From 1963 through 1966 Murray Lerner would make the
yearly trek from New York City to the tony seaside town of Newport, Rhode
Island. Once there, the documentarian seemingly
photographed every major and minor player of the 1960’s folk music craze for his
resulting award-winning film Festival
(1967). Depending on one’s personal taste
in music, the celluloid snippets offered in the film’s final edit – several
capturing folk and blues artists performing in the prime of their careers – are
either frustratingly truncated or mercifully brief in length.
As a lifelong folk music enthusiast, I would find this
film a treasure even if the film’s “star players” (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter,
Paul & Mary) were not featured. Watching snippets of such legends as Son House or Mississippi John Hurt
sing the blues, Tex Logan and the Lilly Bros. sing their brand of high,
lonesome bluegrass or Minneapolis’ Spider John Koerner wail away on a racked
harmonica and 12-string guitar would be enough to make me a fan. It would be too mammoth a task to list the
expansive list of folk and blues and gospel and roots artists caught on film -
no matter how briefly - in Lerner’s omnibus
film Festival, but it’s safe to say
that few important figures of Newport’s most consequential to pop-culture era festivals
are not represented.
Photographed on a set of shoulder-supported 16mm
“Sound-On-Film” Auricons, Lerner – augmented by a three member camera crew - seems
to have made an earnest effort to faithfully capture the essential comradely
spirit of the annual Newport event. This
black and white documentary film offers no narration or even narrative line,
and subsequently – as the New York Times
noted dourly in their review of the film in October of 1967, it is occasionally
“distressing and annoying” that “the more esoteric folk performers […] are not
clearly identified.” This stunningly
beautiful 2K digital Criterion release - featuring the original uncompressed
monorail sound - has thoughtfully remedied this by offering the option of removable
captions. These captions prominently
identify both the artists and the songs being performed as they unspool before
one of two documentaries released in 1967 that prominently (and perhaps)
accidentally captured on film the unlikely but meteoric pop-music ascension of folk-rock
icon Bob Dylan. The rightfully esteemed
- but more diverse in scope - Festival
has always been a bit more obscure than D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal and more celebrated
Don’t Look Back. Some of the thunder of Mr. Lerner’s wonderful
film was likely the result of having been released to theaters a mere month
following Don’t Look Back in the
autumn of 1967.
is a “music” film, aside from Peter, Paul, and Mary’s warbling of “Come and Go
with Me” that plays under the film’s opening credits, I don’t recall any other time
when we’re treated to full performance of a song. The cameras tend to linger democratically on both
the artists and the visitors to the
festival – the latter being almost uniformly young, white, and well-scrubbed. These are kids who have chosen to abandon
their schools and jobs for a long weekend of rebellious camping on the beaches
and fens of Newport. Other sleep-deprived
youngsters splay out uncomfortably on the backs of motorbikes and car hoods.
While there are a few beatnik-looking characters sprinkled about here and there, the hippies of San Francisco circa 1967 were still in the gestation stage when this footage was shot. Festival provides a snapshot into what the bookish, east coast, and semi-political counter-culture looked like circa 1963-1966. The sleep-deprived kids in the fields mumble a bit about protest songs, the bomb and matters of war, but they’re mostly still searching themselves and are often embarrassingly inarticulate in their responses. One of the more thoughtful kids admits that the Newport has already morphed from the countercultural Mecca envisioned by festival co-founder and musical activist Pete Seeger to a place where “everyone gathers together to be a non-conformist.”
Of greatest interest to pop-music historians is, perhaps, how the cameras dutifully capture the manner in which Dylan and Baez, two counterculture icons emerging as folk music’s King and Queen at Newport ’65, were navigating the demands and stresses of stardom. Following her performance at an afternoon workshop, the saintly Baez – against the wishes of a bleating handler in charge of her security – wades willingly into a crowded circle of worshippers, signing autographs and engaging everyone in pleasantries. Asked from off camera if she’s suffering from writer’s cramp due to the incessant scribbling of her autograph on proffered programs and ticket stubs, Baez answers self-deprecatingly she suffers only from a “bloated ego” due to all this undeserved attention. In contrast, following an afternoon workshop performance of July 24th, 1965 (where he sang, somewhat perversely, “All I Really Want To Do (Is Baby Be Friends with You),” it’s pretty obvious that the more remote Dylan’s definition of what constitutes such friendship is more oblique. He immediately sequesters himself into the isolation and safety of a car’s back seat, as fans mob the vehicle in which he’s sitting, rapping their knuckles against the glass in a mostly fruitless attempt to command his stoic attention.
Lerner’s cameras were also on hand to importantly capture the infamous moment when, in the paraphrase of one critic, the electrified Dylan brazenly “smuggled rock into the citadel of folk.” Backed by guitarist Michael Bloomfield and members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Lerner historically captures Dylan and Co. raging into an electric “Maggie’s Farm,” singlehandedly short-circuiting the pop-folk craze in the process. Perhaps because I’ve seen Lerner’s footage of this pivotal moment a thousand times in various rock documentaries, I was a bit more intrigued by the rare snippets where his cameras catch Dylan backstage at a piano or on stage with Bloomfield and an electric guitar during a “quiet before the storm” daylight rehearsal.
