Bigness has never been a particularly cherished adjective in the world of folk music. Under ordinary circumstances, it is the small groups making music for intimate audiences that have yielded most of the best folk performances.
But the Newport Folk Festival has changed that concept. The annual event brought with its "bigness" some memorable achievements. The festival program was big — three nights and two days. Big, too, was the performing cast that was marshalled — twenty-three individual singers and instrumentalists and a dozen groups, ranging from duos to a 125-voice choir. The festival had other
big facilities at its disposal: the huge stadium at Freebody Park, where the parent Newport Jazz Festival had run for six years; the best in public-address equipment; the army of publicists and promoters who could spread the word through the land about the big doings at Newport.
But more than big conceptions and big budgets is the fact that the Newport Folk Festival producers, Albert B. Grossman and George Wein, could reach out and get the best talent, from the near-primitive blues singers from the back country of Louisiana, to leading folk performers of Spain (Sabicas), England (Ewan MacColl) and of the United States.
Appropriately, to start off this disc, the first of two Vanguard records that preserve the 1960 second annual Newport Folk Festival, is America's leading folk singer, Pete Seeger, the master of a dozen styles, the bridge between two generations of folk-music performers, eternally youthful, the ineffable Pete Seeger. Has he grown tired after all his years of laboring in the vineyard of the music he loves so well and has made so many people love along with him? The answer to that question comes in a ringing, ebullient reply on the first band of the record, as Pete dives into "East Virginia" with the gusto of a teen-ager, the drive of a dynamo and the technique of the virtuoso that he is. The athletic, leaping figures on the banjo, liberated exultant voice riding over all — it is Pete Seeger at his very best, and that is very great indeed.
And the two numbers that follow, show more of the master's style in all its variegated glory. "In the Evening" moves at a slow-drag blues tempo, and there is melody and rhythm pouring out from Seeger's head to toes, from the foot-stomping to the high-range yodelling. And finally, on "Hieland Laddie,' with its infectious beat, is the other "big" attribute — the big audience that under Pete's magic wand becomes one of the biggest folk choruses to be heard anywhere.
In a totally different vein — and one of the wonders of the world is that there are so many veins within which life courses through the body of folk music — was the singing of John Lee Hooker. Hooker is one of the best of the old-time country blues singers still performing today. After years of singing commercial blues and rock 'n roll, there developed again an audience and an interest in the sort of earthy, shirt-sleeve, heartfelt singing that Hooker does so well. In sullen, almost restrainedly angry tones, he sings three of his best blues here. They are part and parcel of his life, his background and his own experience, as is true of the relation between music and performer wherever the world over there is great folk music. Bill Lee gives strong, affirmative support on bass.
One of the most exciting moments of the festival came quite unexpectedly for the audience. Listed for Sunday night was Alan Mills, the big, bluff, warm-voiced baritone from Canada, who knows more about the songlore of our northern neighbor, in English and French, than perhaps any other contemporary singer. Well, in his "knapsack," Mr. Mills had a treat, Jean "Johnny" Carignan, a 44-year-old country fiddler from Quebec Province, who has been making fiddle music since he was four years old. Carignan, from the minute he started with his dancing while seated and simultaneously playing his audacious, soaring fiddle, was a visual as well as aural delight. Through three numbers you can hear the excitement Carignan generated at the festival with his unusual artistry. And Mr. Mills has his inning with the delightful, spoofing "I Know an Old Lady," joined again by the 5,000 voice Newport Folk Chorale, which may even have included you.
The fiddle was not the only instrumental novelty At the end of an intermission Saturday evening, as people were shuffling about, there was that thrilling sound of bagpipes coming over the loudspeakers at Freebody Park. As if someone had rung a dinner gong, people began to run back to their chairs to see what it was all about. It was Tommy Makem, of County Armaghm, Ireland, strutting back and forth on the stage and piping away. And then the 27-year-old singer who regularly performs with the Clancy Brothers, put down the bagpipes and started to sing with his own very able set of vocal pipes. You can hear Makem. supported by Pete Seeger and Eric Weisberg, in two richly different moods: the sardonic, defiant, declaratory singer reviling the effects of war in "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye," and the lyric, playful minstrel in "The Whistling Gypsy."
Jimmy Driftwood, the Ozark bard, is here in two of his best numbers from the first Newport Folk Festival, on some tapes happily saved from 1959. And now back to June 24-26, 1960, the parade to the stage continued. Of the host of faces and performing styles, none were more distinctive than that irrepressible trio, the New Lost City Ramblers, Mike Seeger, Tom Paley and John Cohen, with their mountain songlore and their droll wit. Here are some of the great "old timey" string band number, culled from recordings by the great performers from the mountains in the 1920's and '30's. Hear Mike Seeger's hard-cider voice on "Man of Constant Sorrow" and hear the whole aggregation singing and playing with the strength of thirty on "Foggy Mountain Top." All in all, it was a big weekend at Newport, and your listening pleasure will be big too, if you just give it a spin.
Notes by Stacey Williams