“We’re stronger when we sing together”
On the 60th anniversary of Rhode Island’s now iconic Newport Folk Festival, these words from festival co-founder Pete Seeger prove more truthful than ever. From it’s not-so humble beginnings in 1959 as one of the first modern festivals in America, Newport Folk Festival has transformed into one of the most worshiped musical events in the country.
It’s sense of wholesome community isn’t just noteworthy, it’s heavily emphasized as the festival’s backbone and reason for success. How else could a festival remain in such high demand for six decades?
It’s agenda for harmony isn’t just potent, it’s continually accentuated as the reason artists and fans feel so strongly about returning year after year. Where else would you get a push notification after the final act asking you to be nice to everyone on your ride home?
Most of all, it’s ability to keep audiences on their toes with a consistently unbelievable lineup is simply unmatched. Why else would every ticket (3-day, 2-day/weekend, single day, kids passes, etc.) sell out in less than 15 minutes…before the lineup had even been announced?!
Needless to say, there a number of palpable reasons why Newport Folk Festival is such a treasure. In an attempt to capture up the precious moments that made this year’s Newport Folk Festival truly incredible, below are a few allegorical awards given to some of the most special acts and moments of the weekend.
Best Act: “If I Had A Song”
The aggregation of pure talent on any given stage at Newport Folk Festival is borderline otherworldly. Never was that collective talent more formidable than during Sunday’s closing set, titled “If I Had A Song”. The description of this set was unusual and interesting – it read:
This set will surround hate, and force it to surrender. In what would have been our co-founder’s 100th year, we could think of no better way to celebrate Pete’s spirit in a time where we need each other now more than ever, than to do so with a celebratory sing-along. We’re stronger when we sing together, so we intend to do just that for this year’s festival finale.
But what does a festival sing-along actually look like? Picture this: as the sun began to dip and golden hour set in over Fort Adams State Park’s gorgeous harborside location, small song books were passed throughout the crowd of approximately 10,000 audience members. The books each had 13 songs, most of which contained heavy choruses to make it easier to sing as a collective unit.
As people read through the books and waited for an act to emerge, a rag was lifted from atop a centerstage stool to reveal Kermit the Frog. Kermit jokingly welcomed the stunned crowd to the “Newport Frog Festival” and began singing his Academy Award winning song “The Rainbow Connection”, originally premiering in The Muppets Movie back in 1979. Kermit was soon joined by Jim James (lead singer of My Morning Jacket) to form one of the most lovable and unlikely duets the crowd had ever seen. The crowd’s jaw wouldn’t lift off the floor for at least a couple hours, as Kermit the Frog and Jim James’ duet would foreshadow a positively star-studded display of guest appearances.
After Kermit and Jim James left the stage, celebrities rolled in one-by-one, each to guide a song from the the crowd’s song book. Alynda Segarra (lead singer of Hurray for the Riff Raff) made a surprise appearance to join the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in playing Peter, Paul and Mary’s actionable tune “If I Had a Hammer”. Hozier joined Lake Street Dive to sing Sly & The Family Stone’s loud and proud track “Everyday People”. Colin Meloy (lead singer of The Decemberists) made an unexpected entrance to join The Milk Carton Kids in singing a patriotic “This Land Is Your Land”. Half the acts appearing on stage weren’t even on the bill, but that’s what made it fun – you never knew what artist was going to emerge from the curtains next.
Perhaps the most unbelievable combination of artists came when Robin Pecknold (lead singer of Fleet Foxes), Eric Johnson (lead singer of Fruit Bats), and James Mercer (lead singer of The Shins) joined together with Jason Isbell on guitar to play a phenomenal rendition of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”. Their harmonies were angelic, bringing together three of folk rock’s most esteemed 21st-century vocalists for a trio the likes of which the world may never see again. Best of all, towards the end of the song Pecknold invited 80 year-old Judy Collins to the stage to sing along with the trio – a symbolic gesture of extraordinary magnitude considering Stephen Stills wrote the song about Judy Collins 50 years prior.
