The festival that began in 1959 with performances from Joan Baez and Pete Seeger expands this year to three days of performances by more than 50 acts on four stages. While this year's lineup features big names like Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Beck, Feist and the Lumineers, it also boasts dozens of lesser-known bands from myriad genres nationwide. Most of the artists reflect a surge in popularity for music that eschews technological pop prowess in favor of acoustic instruments, unadorned vocals and themes as reminiscent of the 19th century as they are of today.
"I think it's authenticity," said festival producer Jay Sweet. "It's not the biggest festival. We don't have any frills. There's no cool light show, no dancers. For us, it's all about the music, creating music that's built to last, built to be part of a tradition."
The festival gets underway Friday at its longtime home at Fort Adams State Park, a historic coastal fortification that boasts commanding views of sailboats plying the tranquil waters of Narragansett Bay. Its sister festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, is scheduled for the following weekend.
The Folk Festival is arguably enjoying its best years since the folk heydays of the 1960s, when Baez, Seeger and Johnny Cash all played Newport and where Bob Dylan angered folk fans and changed American music forever by going electric in 1965. The festival nearly died out in the 1970s but returned in the 1980s with a broader collection of acts from different genres.
Two years ago, the festival sold out in advance for the first time ever. Last year, tickets were gone three months in advance. This year, they were gone before organizers even released the lineup. Artists interviewed by The Associated Press credit festival organizers—and a resurgence in interest in roots music, an umbrella term that encompasses folk, stripped-down country, blues, bluegrass, gospel and other genres from the American songbook. It's a trend pushed by bands like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers, who play Newport on Sunday.
"It's a folk festival, but they've opened the gates to a big variety of people," said Nicki Bluhm of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, a California-based band playing its first Newport gig. "What's appealing to people right now is real music played by real people."
While festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo may attract much bigger crowds—Newport is capped at 10,000 per day—the Folk Festival has proved to be a festival where the old and new come together, where brand-new bands hoping to be discovered by a wider audience jam with icons from their grandparents' day.
"I think Newport means a lot to anyone that's at least halfway conscious of what's happened in music in the last 60 years," said Joey Ryan, half of the acoustic duo The Milk Carton Kids. Asked what the band had planned for its first Newport show, Ryan quipped, "We thought we might go electric."
Perhaps surprisingly, musicians routinely list the majestic scenery of Narragansett Bay as one of their favorite things about playing Newport. Ramblin' Jack Elliott recalls that when he last played Newport, two years ago, he was sharing the stage with Seeger when the two became "terribly distracted."
"These three beautiful schooners were sailing in all at once, and there were about 20 other boats out there, too," he said. "I looked over at Pete, and I think he got distracted, too. I think he forgot what he was singing."
Look for next year's festival to continue to expand. While the festival had held Friday night kick-off concerts before, this year's music begins at 2 p.m. Friday. Next year, Sweet said he hopes to start even earlier in the day, making the festival a true three-day event.
Elliott, 81, has played Newport 10 or 11 times, he said, going back to the 1963 festival. He said he's delighted the festival has caught on with younger acts and younger fans, and he believes it's in response to the artificially sweetened sound of pop music.
"Mississippi John Hurt isn't with us anymore, and Lead Belly is gone. The spirit of Woody Guthrie is still lurking around," Elliott said. "This land ain't your land, and it ain't my land, but the songs are still sung with feeling."