10 Classic Newport Folk Festival Performances

Music Lists Newport Folk Festival
Share Tweet Submit Pin
10 Classic Newport Folk Festival Performances

Earlier this year when we ranked the best festival lineups of 2017, the inimitable, historical Newport Folk Festival topped the list. This year’s event—which runs this Friday through Sunday, features heavy hitters like John Prine and Wilco alongside the new class of stars like Fleet Foxes and Angel Olsen. Going back to its first edition in July 1959, Newport has amassed an unparalleled musical legacy filled with famous performances including Bob Dylan’s electric rebellion in 1965 and more. Here at Paste, we have thousands of exclusive archival recordings from Newport Folk, and we’ve gathered 10 of the best to help you prep for this weekend’s festival.

1. Big Mama Thornton, “Hound Dog”

George Wein, the impresario behind the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival (which began in 1954 and 1959, respectively) is renowned for showcasing younger, older and rediscovered jazz, blues and folk musicians alike. His vision also included adding complimentary elements to the festivals, which presented figures from the regular Newport Festival programs participating in educational workshops, often held under tents on the festival grounds. Following drummer, harmonica player and ferocious blues songwriter Big Mama Thornton’s July 18, 1969 performance on the Newport Festival main stage, she and her band performed again the following afternoon as part of a more intimate Black Roots Workshop also held on the festival grounds.

This previously unheard Big Mama Thornton performance is unfortunately not recorded well. Despite the considerable technical issues, the recording does capture Thornton at a peak moment, with a band comprised of an incredible roster of blues musicians, all notable for their contributions to important Chess Studios recordings. Guitarist Sammy Lawhorn and pianist Pinetop Perkins are both on board, not to mention the formidable rhythm section of Curtis Tillman and Eddie Horton. The group is best heard on their warm-up instrumental, as following this, only Thornton’s vocal and harmonica are clearly heard in the tape mix, with the band audible only as leakage into her vocal microphone. Still, this recording conveys Thornton’s formidable skills on harmonica and the powerfully pure tone of her vocals as she works her way through an intimidating “Watermelon Man” and the deep sway of “Rock Me Baby.” —Alan Bershaw

2. Arlo Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Tribute Band, “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues”

The Newport after Woody Guthrie died, a tribute band comprised of such luminaries as ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, folk singers like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Pete Seeger, and his son Arlo Guthrie gathered to honor the late hero. Over the course of 43 songs and spoken word interludes, they covered some of Woody’s must famous and beloved tunes—from “This Land Is Your Land” and “DoReMi”—to some of his lesser known works like “Roll On Columbia” and even classic spirituals like “Amazing Grace.” Since the vocalists alternated during the performance, each song takes on a different vibe. But this version of “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues,” led by Arlo is especially evocative, as he seems to channel his late father in sound and spirit. —Hilary Saunders

3. Son House, “Lord Have Mercy Before I Come To Die”

This unique recording is a rare glimpse of House performing under the workshop tent at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival before an intimate and appreciative audience. Introduced by master of ceremonies, Brownie McGhee, this spontaneous performance provides two examples of House’s fierce slashing style as well as an a cappella spiritual number reflecting his roots in the Baptist Church. Son House appropriately wraps things up with an a cappella delivery of the southern spiritual “Lord Have Mercy Before I Come To Die,” forging a connection between the generations in the process. While this set showed the blues musician’s age, fraily and deep descent into alcoholism, the recording is a remarkable glimpse at the man’s music, sense of humor and self-effacing personality. —Alan Bershaw

4. Muddy Waters Blues Band, “Got My Mojo Workin’”

This 1969 Newport Folk Festival set captures Muddy Waters in the midst of his most experimental era. He had recently explored psychedelia on the controversial Electric Mud album and was soon to record the now legendary Fathers And Sons album, both of which featured younger disciple musicians. However, what makes this high profile Newport gig so compelling is that Waters is not performing with those younger musicians, but rather with one of his most revered bands ever. Boasting the likes of pianist Otis Spann, the dual guitars of Pee Wee Madison and Luther Johnson, and relative newcomer Paul Oscher on harmonica, this band’s front line is second to none. Along with the rhythm section of bass player Sonny Wimberly (who is extremely well recorded here, with a fat, clearly defined sound throughout) and drummer S.P. Leary, this band packs a powerful punch.