Finally, the night closed out with a stunt only Newport Folk Festival could pull off. The festival organizers thanked the crowd for their sense of community and dedication, then invited 88 year old Ramblin’ Jack Elliot to the stage to sing the final number “Goodnight Irene”. Elliot’s sincerity while singing the classic country ballad was beyond endearing. It was as if the festival’s grandfather was putting the festival to rest by singing everyone a bedtime lullaby, yet the euphoric crowd wanted to sing alongside him as long as possible rather than end what was a truly perfect weekend.
Best Song: “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton & The Collaboration
Of all the stars on display at Newport Folk Festival, Dolly Parton was undoubtedly the most adored and respected. But what made her presence even more exciting was that no one knew she was going to be performing at all. Saturday’s headlining set, simply titled “♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration”, had no description and was met with intense speculation and buzz from a packed crowd. It was obvious that some amazing women were going to be joining together for this act, but no one had any clue as to who it could possibly be.
After a stirring set filled with marvelous performances from Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, Maggie Rogers, Jade Bird, Lucy Dacus, Yola, and many more, Brandi Carlile lit the venue on fire by introducing Dolly Parton to the stage. The crowd absolutely erupted, dazed and confused at the sheer magnificence of a country legend making a once in a lifetime appearance in front of their eyes.
Parton played 5 different songs including rousing tracks like “Joleen” and “I Will Always Love You”, but her final song “9 to 5” had the crowd more energized than they had been all weekend. She sang beautifully, but she was nearly inaudible during the chorus as a screaming crowd belted out the the invigorating lyrics in an unifying act of pure elation. The artists onstage with Parton were undoubtedly more star-struck thank the crowd, many of which could be seen mouthing words and phrases like “wow” and “oh my god” to themselves as they gazed at her terrific presence. At the close of the song, everyone literally got to their knees and began bowing to Parton to epitomize their appropriate awe of her idyllic persona.
Relive the crowd’s amazing energy during Dolly Parton’s performance of 9 to 5 below.
Best Opener: Yola
Yola has all the talent needed to make it big. The self-proclaimed country-soul artist has a fierce persona with a voice that would rival the best of Motown. Yet only having released one album, she’s still virtually unknown outside of her niche genre. If anyone had any doubts about Yola’s abilities going into her opening set Friday however, she sang those doubts into oblivion. Her voice was impeccable, breaking down any speculations that many newcomers had going into the weekend regarding whether there was any excitement to be found beyond the big-name headliners. She transcended decades, proving that the common phrase “they don’t make music like they used to” couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Beyond her opening set on Friday, Yola was a hit among a number of the other artists. She had a staring role in Friday’s headlining set ♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration, while she was also credited as being a fringe member of The Highwomen . It was clear that she had the support within the industry – she’s just one step away from breaching the the surface of mainstream media.
Watch in awe as Yola flexes her golden pipes in her set’s closing song “Faraway Look” below.
Best Cover: “The Chain” by The Highwomen
This weekend was decorated with entire sets dedicated to cover songs. If I Had A Song was a dazzling performance of unannounced artists playing unexpected songs, while ♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration highlighted nearly every talented female the festival had to offer by having them cover each others’ favorite tracks. Even a lesser-known opening set had assorted acts and special guests come up one by one to sing individual songs from Graham Nash’s debut album Songs for Beginners.
But when it came to covers within sets which weren’t based entirely off of playing other people’s songs, The Highwomen took the cake. After playing nearly their entire unreleased album in full, they transitioned into a haunting rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 single “The Chain”. The largely older crowd was over the moon, singing and dancing along as their voices were dwarfed by this all-female foursome’s grouping of mighty and pervasive vocals. Unbeknownst to the crowd, The Highwomen would go on to release a studio version of “The Chain” the following Friday, proving they had spent significant time perfecting their melodies in the very vocally challenging song.
Check out the dynamic energy The Highwomen brought to Newport Folk Festival with their cover of “The Chain” below.