Summerscape: Newport ’68

Special to The New York Times

I was three weeks into my demanding duties as boating and canoeing counselor at Treasure Island Day Camp in Oceanside, New York—a job which essentially involved preventing the clusters of pre-teen oarsmen who banged around Treasure Island’s tiny “lake” from floating out into Long Island Sound–when I asked my wiseacre supervisor, Bernie, for permission to take off a day so I could bike to the Newport Folk Festival with my friend Danny Holly.

“You want to do what?” Bernie mock-exclaimed.

“Sure” Bernie continued, without missing a beat, “So we lose a few campers. Thin the ranks. Go ahead. Sounds like fun.”

My father, a retired Army lieutenant colonel with whom I had clashed repeatedly over my growing opposition to the war in Vietnam, wasn’t crazy about the idea. (My mother, for her part, had lapsed into something approaching a catatonic state, having given up attempting to comprehend the zero-to-sixty changes I had undergone that wild spring.)

Nor was he thrill mad about Danny Holly, a fellow graduate of Jamaica High School with radical leanings, a fixed, somewhat maniacal Cheshire cat grin, and a penchant for saying “Freaky! Wow!” Danny, you could say, was my Fonz. I was willing to follow Danny anywhere, just about. Several months before, I had followed Danny to the barricades, helping him organize the Strike Against The War at our school, much to my parents’ distress. Already Danny was talking about going to the Chicago Democratic National Convention to raise hell. I didn’t know about that, but bike to Newport? Cool.

And so there I was that Friday afternoon, having disembarked with Danny at New London pedalling up Route One, as hundreds of our fellow motorized pilgrims zoomed by, alternately mocking and cheering us on. Then, at long last, the welcome spires of Newport Bridge loomed into view. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, we were heaving our way up the long, new, recently built span. Then, as we began the mile-long descent, we we began picking up speed. By the time we hurtled off the bridge, we were having difficulty controlling our bikes. Freaky! Wow!

According to later reports, attendance at the 8th annual Newport Folk Festival topped 70,000, making it by far the biggest Newport ever. Many of the festival-goers were drawn by the heartbreaking news that, as a result of a new state highway, this would most likely be the last festival ever held at Festival Field. Ever since the first Newport, in 1959, an intrinsic element of its appeal had been Newport itself, and the endearing, counterintuitive sight of leftist folkies humming and strumming against the backdrop of old baronial mansions. For these folk diehards, Festival Field was hallowed ground, For them, Newport ’68 would be the last Newport, forevermore.

For others who streamed over Newport bridge that last weekend in July, 1968, the festival was just good fun, a way to get away from it all. 1968 had been a pretty crazy year thus far. Just six weeks before Bobby Kennedy had been shot, and a few weeks before that, Martin Luther King. Who knew what the rest of the year would bring? For them, the festival represented a moment of calm before the craziness resumed.

Of course, the main draw of Newport continued to be the music itself. Alas, Dylan sent his regrets. But Joan Baez had once again signed on, as had such folk evergreen as Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Fred McDowell. To stir things up, the ecumenical-minded organizers had invited such various and sundry musicians as Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, making their eagerly-anticipated first appearance at Newport; bluesmen B.B. King and Buddy Guy and Junior Well; and country singer Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys, and several dozen other wildly disparate performers.

The resulting musical ragout added up to what was arguably most joyous Newport ever, as well as, in its own endearing Newport way, the goofiest. Though scruffier than usual, the voyagers who descended on Festival Field that weekend were on their best behavior. No bad trips here, or nude frolicking. This was still Newport, not Woodstock. Woody wouldn’t have approved.

In the event, Danny and I arrived too late to get tickets for the festival’s first big concert on Friday night, entitled “Streets and Mountains,” forcing us to eavesdrop along with the hundreds of festival-goers gathered or camped just outside the festival gates. It didn’t really matter. I shall never forget lying on my sleeping bag that magical night staring into the velvet Newport night, as the dulcet tones of Joan Baez singing Bob Dylan’s song “Farewell Angelina,” wafted up into the heavens.

Farewell Angelina
I must follow the sound
The triangle tingles
And the trumpet play slow…

Preceding Baez was an enjoyably riotous line-up comprised of the Onward Brass Band of New Orleans, who kicked the festivities off with a thunderous rendition of “Down By The Riverside;” Kentucky hurricane banjo picker Buell Kazee; the Eastern European choral singing of the Pennywhistlers; Ed Young’s fife and drum music from Mississippi; Arlo Guthrie, standing in for his recently deceased father, who played an “evolutionary ditty” entitled “Swim, Swimm, Swimmy,” about the history of singlehanded water travel; and the agit-prop/mummery of the Bread and Puppet Theatre. What these dissimilar performers had to do with “streets and mountains,” or folk music for that matter, was not clear.

No matter. Lying on the ground next to me, I could see Holly’s patented, demonic grin glowing in the night.

Saturday night’s big concert, which culminated with Janis Joplin’s performance, was pretty much of the same endearingly incongruous piece. Janis’s performance was predictably astounding. Trouble was, to get to it you had to sit through old-time balladeer Theodore Bikel. Two or three songs by Theodore Bikel were fine. But ten?

Finally, after Bikel had strummed his last amidst a hail of imprecations, out came Janis and Big Brother. She didn’t disappoint. For two long hours Pearl gave it her all, careening around the stage, shaking her castanets, begging the cheering audience to

Take it! Take it another little piece of my heart. Break it!

And then, all too soon, Newport ’68 was just another errant summer memory. The following Monday I was back on patrol at Treasure Island, watching out for hapless preteen boatsmen and wondering what college would be like. The next month Danny went off to raise hell in Chicago and I went off to Cornell. I never saw him again.

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