Newport Folk: An Old Festival Still Finds New Sounds

For more than 50 years, the Newport Folk Festival has stretched the boundaries of folk music to include gospel, bluegrass, world music, blues and even jazz. This year's lineup continues to redefine folk music as a genre large enough to include brainy indie-pop star Andrew Bird, Afrobeat-influenced Nigerian singer Nneka, the folk-punk band O'Death and several large jazz ensembles. NPR Music's Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson offer a snapshot.

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The Newport Folk Festival was one of the blueprints for summer music festivals. It's under way this weekend in Newport, Rhode Island. This year's festival continues to redefine folk music.

NPR's ALL SONGS CONSIDERED host Bob Boilen is at Newport, along with Stephen Thompson from NPR Music. They sent this snapshot.


Im Bob Boilen. And having come to Newport for the past few years, the one thing I'm sure of: I can expect to be surprised. The festival started with a set from a Nigerian musician known as Nneka.

(Soundbite of son, "Heartbeat")

NNEKA (Singer): (Singing) Can-can-can you see-see-see the pain that you caused. You caused...

STEPHEN THOMPSON: When you hear this music, its Afrobeat, its hip-hop. There's an edge to it thats political, and it feels like a mission statement. Its saying: This is folk music, too.

BOILEN: The other thing I thing I love about this festival that's so different from other festivals, is that musicians join each other on stage. So you get these impromptu performances. Last year, I remember the band Fleet Foxes joining Pete Seeger on stage.

THOMPSON: Yeah, that happened yesterday with Andrew Bird, who's this skinny, brainy guy who plays the violin and whistles a lot. But then he brings on this band from Arizona called Calexico, and you wind up with these crazy cross-pollinations.

Mr. ANDREW BIRD WITH CALEXICO (Band): (Singing) The Scythian Empire. Oh, where is the empire...

BOILEN: I loved that moment with Andrew Bird and Calexico. It was really, really wonderful.

THOMPSON: Yeah, it was. And another moment that struck me early in the day yesterday was a band called O'Death...

BOILEN: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...with an apostrophe, like O'Brien or O'Malley. Their music felt like folk music, but it was punk - it was unhinged and manic and shirtless.

BOILEN: Yeah, and tattooed on that first guy, right?

THOMPSON: Very tattooed and shirtless.

(Soundbite of song, "Low Tide)

O'DEATH (Band): (Singing) Worth handed down. Some sacred plane and still by age, you've done to me what I could not...

BOILEN: Then the evening ended with a great singer-songwriter, in the spirit of what most people might expect from Newport: John Prine. He's legendary and he's back, and he's reaching a young audience these days, thanks to a new tribute record.

THOMPSON: Yeah, one of the singers on that record is a guy named Jim James, who showed up on stage and sang with John Prine.

(Soundbite of song, "All the Best")

Mr. JOHN PRINE & JIM JAMES (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Say you drive a Ford. Say you drive around the town till you just get bored. And then you change your mind for something else to do. And your heart gets bored...

THOMPSON: Yeah, the last thing I'd expect is for a bunch of people to be and dancing to this music, but there they were.

BOILEN: And today, well hear another powerful legend when Levon Helm closes out the festival. Levon was the drummer for The Band, and he has an awful lot of admirers who are going to join him on stage. Its a chance for a whole lot more surprises.

THOMPSON: I cant wait to hear him.

BOILEN: I'm Bob Boilen for NPR Music.

THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson.

(Soundbite of song, "All the Best")

Mr. JOHN PRINE & JIM JAMES: (Singing) I wish you love. I wish you happiness. I wish you love. I wish you happiness. I guess I wish you all the best.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

HANSEN: Bob, Stephen, and the rest of the NPR Music crew are webcasting live from Newport all day today, beginning at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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