The Staples Singers with George Wein, photo by Ken Franckling
Newport Folk Festival recently announced its full lineup for 2017. Fleet Foxes, Wilco, Regina Spektor, The Avett Brothers, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Michael Kiwanuka, Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, John Prine, and many more are scheduled to appear. But it took the storied Rhode Island festival many years to reach this point, and that tale is now being told in the new book I Got A Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival (via Wesleyan University Press).
Written by award-winning journalist Rick Massimo, I Got A Song is billed as “the first book-length history of an essential American music festival.” As one of the longest running festivals in the country, that history is a long and fascinating one. Massimo covers everything from Bob Dylan infamously going electric to financial struggles to NFF’s modern resurgence. Along the way, he tells a story that’s not just about one festival in the smallest state of the country, but about folk music as a whole.
As a sample of just how deep this chronicling goes, the below excerpt details the ways the folk movement was interwoven with desegregation in the 1960s. In particular, it focuses on Newport Folk Fest founder George Wein’s non-confrontational, uncompromising approach to living “an integrated life,” and the efforts for which he never believed he was given due credit. As Wein puts it at the end of the extract, “They have to find out that they’re wrong. And they’ll find out.”
Read the full excerpt below, and snag your copy of I Got A Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival here.
Newport Folk Festival impresario George Wein describes in his memoirs an experience of walking through New York with trumpeter Frankie Newton. The two men looked for a place to get a drink and eventually came across a bar that seemed to Wein’s liking, but not Newton’s. “‘What’s the matter, Frankie?’ I asked innocently,” Wein writes. “‘Why don’t you relax? This place looks OK.’ He said, ‘George, you’ve never been black one day in your life.’
“I’ve been trying to compose a proper response to that statement ever since.”
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the marriage of Joyce Alexander, an African-American science major, and George Wein, a Jewish piano player – illegal in 19 states when they were wed in 1950 – was the event that opened his eyes to the persistent racism in the society around him. But the realities they faced and hopes they shared influenced their work and gave it extra meaning.
* * *
Late one afternoon in 2009, near the end of an hour-plus conversation with George Wein about the folk festival, I asked him about an incident – detailed in his autobiography, Myself Among Others – from 1964, in which an all-white Sacred Harp singing group from Alabama was riding a shuttle bus to the festival grounds when the bus stopped to let on the all-black Georgia Sea Island Singers, who were also headed there.
The bus was full. There was nowhere for the Sea Islanders to sit. According to the book, there was an awkward pause while everyone weighed their options. And then, only a few years after the idea of a black woman sitting with white people on a bus provoked many white Southerners to riot in the streets, the men of the Sacred Harp group rose and offered their seats to the women.
Wein confirmed that it had happened, though he added that he hadn’t seen it personally. Then he said, “Very moving things happened like that. There were a lot of incidents.”
Some of those incidents were grim: Wein told the story of folklorist and musicologist Willis James, whose reservation the Hotel Viking wouldn’t honor when he showed up in person in 1954 for the Jazz Festival and they realized he was black. And of the musician Robert Pete Williams, a guest in the Weins’ Middletown, R.I., home, asking George and Joyce where the toilet for black people was.
In 1967, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality distributed literature at the Newport Folk Festival, and tension between the activists and the all-white Newport police reached the point where the SNCC members were pushed out of Festival Field. A promised lineup, in which the activists would be able to identify their tormentors, was canceled at the last minute, and that spelled the end of the SNCC’s involvement with Newport.
Some stories were more hopeful: Wein recalled times when Joyce would be directing traffic backstage and would often give white Southern men detailed instructions on where to go and what to do. “And they would say to her, ‘You’re the finest woman we’ve ever met!’ It was a big thing to them. Here she was feeding them, taking care of them, telling them what to do — they never had that happen. …
“Very beautiful things happened.”
His use of the passive voice couldn’t pass unremarked.
Wein changed the subject, expounding on how wild parts of Newport had been in the early days of the festival, with “bucket of blood” bars along the shore featuring bands playing “shitkicker music” all night. I waited for him to pause, and he finally did.
“You knew what you were doing,” I said, without referring back to our previous subject, or having to.
He paused. “Oh yeah; that was intentional.”
For the next half-hour, Wein related examples of the ways his business intersected with the world as it was and how he wanted it to be; what he thought he had helped to change; and his frustrations over what he perceived as an assumption on the part of folk music observers that he was at most a passive observer to all of it.
The integrated life the Weins shared, and the integrated world of music they built around themselves – by the early 2000s, Festival Productions was staging 35 festivals worldwide – influenced both Newport festivals in different ways. “The jazz festival was an instruction on how things could be if people worked together,” Wein says. “Jazz was ahead of its time. But it wasn’t political in its integration; it was personalized integration. … The folk festival was very political. The jazz festival was more demonstrative, in the mixing of musicians. But the political stance that the folk festival took … created some people against it, and more people for it. It was an exciting situation.”
