Why musicians and fans still flock to Newport Folk Festival

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Newport Folk Festival, it's the place where Bob Dylan famously went electric in 1965, and so much music history was made since its founding in 1959.

These days, summer festivals are everywhere, dominating the music scene.

But, as Jeffrey Brown found out this past weekend, Newport not only survives, but once again thrives.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were big names on stage, younger stars like the band Fleet Foxes, and old masters like John Prine. There was also a bit of this from comedian Megan Mullally and her musical partner, Stephanie Hunt.

What do you call it?

MEGAN MULLALLY, Entertainer: Punk Vaudeville, maybe? They don't have like the Newport punk Vaudeville festival yet.

STEPHANIE HUNT, Musician: It's not a genre just yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the most part, though, traditions were upheld.

MAN: We're playing folk music with a capital F.

JEFFREY BROWN: And parents pleased.

WOMAN: I have certainly made my dad proud. He's like, I never thought my daughter would sing in Newport.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Newport Folk Festival was three days of sun and wind, sailboats and seagulls, held in a 19th century fort named for President John Adams, on a gorgeous setting on a spit of land in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. It's a place that cultivates its history.

Executive producer Jay Sweet:

JAY SWEET, Executive Producer, Newport Folk Festival: The one thing, if you will notice, about this festival when you walk around is, there's nothing but music. We don't have ferris wheels. It's nothing but music. And we jam quite a bit of music into a very small spot.

JEFFREY BROWN: And everyone wants to play here, even though the pay is far less than for other, bigger festivals.

JAY SWEET: Remarkably less.

JEFFREY BROWN: Remarkably less.

(LAUGHTER)

JAY SWEET: Yes, to the point where it's almost embarrassing. And to the artists' credit, they completely understand. We're about as transparent as you can get.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you say?

JAY SWEET: Well, no, what I'm saying is, most of these artists play for 10 times what we pay them, and they still come.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the audience does, too, drawn in part by the intimacy. Relatively small, some 10,000 people spread out over four stages, this festival sells out before anyone knows who's performing.

Music promoter George Wein founded the festival in 1959, five years after starting the Newport Jazz Festival.

GEORGE WEIN, Founder, Newport Folk Festival: It's like a time warp. When I see the people coming in, the same faces, the same people, different generations. It's the same feeling, the same peace and love feeling, without saying peace and love. They don't dress alike, because the dress is different, but they respond alike. And that's a fascinating thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 91, Wein gets around these days on his lean green Wein machine golf cart, and serves as chairman of the Newport Festivals Foundation, now set up as a nonprofit.

GEORGE WEIN: I don't want to leave. And I love it. It keeps my head going. My mind is as clear as ever. I can't walk, but that's — who cares? Who has to walk?

JEFFREY BROWN: Pete Seeger, who helped Wein start the festival, is honored at an indoor stage series titled For Pete's Sake.

The spirit of '60s protest music is all around. The late greats commemorate some of Newport's legendary performers now gone. The folk festival itself almost died several times, but today, the audience skews young, attracted by a new generation of musicians who gladly stretch any remaining bonds of folk music.

What do you call what you're doing?

NIKKI LANE, Singer-Songwriter: Something between a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll. My favorite compliment is that people always say, I don't like country music, but I like you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thirty-four-year-old, Nashville-based Nikki Lane is an up-and-coming singer/songwriter working hard to make it on the festival scene throughout the year.

NIKKI LANE: I know, like at festivals like Coachella, they're doing 150,000 people a weekend. If you aren't playing something that can necessarily be played on radio, and you're — how do you market yourself? How do you reach the masses? These festivals are kind of serving you up, and it's kind of survival of the fittest.

JEFFREY BROWN: This one, compared to a — those 150,000 …

NIKKI LANE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is like a little boutique sort of place, I suppose.

NIKKI LANE: Yes, but that's — I imagine where — if you look at the people that are coming here, I would imagine that almost all of the bookers for festivals have spent time here, if anything, figuring out what to book next. This is, to me, the biggest taste-maker.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even if you're now a headliner here, like Fleet Foxes, you know the feeling.

Leader singer Robin Pecknold:

ROBIN PECKNOLD, Singer-Songwriter: The first time we played here in 2009, they can't have paid us that much. But I remember the experience was great and the — I'm not even sure they paid us, like, what we deserve to be paid.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Whatever minimal …

(CROSSTALK)

ROBIN PECKNOLD: Sure. But the experience was amazing, and it was a great show. And you do get put in front of an audience that maybe doesn't know who you are, or — when you're on your way up. And I'm sure that half the people out there probably don't know who we are tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, yes, but you're back here as a headliner now.

ROBIN PECKNOLD: I would come here not knowing — I would buy a ticket to this without knowing who anybody was playing, before they had even announced the lineup.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thirty-year-old British musician Michael Kiwanuka calls his music psychedelic folk soul. He came here on the heels of major new exposure through the soundtrack of the hit TV series "Big Little Lies."

And at Newport, he was a clear favorite of fans and other musicians.

MICHAEL KIWANUKA, Singer-Songwriter: I'm working on my career and want to be around for a while, like other singers that inspire me.

And so I'm not like a mega pop star, but I do my thing. But I think that's really important here that is good is that it's music lovers that come and, like, music lovers that play it.

So, if you get to play at Newport, it means that there's something in your music that is honest or raw or has come from the heart. And I think ever since a young age, that's what I have been trying to do or been inspired by.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was one old-time rock star here, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. He made a surprise acoustic appearance to help honor the great American folk singer John Prine.

Waters, as much as anyone here, felt Newport's past and present spirit.

ROGER WATERS, Singer-Songwriter: It's about music, but it's also about love. But it's also about protest, because there's a strong tradition in American music.

And get them, get musicians started. Enough with Kim Kardashian's bum, and Katy Perry or whoever, and all that bubblegum nonsense. Yes, and there are — there are a lot of young committed musicians who are desperate to find a platform.

JEFFREY BROWN: Once again, Newport provided that kind of platform, continuing its long and storied history.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Newport Folk Festival.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch more performances from the Newport Folk Festival, including one from British singer/songwriter Michael Kiwanuka.

That's on our Facebook page, facebook.com/newshour.

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