s problems, of course, but it offered a chance for like-minded people to stand together and sing: to find solace and power in each other, and to take that energy home with them. Music critics—myself included—have worried that most contemporary protest movements have no musical center, and that they suffer for it. The hedonism of the big summer festivals might be construed as political, but their aim is chiefly oblivion—a weekend away from the concerns of the day, not devoted to addressing them. Festival is a beautiful reminder of a different way.

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