“FESTIVAL”— Folk Music at Newport

“Festival”

Folk Music at Newport

Amos Lassen

From 1963 to 1966, director Murray Lerner visited the annual Newport Folk Festival to document a thriving, idealistic folk music movement as it reached its peak as a popular phenomenon. Some of the performers he saw included Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Howlin’Wolf, Johnny Cash, the Staples Singers, Pete Seeger, Son House, and Peter, Paul and Mary. These artists went on to become legends. They are just a few of the singers who shared the stage at Newport and who offered a range of folk music that encompassed the blues, country, and gospel as well as its newer flirtations with rock ‘n’ roll.

The Criterion Collection has now remastered the gorgeous black and white photography. Lerner juxtaposes performances with snapshot interviews with artists and their fans from over four years of the festival and the film gives us an intimate record of a pivotal time in music and in American culture at large.

Most of the performances we see here are abbreviated, yet there is always enough of each act so that its flavor and appeal becomes apparent. The more famous names like Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary get a lot more coverage. We see how much and/or how little each has changed over the intervening years. Peter Yarrow was a trustee of the Newport Folk Music Festival and is often heard introducing acts and checking sound levels, moving microphones around and the like. We see that Joan Baez is clearly uncomfortable with her newfound popularity, while Dylan, (before his folk-rock phase) has little of the interaction the other performers seem to enjoy with their fans. The disparate styles of the period — traditional Depression-era folk, folk-rock, protest songs, blues, etc. — are given about equal coverage, and we sense that this very diversity played a role in the genre’s decline even while the film was being made. It’s fascinating to watch Theodore Bikel and Mississippi John Hurt on the same stage, despite being musically at odds. It is great fun watching acts less known to casual folk music fans. What we do not see is the pretentiousness that is often associated with folk protest songs. This is mostly a straightforward celebration of the music.

DIRECTOR-APPROVED BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES

– New, restored 2K digital transfer, approved by director Murray Lerner

-New reconstruction and remastering of the monaural soundtrack using the original concert and field recordings, approved by Lerner and presented uncompressed

– When We Played Newport, a new program featuring archival interviews with Lerner, music festival producer George Wein, and musicians Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Buffy Saint-Marie, Pete Seeger, and Peter Yarrow

– Editing Festival, a new program featuring Lerner, associate editor Alan Heim, and assistant editor Gordon Quinn

– Selection of complete outtake performances, including Clarence Ashley, Horton Barker, Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker, and Odetta

– PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Amanda Petrusich and artist bios by folk music expert Mary Katherine Aldin

 

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