Wein said of the process that put black and white performers not only on the same bills but the same buses, “I can’t say we were color-blind; we knew that we had to do these things if we were gonna be a representation of what we were supposed to do.”[i] Wein could still recall with pride not only the “We Shall Overcome” moment of the 1963 folk festival, but how much of an anthem the song became after that. In his book, he calls the performance “a moment never to be forgotten” and says “I still get emotional when I think of it.” He also got emotional talking about its aftermath.
On March 15, 1965, President Johnson spoke to Congress a week after a white civil rights activist was killed in Selma, Ala., part of an effort by the state government to prevent a march on Montgomery demanding an end to voting discrimination. It was only the latest in a string of casualties brought on by the racism that Johnson himself had grown up in. Indeed, Johnson had spent two decades in the U.S House and Senate voting against every civil rights bill before him.
On the afternoon of the speech, a group of activists had sung “We Shall Overcome” on the steps of the Capitol. And that night, Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated barriers to voting such as poll taxes and literacy and knowledge tests (which weren’t given to all prospective voters, and whose difficulty varied widely depending on who was taking them). After outlining the parameters and goals of the bill, he spoke of the importance of passing it:
What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.
“Lyndon Johnson is reading from ‘We Shall Overcome’ on television!” he exclaimed in 2009. “And that was because of the folk movement! Maybe not the Newport Folk Festival, but the folk movement.” It was, for Wein, an acknowledgment of the work done on the front lines of American society by, if not himself, then compatriots such as Seeger, Ochs, Dylan, Baez and more spokespeople to whom Wein had endeavored to give a platform.
Among the other festivals Wein started or ran, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is perhaps the most prominent, and the dealings Wein had with the city and the state are perhaps the most eloquent statement of his principles. Wein was first contacted by officials in New Orleans about establishing a festival in 1963, before the Civil Rights Act or Voting Rights Act were passed. When they outlined their vision of a segregated festival that would celebrate jazz in general and New Orleans’s contributions to the genre specifically, Wein couldn’t oblige.
“I’d love to do it,” he remembers saying, “but you have laws on your books that are a problem. You don’t allow integrated audiences, and I have people who have clauses in their contracts that they won’t play for segregated audiences.” The city also wouldn’t allow integrated bands, which most of the biggest names in jazz had by that time, and had separate hotels for black people – treatment that legends such as Duke Ellington had long since left in their dust. Wein says, “They sat there, trying to figure out a way around their own laws! … But I never confronted them.”
Two years later, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and with the Voting Rights Act imminent, Wein was called back to New Orleans, and negotiations resumed. But when the city wouldn’t allow black and white players in that summer’s American Football League All-Star Game to stay in the same hotels, protests ensued, players boycotted the game and the city’s officials decided, Wein says, that another integrated event would be pushing it.
In 1968, they called him again, saying that they were going to put on a festival, but that they had chosen Willis Conover to run it: They couldn’t give Wein the contract because he was married to a black woman. Again, he says, his response was “’Fine; if you ever change, call me.’ I never got mad.” Finally, in 1969, Wein was in New Orleans again, this time because his own finances had gotten rough enough that he’d taken a piano gig at the Hotel Sonesta. This time, he was told the contract with Conover would be broken, and Wein could run the festival.
“I never fought them, or tried to get them to change their way of life,” Wein says. “That’s how I did my fighting; by just being there. And when Joyce came down there, they treated her like a queen.”
Despite this, Wein continued to feel that the folk-music world hadn’t given him his due in this area. “A lot of the folk people thought I was just a businessman — that I didn’t know and I didn’t care. Pete (Seeger) understood me differently. He knew me for what I feel about myself.” He recalled with some bitterness the International Folk Alliance conference, held in Montreal 2005, which gave an award to the Newport Folk Festival – the entire festival, not Wein personally. “I wouldn’t go. Nalini went up there; I said, ‘You take it.’” Theodore Bikel, who lived in Montreal, also accepted the award. Wein remembered sarcastically the acclaim Bikel had received for his political stances while on the Newport board – “Theo was on the board because I put him on the board! … The folk world never acknowledged me. They just thought I was a businessman. The fact that maybe I was doing something I loved never entered their head.”
But Wein is a businessman, particularly since the Brown and Williamson deal of the early ‘80s made him wealthy. As such, his primary influence on society lies in what he allows to happen and sets up to happen, rather than what he makes happen.
“That’s been my life. I lived an integrated life. And everywhere I went, I think, I left my mark with people. … I never wanted to be a rebel. I never thought I was doing anything different by marrying Joyce. I wanted the same kind of respect my father had as a doctor. I wasn’t going to live an outsider’s life; I was part of society. And to this day I still am. And that’s why I’ve lasted all these years, I think. I don’t compromise, but at the same time I don’t tell anyone else they’re wrong. They have to find out that they’re wrong.
“And they’ll find out.”
Full disclosure: Ben Kaye, Consequence of Sound News Editor and author of this story, has pictures featured in I Got A Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival.