Common Root: Newport Folk Festival Producer Jay Sweet

With the festival season in full swing, journalist are pining for the chance to speak to the creators, booking agents, and organizers of these highlights of the summer.  Glide Magazine spoke with producer Jay Sweet about the Newport Folk Festival, one of the most unique events around.  Since 1959, the festival has showcased acts like Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan and continues to look for the great folk acts of today. 

This year’s lineup includes legend Jackson Browne alongside modern folk heroes like Conor Oberst and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.  Unlike other shows with bands ranging in styles, Newport stays true to its roots and artfully plans a festival unlike any other.  Sweet spoke about the organization of the festival, the evolution of folk music, and his favorite acts over the years. 

When do you start thinking of ideas for this year’s festival?

We put our first offer in in September.  I’ve got an ongoing list and we have some of them that are the dreams.  When I started a few years back, I put everyone who I ever wanted to play at Newport on a big whiteboard.  Some years you’re actually trying to set up… if you don’t get them for say 2012 you’re already working on 2013.  I never stop trying to land the artists that I think need to play Newport at least once in their career. I pretty much think about Newport Folk every waking moment.

Why do you think that people are responding so strongly and emphatically about this years’ lineup in particular?

I think there is no weak link in the lineup and I also think that Newport offers an alternative to what is increasingly becoming a festival staple, which is “serving musical omnivore.”  What I mean by this – you take, say, the Hangout festival…it’s amazing.  It’s a great lineup- it’s got a lot of things for a lot of people, but we’re fairly focused.  We don’t have a dance tent, we don’t have a hip-hop tent, we don’t have a DJ tent. We aren’t trying to be all things to all people.  We are trying to be what we think is the best stuff out there.  And if you agree… awesome, you agree, and if you don’t, that’s OK too. 

There’s other alternatives for you.  I think what we are is more of a big family reunion.  That’s the vibe of Newport, other than, “Lets go and get crazy out in the middle of nowhere with 180 different bands of all different styles.”  We offer an alternative experience, which is: all the bands that come to Newport share something in common.  They share a common root.  I think the success is: finally people who gravitate towards that have rediscovered Newport.  "I can go every year.  I might not know 50% of the bands, but if they’re anything like the other 50%, which I love, I’ll get turned on to them too."

We really, really curate this festival, and that’s a really important term.  We agonize over every single decision and I think it shows.  You can either use a sniper rifle or a shotgun and we try to really, really pinpoint exactly who we want and go after it very strongly.  We have 30 bands as opposed to a normal festival with 180 bands. It’s like an invite- we still feel it’s an honor to get a Newport Folk invite.  [Pausing] Honor is maybe too strong- It should mean something.  Of the say 300 bands that are touring North America this summer, you have a 50/50 chance to get invited to any of the major music festivals.  It’s a lot harder to get an offer to the Newport Folk Festival than a lot of the other festivals.  There’s that whole element too- there’s a give and take.

Clearly folk music has evolved since the roots of the festival.  What do you think are the defining characteristics of folk music today? 

That’s a great question.  Folk is a… whats the best word… folk is a malleable term. What I mean by that is there is a famous line which was made famous by Louis Armstrong,  “It’s all folk music, I ain’t never heard no horse sing.”  There’s obviously a pun in there. You have to imagine.  In it’s heyday, folk music was really the original term for independent music.  Folk music was transferred from generation to generation via oral tradition.  It wasn’t written down- it was always the non-mainstream.  It’s basically what happened when people said this music is not popular. Not popular in the sense that nobody likes it.  The word popular or “pop” music was built for music that isn’t designed to stand the test of time.  It’s built for that moment.  You have to look at folk music always with pop music.  Folk music is built to stand the test of time.  It has roots, but it always tries to push it a little bit into the future.  It’s not always trying to be something different  They are trying to acknowledge the music that came before-  we’re going to digest it and put out something that we think is taking it a step forward. Folk music to me is just people who are taking chances with music. 

That’s the other thing. The first thing that might come to mind is the singer-songwriter acoustic. You have to imagine Newport Folk is not only where Dylan went electric, but also where the Pixies went acoustic.  Crazy things happen at Newport. People take chances at Newport.  Newport’s a place of musical exploration and, in a sense, that is still redefining the term. Real folk music is music that understands where it’s from, but is throwing sharp elbows to try and expand its territory. 

