Sunday, April 20, 2008

Throwing the dreadful snake and the little girl out with the bathwater, or wasted away in margaritaville

In the long run there's little to worry about. Ask Pete Seeger if you doubt me. Folk song, folk music is strong enough to withstand the depredations of commercialism, the influences of pop culture, the dilutions of broadcast and narrowcast, the seductions of fame and fortune. These songs, and this attitude is built to endure. These are sturdy songs appreciated well by front porch gatherings, and tiny coffeehouse crowds, and even legions of fans at folk festivals.

Speaking of which. Folk song, like John Barleycorn himself, is strong enough to endure the changes wrought in the transformations of some of America's oldest folk festivals.

Last year, while at the Newport Folk Festival, I learned that it would be the last one produced exclusively by Festival Productions, the company founded by impresario George Wein, which founded the folk and jazz festivals at Newport. I was told that the festival, along with several others produced by Festival Productions had been sold to the Festival Network, which hoped to turn the Newport Folk Festival into the next Bonnaroo, the amazingly successful multi-genre (but mostly rock and pop) festival held every year in Tennessee.

And so, it has come to pass. The Newport lineup has been announced (thanks to SF Hansen for the heads up) with headliners for Saturday and Sunday featuring the Black Crowes, and Jimmy Buffet respectively. There are some interesting bookings for the frestival including the Avett Brothers, Cat Power, Levon Helm, Gillian Welch, and the much overrated Jim James and M. Ward. The good news is that Bob Jones, formerly of Festival Productions, is still at the helm, and that the temporary swing toward pop cred is balanced with the thought that after re-establishing the festival, more traditional performers will be sought to fill the stage in future years. And even Jimmy Buffet indicates he'll do a folkie set, instead of a Coral Reefer band "parrothead" set.

Whether Newport can ever approach the mass popularity of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (which starts this week), Bonnaroo, or California's Coachella (next weekend), is debatable. Part of the worry at Newport is that crowds have thinned over the past few years, only reaching a half or two-thirds capacity. To be honest, I've been at the festival when it's been a sell-out, on a hot August afternoon, and it's been, umm, uncomfortable, to say the least.

While Newport struggles to achieve Bonnaroo status, other smaller roots festivals, which don't have the same necessity to meet outsized commercial goals are booking amazing lineups and drawing large enthusiastic crowds, there's everything from the Dewey Balfa Heritage Week taking place this week in Ville Platte, Louisiana, the Augusta camps and festivals in West Virginia, to the Green River Festival in Greenfield Mass, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (at a new site this year), the bluegrass and cajun music festivals at Strawberry Park, the Rhythm and Roots Festival in Charlestown RI, the Blackpot Festival in Lafayette Louisiana, and that's just scratching the surface.

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