After 16 Years Folk Music Triumphs Again in Newport

updated 08/26/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/1985 01:00AM

It was a time—a time long past—when folk music had its fullest voice and Newport was its stage. Those glory days ended in 1969 when the famed Newport Folk Festival closed its gates and became only a memory. The annual get-together that gave country bluesmen, backwater songsters and a generation of their urban imitators a first taste of national exposure finally succumbed to the rise of rock and a disheartening outbreak of rowdyism.

This month when veteran producer George Wein sought to rekindle the Newport tradition, there were no corporate angels willing to act as sponsors. But that hardly seemed to matter to the happy crowds who came for the two-day fest. Featuring stalwart stars like Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins and Doc Watson, the revival filled the grassy banks of Narragansett Bay with 5,000 folkie faithful each day.

There were differences from years past, a reflection perhaps of the new era and changing attitudes. Tom Paxton, who once stirred the crowd in Vietnam days with The Willing Conscript, this time opened his set with a tune titled Yuppies in the Sky(by way of high-rise condos, of course). While the ever-outspoken Joan Baez ruminated onstage about the woes of Central America, festival vendors hawked marinated shish kebab, tabbouleh and hummus to her audience. And that audience, which in 1965 had booed Bob Dylan for daring to play an electric guitar, this time saved its warmest reception for a decidedly electric act by Taj Mahal.

In the end, however, little seemed to have really changed. If the sense of social movement had dimmed with the years, Newport's music shone brighter than ever. For the performers, there were happy backstage reunions; for the crowd, two days in the sun to bring back memories of an earlier time. Then, and now, it was a time.

Remember Alice? Officer Obie retired from the police force this year, but Alice's Restaurant—the Arlo Guthrie song that brought the Stockbridge constable fame and a small movie role—lives on. For Newport, where he first sang the song in 1967, Arlo updated his antidraft classic with some anti-draft registration verses. Now 38 and the father of four (ages 6 to 15), he also gave some thought to the problems of parenthood: "My kids say, 'Dad, you got to learn to rock and roll.' They want me to be wearin' leathery lookin' spiky things." In the midst of a tribute to the late Steve Goodman, Woody's son was joined onstage by Newport veteran Joan Baez who, in 1959, had come to town in a converted hearse to make her festival debut. Now without a record contract, Baez, 44, has been touring the U.S. and Europe and is at work on her autobiography. Joan's still-clear soprano has been bolstered by voice lessons and by daily vocal exercises, "because at a certain point, gravity's going to take over everything, including your vocal cords."

Doc Watson (above right) and son Merle wowed the folkies with speedy flat-picking and bluesy slide guitar. Although Doc hasn't lost a lick since he first played Newport in 1963, seven months on the road each year and a steady stream of LPs (one due this fall) have taken a toll. He hopes to settle down at 65 in a new home near his birthplace in Deep Gap, N.C. "I'll do a few concerts after that," he promises, "but I'm not going to keep up this pace."

Veteran bluesman Dave Van Ronk stayed true to his music's southern roots. With his tar-paper voice sounding better than ever, Van Ronk, 49, has released two LPs in the past year and has recorded a series of guitar-instruction tapes. Thanks to club dates in the United States and regular tours in Europe, "I have all the work I want," he says. "It's traditional in this business if you're not working, you're not eating. I'm at the point now where that's not necessarily true. It seems very nice."

"Contrary to popular belief, which was that I moved into a field of weeds at the time of the Wild-flowers album, I'm an Upper West Sider in Manhattan," says Judy Collins (far left), who at Newport met up with Mimi Farina, Joan Baez's 40-year-old sister. Now 46, Collins recorded her 20th album last year and has been spending much of her time in concert appearances with symphony orchestras around the country. "I'm better now than I was 20 years ago," she reasons. "I expect that's normal; I've had 20 years' practice." Mimi, who on her 21st birthday became the widow of folksinger-author Richard Farina, has since been divorced from a second husband. In recent years Mimi has devoted herself to Bread & Roses, the nonprofit organization she founded in 1974 to arrange entertainment for shut-ins. A resident of Mill Valley, Calif., where she lives "in a house that I bought when I had some money," she will release her first album in 13 years—a first-ever solo LP—this October.

Moving to Hawaii didn't slow down Taj Mahal, 45. Though he hasn't recorded in six years ("It didn't make sense to keep putting out records that disappeared into thin air"), he tours 5½ months each year. Off the road he is working on "a cross-pollination between African, Hawaiian, Polynesian and Caribbean music. They're all places with something in common, and it works good," The father of five children (his oldest daughter goes to Harvard), he has also created music for Lucas films' upcoming Ewoks cartoon series and has been discussing a possible role in a rodeo movie to be scripted by his friend Ken Kesey.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott, onetime traveling mate to Woody Guthrie, still rambles. The sometime ship-rigger and full-time raconteur left a hobo convention in Portland, Oreg., where he was grand marshal, for a five-day cross-country drive to open the Newport show. Rootless as always, Elliott lives in a mobile home and does only three or four gigs each month. "I've often thought the best thing I like about performing is not the singin' and pickin'," he explains. "It's the drivin' and the truck stops."

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