A Love Letter to the Newport Folk Family

As I joined the rest of the Internet in swooning over Fetch the Bolt Cutters, in between cycles of awe and intrigue and gratitude, I was saddened by a recurrent thought: I miss live music. The cathartic brilliance of “Under the Table,” the way “Heavy Balloons” hijacks my heartbeat and “Cosmonauts” draws me skyward—I keep imagining myself standing in a crowd of strangers who are also, for at least a couple hours, my best friends, shoulder to shoulder as Fiona places us under her spell. It breaks my heart that that’s not a possibility right now. It’s a small thing, I know, when lives and livelihoods are at stake, but I hope that our efforts to survive and care for each other can also include room to remember and celebrate and grieve the absence of that which connects us.

All of that—live music, stranger-best-friends, and honoring what connects us—draws my mind, as is never hard to do when summer approaches, to the Newport Folk Festival. It is one of the obscene privileges of my life that I have been able to attend Newport each year since 2014. Every July I cross the country from Seattle, my sister Caroline makes the trek up from Florida, and we join thousands of our best friends for three days in the blistering sun or bone-soaking rain or teeth-chattering wind—it doesn’t matter the conditions because we’re there, and we’re there together.

When I try explaining why it’s worth saving up and planning my summer around Newport year after year, I usually start by naming the artists I have most loved seeing and the moments I most cherish. Like when James Taylor showed up unannounced to finish the set that had been cut short by the moon landing 50 years earlier, or when Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats lit such a fire under the Quad stage crowd that they provoked the only encore I’ve seen at Newport. There was the time Roger Waters made the trip all the way to Rhode Island just to join John Prine for one song, or when Leon Bridges and Gary Clark, Jr. emerged from the wings to join Jon Batiste on “Ohio,” or last year’s back-to-back-to-back trifecta of a Lukas Nelson barn burner, a sobfest with Our Native Daughters, and an awe-inspiring debut set from The Highwomen—not to mention, later that same weekend, when Brandi Carlile turned the world upside down and invited Dolly Parton to the stage. Or I might talk about the transcendent Rodrigo y Gabriela set in 2014, when my sister and I lingered under the tent as the Quad stage emptied, both of us coming to terms with the fact that Newport had stolen our hearts.

I could go on and on, but the truth is that I always come up short when I simply drop names and rattle off my favorite sets from each year; Lord knows there are more than enough festivals with big stars and brand-name lineups. When that happens, when my words feel inadequate in describing the Newport magic, I find myself gesturing at and talking around ideas that are more slippery and difficult to name. I try to describe how big my heart feels as Sunday draws to a close—with the sun dipping toward the water, the stage crowded with legends, and everybody singing along to an old favorite—and how that feeling lingers long after I’m back in Seattle. I say something about how the intimacy between artists overflows into camaraderie between fans, or how the festival sells out before they announce a single act, meaning you learn to expect everything without demanding anything in particular. I may even reach for language about the surreal feeling of nostalgia for the present moment, those times when the music coming from the stage sparks my other senses and I feel goosebumps poking through layers of sweat and sunscreen, when I look around to soak up the faces of those around me, willing myself to take note, to remember where I am and who I am with, to remember it all.

I might talk, too, about Newport’s outward-facing orientation, about how the spirit of Pete Seeger and his artist-activist comrades is alive and well. If this happens I’ll inevitably mention the time that Jon Batiste curated the prophetic set “A Change Is Gonna Come” a couple years back, and how, midway through the parade of collaborations and singalongs, Batiste hushed the crowd with his solo deconstruction of the national anthem, an inspired piano rendition that fell into chaos every few stanzas, his fingers storming up and down the keys in a way that captured the troubled patriotism of American folk music, a fiery love for the ideals our nation claims and so rarely lives up to. It of course called to mind the grainy footage of Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, and it reminded me—as folk music so often does—that history is ever-unfolding, that I do not have to be an idle spectator to the travesties and triumphs playing out around me.

Maybe that’s what the organizers have in mind each year when the lineup pushes the boundaries of what folk music means—it’s dusty guitars and banjos, sure, but it’s also so much more expansive. I think Dylan understood that in ‘65, and the Newport family understands it today. Folk music is about looking upward and outward, about daring to challenge your assumptions, to broaden your worldview, and to allow your heart to grow. And maybe that’s also why prominent space is reserved every year for voter registration tables, legislative call centers, and nonprofit booths. It’s a reflection of the belief that music can change who we are and how we live in the world, the hope that the euphoric vibes over the weekend will fuel real connection and action throughout the year. It’s a reminder that music brings us together and that we are, of course, better together. I know that sounds cheesy, but maybe that’s another gift of live music: affirming the conviction that hope and naiveté are not the same thing, that you never have to apologize for wearing your heart on your sleeve, and that it is not only okay but necessary to sing together, and to resist anything that inhibits others’ ability to join the song.

Lastly, when I’m trying to explain what this community means to me, I’ll usually mention what’s called the Newport Smile. It’s an unabashed, ear-to-ear grin that you might see on the stage when a young artist plays the Fort for the first time, or when a band comes out for the earliest set of the day expecting sparse morning attendance and finds, instead, a packed, raucous crowd on their feet and ready to go. Or you might see it from the person standing next to you after belting out a favorite song or seeing an unexpected legend walk onto the stage, when you lock eyes and break into a smile that says “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening.”

I’m starting to cry now, and I’ve forgotten why I started writing this in the first place. Maybe I was trying to placate my anxiety about the future, or wanting to bundle up all the affection and hope and gratitude that have seemed in such short supply lately. Or maybe Jay Sweet’s voice—“Be present, be kind, be open, be together”—echoes in my mind whenever it is most needed, and I wanted to offer my thanks. To Jay, to the staff and volunteers who work their asses off every year, to the artists who play their hearts out to make our world a little bit better and brighter, and to all my thousands of best friends: Thank you. Whenever the gates next open, I’ll see you there.


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