Here we also see the ubiquitous Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) come off as something of a wet blanket, perseverating about microphone placements, the band playing over his sound check (“No Noise!”), and even the application of tape markers on the stage. If the sound of Dylan’s brand of raucous rock n’ roll at Newport ’65 was as loud and distorted as often reported… Well, at least Yarrow can’t be blamed. This footage from the sound check proves that he tried his best despite the obvious sneers and ridicule of Dylan and his rebel band of Chicago Blues punks.
As the youngest member of the Newport Board of Directors, the tireless Peter Yarrow is all over the festival as M.C., sound engineer and performer. Consequently, he is omnipresent throughout Lerner’s film. Yarrow has been long and famously despairing of the idolatry surrounding Dylan, and on record as being a critic of rock music as well. In one semi-contemporary supplement included with this set, Yarrow suggests, somewhat ridiculously, that it’s his belief that only through acoustic music can progressive ideals be properly disseminated. This is nonsense, of course, and while one must maintain respect for Yarrow’s lifelong commitment to his principled political and humanitarian beliefs, his too often telescopic thinking and doctrinaire view of art can easily rile.
In any event, Bob Dylan is not in any manner or form the focal point of the Lerner documentary, though his presence in the film certainly helped move tickets and garner attention back in 1967. (If your primary interest is in Dylan’s Newport appearances, I suggest you check out Lerner’s belated “companion” film The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan - Live at the Newport Folk Festival - 1963-1965). If allotted screen time is an indicator of Lerner’s personal preferences in the sound of folk music, it’s obvious the director was more beguiled by sweeter vocals of Peter, Paul & Mary and Joan Baez than of the craggy-voiced Dylan or the gaggle of old mumbling blues singers.
In the interest of fairness, an extended segment of the electric Chicago blues of Howlin’ Wolf (“Howling for My Darling”) is most welcome, the bellowing blues singer performing before a crowd of mostly white teenagers as they shimmy stiffly and un-rhythmically in front of the bandstand. We’re also treated to a sampling of the acoustic blues workshop of Newport 1964, where Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry play through the old standard “Key to the Highway” (for, no doubt, the millionth time) as an impossibly young John Hammond Jr. and the wizened Mississippi John Hurt look over their shoulders awaiting their turns.
There so many moments preciously captured here that I almost hate to single out any at the expense of others, but I must confess to prejudicial favorites. A tight close-up frames the genial, soft-singing Mississippi John Hurt as he softly fingerpicks his way through his “Candy Man Blues,” giving us a small peek into the legendary intimacy of his performances. The Delta blue singer Son House plays rough bottleneck guitar and coarsely bellows through two excerpts of “Down Hearted Blues” and “Levee Camp Moan.” Though only in his 60’s when this film was made, House somehow comes off as a survivor from some ancient world… and a justifiably surly survivor at that. In an attempt to put a little dramatic tension in the film, the editors juxtapose House’s condemnation of the young blues singers who haven’t lived through racism and hard times against the young and vibrant – and Caucasian - Michael Bloomfield who concedes the old-school guys will always be the greatest, but that, hey, everyone gets the blues.
Personally, I would have liked to see a bit more of Pete Seeger who, more than anyone other than festival producer George Wein, helped create the Newport event back in the summer of 1959. Seeger is seen on screen only briefly and mostly in the background. Other than his performance of Lead Belly’s “Green Corn” with Jim Kweskin and Mel Lyman accompanying, he’s mostly mysteriously absent from the film. With the leftist Seeger under a television blacklist during this period of his career, perhaps allowing the controversial folksinger a bit more screen time might have provided a platform for Lerner to gently test America’s first amendment protections.
Supplements to the new Criterion set include “When We Played Newport: Countering Culture Through Folk Music.” The short film is essentially a collection of pre-HD video interviews with Buffy Sainte-Marie, John Cohen, Peter Yarrow, George Wein, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and director Lerner himself. Perhaps of more interest is the smattering of vintage outtakes from the Newport films, including music and commentary by the likes of Theodore Bikel, Johnny Cash, Buffy Saint-Marie, Phil Ochs, Mike Seeger, and Mother Maybelle Carter. In his own interview Lerner admitted he was totally enamored of the “rebellious integrity” of both the performers and their fans. He saw Newport as the awkward interim period that bridged the dying gasp of the 1950s “age of conformity” with the spiritual and political awakening of the “pre-hippie” era.
A second supplement “Making Festival” includes Criterion’s 2017 interviews with Lerner and Associate Editor Alan Heim and Assistant Editor Gordon Quinn. The editors were tasked with the Herculean responsibility of wading through four years and countless hours of Newport reels to seamlessly blend and fashion the resulting 98 minute documentary. “Making Festival” allows a few more glimpses into the Lerner archives, including previously unreleased and tantalizing footage of bluesmen Bukka White and John Lee Hooker. The final supplement is a collection of previously unreleased performances, featuring the music of John Lee Hooker, Tom Paxton, Elizabeth Cotton, Odetta, Clarence Ashley, and Johnny Cash.
Lastly, this new glistening set from Criterion includes a hefty and informative 42 page booklet featuring the essay “Who Knows What’s Going to Happen Tomorrow” by Amanda Petrusich (the author of It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music and several other books documenting Americana music) and a concise “Selected Artist Biographies” by Mary Katherine Aldin, a seasoned and well respected writer, researcher, and radio personality who specialty is folk and blues music history. If you are a fan of 1960s folk music, this film is essential addition to your home video library.