The set kicks off with this legendary band warming up with a soulful rendition of Jimmy Smith’s 1960 hit instrumental, “Back at the Chicken Shack,” after which Muddy Waters makes his entrance with a rousing version of Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man.” A tune also featured at Waters’ groundbreaking 1960 Newport appearance nearly a decade before, this performance conveys the influence of modern rock guitarists like Peter Green and Eric Clapton beginning to permeate the band’s sound. Not only are guitarists Johnson and Madison employing a significantly more aggressive attack and tone than just a year prior, but the presence of processing gear, particularly the use of wah-wah pedal, clearly indicates an acknowledgement and embracement of the changing tides. —Alan Bershaw

5. Ritchie Havens, “Freedom”

This song was, of course, made famous at Woodstock in 1969. But nearly three decades later, folk singer Richie Havens performed it again with equal humanity and triumph at Newport Folk. Even in his late 60s, Havens’ distinctive rhythmic guitar playing sounded strong and his vocals wavered in all the right places. Even in 2008, the message of “Freedom” resonated in the wake of 9/11, a second Bush presidency, and a changing world. —Hilary Saunders

6. “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, “Write Me A Few Lines”

At age 55, McDowell had been discovered in 1959, when he was first recorded by music historian, Alan Lomax. Those recordings, which would see release spread out over multiple compilations, Deep South-Sacred and Sinful and Yazoo Delta-Blues and Spirituals on the Prestige label; and Sounds of the South and Roots of the Blues issued by Atlantic Records, announced McDowell to a new legion of fans. These recordings would launch McDowell’s career as a professional musician. Two subsequent 1964 solo albums, released on Arhoolie and Testemant, would cement his reputation, leading to international touring the following year, where he encountered enthusiastic response everywhere he went. In America, McDowell became a frequent performer on the club and festival circuit.

This unscheduled appearance only consists of three songs. The final of which was a quick romp through the ominous sounding “Write Me a Few Lines.” Ralph Rinzler follows by taking the stage with a few words of gratitude for McDowell’s spontaneity. —Alan Bershaw

7. Tim Buckley, “Wayfaring Stranger”

Tim Buckley played Newport Folk just two weeks after his first London show, which would go on to comprise Dream Letter. Newly unearthed and mixed from the original four-track master reels in the Newport Festival Archive, this clear live recording is yet another astonishing example of Buckley at that same pivotal moment in time. Accompanied by David Friedman on vibes and Carter “CC” Collins on percussion, this trio format performance finds Buckley acknowledging his folksinger roots and forging ahead.

In the middle of his set, Buckley offers a penetrating take on the Civil War ballad, “Wayfaring Stranger.” With sentiment against the Vietnam War beginning to reach a fevered pitch in 1968, Buckley’s commitment to the material is palpable and his vocal is breathtaking. He conjures up elaborate images with just the manipulations of his voice, and although he spontaneously experiments, he never loses sight of the core feeling in this traditional song. —Alan Bershaw

8. Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Piece of My Heart (Reprise)”

At the 1968 Newport Folk Festival, no group better represented the changing times or caused more reevaluating of the future of the Newport festivals than Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. The group had experienced a meteoric rise over the course of the past year, triggered by Janis Joplin’s iconoclastic performance at the Monterey Pop Festival the previous year and the subsequent Pennebaker movie, which captured the intensity of the group on stage. By the time Big Brother hit the Newport stage, much had changed.

This recording, however, begins at the very tail end of the performance, with bass player Peter Albin thanking the Newport audience as curfew time was rapidly approaching. What follows is a brief reprise of “Piece of My Heart,” the song that also opened the set. Despite its brevity, it provides listeners with a taste of Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company at a peak moment. Following the performance, Joplin can clearly be heard excitedly exclaiming to the Newport audience, “You’re so groovy, man! Thank you!” as the group exits the stage amidst rousing shouts for more and an equal amount of booing as the audience realizes the set is really over. A somewhat stoned sounding MC, Fritz Richmond, closes the recording as he invites the audience to return the following day and encourages them to be careful on their way home. —Alan Bershaw

9. Joan Baez, “Suzanne”

In 1968, Joan Baez returned to Newport, as she would in years before and since, to deliver a breathtaking set built around her voice and acoustic guitar. The times had indeed a’changed by that tumultuous year in US history, not only for Baez but for all involved with folk music. Richie Havens, Tim Buckley, and Fred Neil were the folk world’s stars that straddled both folk and rock’s lines but Baez largely stayed on the side of folk even three years after Dylan’s historic electric appearance at Newport.

Perhaps the highlight of Baez’s 1968 set is her compassionate version of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” with a slight variation on the melody and picking pattern made famous by Judy Collins a few years prior. On this and the previous song, Baez is joined by her sister, Mimi Fariña, who adds some tasteful harmonies and guitar picking. —Paste Archives

10. Ralph Stanley, “Man of Constant Sorrow”

Here we present a wonderful example of Ralph Stanley, during one of his earliest outings with the revived Clinch Mountain Boys, performing live at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival during the turbulent summer of 1968. The recording mix is superb, allowing listeners an intimate listen to one of bluegrass’s foremost originators’ killer banjo technique and “high lonesome” singing style. After a few band introductions, another great example follows in a much slower mournful manner, as Ralph treats the audience to a penetrating take on the song his father so often sang in church, “Man Of Constant Sorrow.” —Alan Bershaw