Friday, June 2, 2017

Book Review: I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival

Even though it has been around for 50+ years and has been a cultural institution for most of those, I Got a Song: The History of the Newport Folk Festival is somehow the first ever book exclusively documenting the history of the festival.

Written by Rhode Island journalist Rick Massimo, breaks down the entire history of the festival. It starts off as the festival clashed with Newport town officials over the rowdy crowds the festival brought to their ritzy town to modern times with the festival receiving awards and accolades from Newport. It discusses the highs of the festivals to the lows, including when the festival disappeared for over ten years, to when it was completely corporately sponsored in the 80s and 90s, and almost ending just before the 50th anniversary in 2009. It doesn't just list the artists that play on each year, but instead focuses on the backstage stories and history. You learn directly from those that were there as to why decisions were made and their affect. I was a bit disappointed that more focus wasn't put on the music itself, but you can get the line up of every year's festival on Google. Behind the scenes stories affect the festival on a much more deeper level.

And, the interviews are incredibly expansive. Massimo interviews (or finds interviews) with virtually everyone involved with the Newport Folk Festival from day one. You hear extensively from founder George Wein, Pete Seeger, current producer Jay Sweet, etc. He interviews many artists past and present on what Newport means to them. Plus, he talks to die hard fans that have been coming for years. Some of the fan interviews are the most fascinating, as it isn't just gushing praise. He talks with older festival goers about their disappointment with some of the more recent changes to the set up of Newport, and then with the current staff on why those changes have taken place.

One of my personal favorite revelations about the Newport Folk Festival was that ever since the first edition, there has been controversy on what artists should play, who is truly folk or not. Every year there are artists that are debated on if they can truly be considered folk artists, or even the definition of folk itself. It seems like this has been more of a modern debate, with artists like the Pixies, Beck, Reinwolf, etc. pushing the boundaries of what can be called folk, but this debate has been ongoing from the first Newport Folk Festival, where they argued over including commercially successful artists or just unknown singers.

Of course, Bob Dylan going electric is brought up, and is given its own chapter. Massimo breaks format a bit, and instead of a traditional narrative, he gives it the oral history treatment. There is always going to be a debate on if Dylan was truly booed or was the crowd just upset at the sound mix. In fact, even the legend of Pete Seeger threatening to cut the power to the stage is still debated by multiple eyewitnesses. Some say he wanted to cut the power, others say he was so upset that he retreated to his car. Seeger years later claimed that he was only upset at the sound mix since no one could hear the music properly. The truth is left up to the reader to decide.

I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival by Rick Massimo will be out June 6 on Wesleyan University Press. You can get your own copy over at Amazon.

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