Back to the Fort: The Culture of Newport Folk

by | August 9, 2018

On the second day of the 59th annual Newport Folk Festival the event's founder, a 92-years young George Wein, and Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, took the event's “Fort” stage to make a special announcement: America's original music festival will continue to take place in its original location…for at least twenty-five more years. Audience members jumped up from their blankets and lawn chairs, celebrating, embracing strangers. Cheers echoed from kayaks, fishing boats, yachts, and floats dotting the venue's waterfront.


Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage, courtesy of Getty Images, Newport 2014

The spirit of Newport patrons, or “tent dwellers”, as one artist fondly deemed them, far exceeds that of the average festival fan. The several thousand music lovers who make the pilgrimage each year have, over time, formed a true folk family that is integral to the culture of the festival.


Photo by Joseph P. Durniak 

Between the event grounds and Newport proper, a short boat ride away, festival-goers and seasoned townies alike swapped age old stories as if they were there to experience them themselves. There was the biker on route to the fest who was forced into the bushes by a swerving tour bus when Woody Guthrie emerged to express his apologies, and gave the man his leather vest right off of his back. And the couple who took their honeymoon at the first ever Folk Fest in 1959; traveling cross-country in their VW bus to find the last room at the Sea Whale Motel, where they now hold a standing reservation for the festival weekend. These days, they reserve the vintage automobile for this particular occasion; sourcing parts from an Ohio junk yard when needed…just to get to Newport.


The Lone Bellow, photo by Chris Pereira

Fort Adams has been the site of many historic moments: it's where Dylan went electric and the Pixies took their set acoustic for the first time.

It's not just the fans returning to relish in the time-honored tradition. With countless major festivals occurring these days, Newport maintains its standing on the bucket list of most artists – no matter the genre. And whether or not they're on the lineup, a diverse array of noteworthy creatives migrate to revisit the mecca that is Newport Folk Festival; this year’s festival hosting impromptu drop-ins from acts such as David Crosby, John Prine, Regina Spektor, and Leon Bridges. The Luck Journal, alongside Mountain Valley Spring Water, went behind the scenes of the iconic fest – taking artists and organizers back to the source to discuss their creative journeys, and what it means to be a part of the Newport family.


The Lone Bellow, photo by Chris Pereira

Newport, as it's always been, is about community. As Kanene Donehey Pipkin of The Lone Bellow - who celebrated their third festival appearance this year - shared: “I think everybody feels really honored to be here.

It just feels like such a blessing…to be able to play here. The way it's set up, you're all just naturally crossing paths all day, instead of everyone sequestered in their own little VIP trailer area. Everyday we just all get to hang out…it’s pretty unusual for a festival.”


Brandi Carlile and Margo Price, photo by Cal Quinn 

Conversation flows openly, both on and offstage; an especially poignant element in the current climate. There were messages of strength, of concern, of coming together: During her set, Brandi Carlile brought her daughter Evangeline on stage, speaking candidly to an emotional audience: “I’m not up here to divide or preach, I want to connect and be honest; to share my story. Gay domesticity isn’t new…but I didn’t even know who I was to Evangeline because my wife carried her. This is about how hard it was for me at first.” 

Earlier in the day the soulful and mind-blowing husband/wife duo, The War And Treaty, brought the rollicking Quad stage crowd to their feet, encouraging the audience to hug a stranger. “These days are all hard, but we can win. And that’s because we’re members of the greatest race: the human race,” the band’s Michael Trotter Jr. declared.


The War and Treaty, photo by Chris Pereira

Backstage, The War And Treaty expanded on their inspiration and intentions through music; elaborating on the past and how it feeds into current art. While both Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount Trotter grew up in the church, they had vastly different paths to music. “It quickly dawned on me that this was really something I wanted to do when I watched two of my favorite artists of all time, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash,” said Trotter Jr. “Their worlds just started opening up…and I just saw how music can really have an impact on inclusion. 

You see great artists back in the day always collaborating, like Ray and Willie Nelson, you know? The source, honestly, is just living, And then I met my wife…I said this out there on stage and I’ll say it again – over the course of walking in this life I've learned that love is the only key that's played out in life that is never out of tune. Blount Trotter added: “For me, I learned from my mom, an opera singer; and my brother who sang in the church – and dedicated the song [onstage at Newport] to my mom because my mother's death was actually my passageway into life, into my life. And I've had a struggle, it’s been a daily struggle: why can’t I just let her be free and let her spirit go?. And it’s because I had to look death in the face and say, 'you held your end of the bargain; you gave her peace.' And now I've got to hold my end of the bargain to her, and to myself, and live. And living is every moment that I'm in – this moment that I'm in with you all…I'm in the moment, entirely.”


Newport Executive Producer Jay Sweet, photo by Chris Pereira 

The festival's sources are clear: artists and the folk family have the opportunity to come together despite differences. Jay Sweet, Newport Festivals Network executive producer, declares the festival as “the island of misfit toys”, which is fitting; as the acts curated defy genre. Sweet declared: “I mean, look, there may be an artist that has a radio hit but maybe [others] don’t….but that wasn’t really the goal or the criteria. The criteria is, like: Is it good? Does it stand the test of time? Is it something that’s going to carry over, Is it something that’s going to mean something?”.

Sweet’s description is apt: the festival breeds unique relationships between the “misfit toys” who land on the island. Just prior to cameo appearances with Jenny Lewis and Cheech & Chong, first-time Newport performer Lukas Nelson was stunned that he’d soon share the stage with two vastly different, but equally special, acts. “I don't really believe that saying…'the road to hell starts with good intentions,'” he said. “I think good intentions actually start good things. And being in this beautiful place – a fort that never saw a battle? That’s incredible. That’s something I think that came from good intentions.”


Newport Executive Producer Jay Sweet, photo by Chris Pereira  

Newport Folk Festival is steeped in American history and culture, with each element of the event echoing its mission elevate artists, traditions, and activists that are integral to the country’s roots legacy. The festival fosters important conversation and new art; without division, without pretense. It is more than fair to declare this long-standing fete as an unprecedented source for the evolution of American music.

Blog Written By Ellee Fletcher - Luck Journal