It’s too dynamic to ever be coined anything.  My favorite definition is from M. Ward – “It’s whatever the hell Pete Seeger says it is.”  If you ask Pete Seeger what his definition of folk music is, he says it’s any music done by people for people.  He is specifically making it very, very broad.  I don’t even think Pete Seeger can define what that is.  I think that Bob Marley is just as big as Woody Guthrie when it comes to some of the biggest icons in folk music.  Bob Marley sings songs about his culture and his suffering and his people and he tries to make songs that would stand.  “Redemption Song” is one of the best folk songs ever written.  There’s some gospel songs that are amazing folk songs, some reggae songs that are amazingly folk, there are some rock and roll songs that are unbelievable folk songs, there are blues songs that are amazing folk songs.  All these other genre terms stand for that genre where folk is basically almost song-to-song.  The Rolling Stones have written some folk songs, Bob Marley has written some folk songs.  The only difference is: I only know a folk song when I hear it.  That’s the only way I can say it. 

Focus on young artists this year.  Is it important to keep a youthful presence at the festival and promote up-and-coming artists?

I think that’s a byproduct of who we book. It’s not booking younger artists to get younger people.  It’s booking younger artists that we believe that we want to help.  The younger audience that comes to see people is a byproduct of our vision which is to basically help these younger bands find their place in the musical world.  They can align themselves with the Newport Folk family.  If you look at an Avett Brothers or a Dawes or a Deer Tick or a David Wax Museum or the Low Anthem or a Brown Bird or a Joe Fletcher, these are bands we want to grow old with.  We’re investing in our love of their music.  We’re investing in them. 

It’s a great byproduct that younger people are getting turned on to a product that is ten years older than Woodstock.  Look there’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland that people send stuff there to stand behind plexiglass and get dusty.  I look at Newport as a living, breathing musical history book.  Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, all the way down to the new artists you see on this year’s lineup, they’re all part of a bigger thing.  None of them is bigger than Newport Folk, that sounds very megalomaniac, no one band is bigger than the Newport Folk Festival.  You can’t be because you are just part of it.  Look at Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger.  You’re talking about things that are icons, they’re above the music. It’s a very unique thing that there is not one artist that is bigger than the entire history of the Newport Folk Festival.

If you could have been at any show in Newport history, what would you want to see?

It’s tough.  I have a couple.  I think to have seen Dock Boggs would have been remarkable and looking at pictures from Jim Marshall, the world famous photographer, it would have to have been memorable to have been there in ‘63 and ’64.  In particular, the year leading up to Dylan going electric in ’65 would have been- ‘64 would have been pretty spectacular.  To see Johnny Cash at the Newport Folk Festival when he introduces the world to Kris Kristofferson would be something pretty special as well.

To be honest, I would like to be there in year one when everyone was paid fifty dollars no matter how big you were.  Everyone stayed together, everyone roomed together.  To see people like Earl Scruggs hanging out with Sun House, seeing music break through the racial tensions of the South at Newport.  Seeing things, whether it be Son House or the old blues men, Mississippi Fred McDowell room with Bill Monroe or with Dock Boggs or with Earl Scruggs and talk about music.  Seeing Newport Folk before full racial integration when you had both black and white artists playing on the same stage and not even thinking it was a big deal because everything else was stripped away. 

That’s the beautiful thing about Newport.  You have to imagine when Newport was happening, you had things that didn’t happen.  It’s very difficult to put things into perspective to younger people.  I’m only 40 so I’m not talking as if i were some 80-year-old.  Back then, there were a lot of Southern blues artist who would ask George Wein, “George, where’s the colored bathroom” at a festival.  “Hey man there is none."  Some of these people, this is their first time ever out of the South.  To see people get turned on to types of music they’d never been exposed to.  This is before, obviously, internet culture. You didn’t know what the people in Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta deep sounded like.  This is really tough.  It’s honestly like aliens coming down.  It’d be like if an alien came to the Newport Folk Festival.  People were just like, “Oh my god!”

One year,  George and Bob Jones brought up a Texas Chain Gang and they brought them on stage and they put a huge massive log on the stage. The guys were all chained together, in uniform, chopping the piece of wood in time, singing work songs, chain gang song with axes on a piece of wood.  Because they just thought that was an important piece of cultural musical history to hear.  Last year we had the Seeger Clogging All-Stars.  This year, we have the Berklee College of Music Choir. Three years ago we had the Young at Heart chorus which were octogenarians singing everything from Jimi Hendrix to Radiohead.  You have to look beyond the names that you recognize to really find the spirit of Newport.  We had the PS 22 Chorus.  A group of fifth graders from Staten Island, NY who basically cover things like the Freelance Whales and we had the Freelance Whales there in with the PS 22 chorus from Staten Island, NY.  To me, that is just as important a part of Newport Folk history as all the big names that you’ve ever seen. 

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Photo by Gerry Hardy

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