I had an amazing time at the Newport Folk Festival this past weekend! I was mostly preoccupied with the two stages I performed on throughout the weekend, and I was so proud to be able to go full circle with them both.
Saturday had me presenting on the Museum Stage in conjunction with the Treasures of the Archive Roadshow featuring the Down Hill Strugglers with John Cohen. The purpose of the roadshow is to present music learned from the vast archive in the Library of Congress. We had folklorist Nancy Groce moderating the stage, contributing tidbits of information on the material and keeping us all on task while John, making his first appearance at the festival since 1967, played some of the songs he learned from the archive back in the mid-1950s. John’s old group, The New Lost City Ramblers, performed at the first five Newport Folk Festivals and is the foundation of the initial old-time music revival that has influenced scores of musicians interested in playing the old-time styles.
We decided to make the set work in a round robin style, playing two group numbers and letting each player play a song of their choosing. Highlights for me included a rousing “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep” with everyone; Eli Smith playing the old cowboy favorite “Buffalo Skinners”; Walker Shepard doing the Appalachian classic “East Virginia” and Jackson Lynch playing a variation on the old prison song “That’s All Right.” John played a stunning rendition of “When First Unto This Country,” recalling that he and the Ramblers had played it at the first Newport and John describing and giving credit to the way the late Mike Seeger had adapted the song to fit the Ramblers’ sound. I played Elizabeth Cotten’s song “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” and Henry Thomas’ “Charmin’ Betsy” featuring the quills, which I first learned to play from Mike Seeger.
After playing that show, I was hanging around backstage and saw Abigail Washburn who invited me to come on stage for the big “This Land is Your Land” sing-along that closed the stage off for the day at the end of The Decemberists’ set. It was a pile of folks on stage! What a blast!
The next day, Sunday, was the main event as I hosted the first, and hopefully not the last,Music Maker Blues Revue at the Museum Stage.
Tim Duffy, Music Maker Relief Foundation’s founder, and I have been working to play at Newport for several years and this was the year that it all came together. The Revue featured Boo Hanks, myself, The Como Mamas, and Ironing Board Sam, with Blues Revue band members Ardie Dean, Albert White and Nashid Abdul-Khaaliq.
We started out the revue by introducing the artists. I felt it was important for Tim to explain the Music Maker mission and then let the artists tell a few stories of how they got into the music.
Boo Hanks talked about learning Blind Boy Fuller songs from a wind-up Victrola and learning from fellow musicians who showed him how to form the chords to play in the style that Blind Boy popularized.
The Como Mamas related having sung gospel all of their lives while growing up listening to their grandfather Miles Pratcher and his brother Bob play the old square dance numbers on the fiddle and guitar. They even recalled Mississippi Fred McDowell playing at their church, as he was a neighbor of theirs, and how Alan Lomax came to their house in 1959 to record their grandfather with Fred during his famous “Southern Journey.”
Ironing Board Sam recalled a few of his many experiences as a recording artist recording for Sun, Chess and Stax Records. He also recalled his time performing on Night Train, the first all-black TV show in Nashville, TN.
After the introductions the music began. Boo Hanks brought his unique style of Piedmont blues to the stage. Having known Boo since 2006 it was a great joy to see the folks light up as he played his version of “Key To The Highway” for the folks out there. The song had been performed by Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry in 1963, and we were bringing that sound back to the festival again.
Next, I played a set featuring some of the old songs I’ve learned over my travels including my version of Ma Rainey’s classic “Yonder Comes The Blues” and my own songs “Too Long I’ve Been Gone” and “’Til The Seas Run Dry”.
Following me were the phenomenal Como Mamas who brought the spirit of Jesus to the crowd. It’s a rare time that one might hear such raw yet polished acapella gospel harmony. Author Elijah Wald, who was presenting before the Revue on his new book “Dylan Goes Electric,” pulled me aside later and told me that the Mamas made his weekend. They sang such songs as “Ninety Nine and a Half Won’t Do” and “Count Your Blessings.” Even though many of their songs were acapella they still could get the crowd moving. It was Sunday afternoon and the crowd was ready to raise their hands.
As the Mamas neared the end of their set, the Blues Revue band joined them in playing a few numbers to be featured on their upcoming Daptone Records release and made way for Little Joe Burton, known as Little Joe From Chicago, who wowed the crowd with his mighty trombone. Little Joe worked with the late B.B. King for many years, and he brought the soul of the blues as he tore down a smokin’ “Sweet Home Chicago.” Next, Albert White took a heavy boogie-woogie with his mighty fine electric guitar before calling out the great Ironing Board Sam!
Donning his Mylar suit that shines like a rocket ship blasting off into orbit, Ironing Board Sam entered pouring self-rising flour on the floor whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Blazing through a frenetic set featuring his bejeweled “ironing board” keyboard, Sam got the people moving and grooving to the beat.
Topping it all off with a big “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” featuring the whole Revue, a fellow in the front row jumped up in excitement and started losing his mind, which brought the crowd to their feet. As the song finished, Sam performed his now famous version of “Over The Rainbow” bringing on a standing ovation that gave Tim Duffy and myself a great sense that we’ll make it back again next year.
To have presented two stages of vernacular American felt good. Again, it brought me full circle as many of the wonderful albums of Newport’s classic festivals were the reason I got into old music in the first place. I was glad to be able to facilitate and present a new set of performers to the Newport stage and bring a flavor of music that, by the crowd’s reaction, was needed and appreciated. I can only hope we did Pete Seeger proud!
Thanks again to Jay Sweet for allowing me to present these stages, and I can’t wait to do it again next year! Also, thanks to the great film director Murray Lerner who conducted interviews with all of the artists for the Newport archives!
Thanks again folks and please enjoy these videos showcasing some of the songs mentioned in the above article! It’s not everything but it’ll give you a little of what you missed!
The Music Maker Revue was filmed and recorded in higher quality video, and I’ll keep you all up to date when it becomes available to watch!
The Year of the Folksinger continues on!