The Newport Folk Festival as a Reflection of the American Sixties

July 9, 2024

This is a guest blog post by Sarah Kraus, BA in History, Salve Regina University. Sarah is a 2024 John E. McGinty Fellow (Salve Regina University) in partnership with the NHS Buchanan Burnham Summer Scholar program. BA in History, Salve Regina University.

The annual Newport Folk Festival is kicking off shortly on Friday, July 26, 2024, at Fort Adams and will be celebrating its sixty-fifth anniversary this year. As one of the oldest folk music festivals in the United States, the Newport Folk is one of Newport’s most cherished cultural traditions. The Newport Folk Festival has stood as a reflection of America’s social history and diverse musical culture throughout its nearly seven-decade-long tradition. Moreover, key moments in the festival’s first ten years reflected the growing counterculture and changing tide of American society during the 1960s. 

Advertisement for the inaugural Newport Folk Festival in the Providence Journal, June 8, 1959.

The Newport Folk Festival grew out of the annual Newport Jazz Festival, which will celebrate its seventieth anniversary in 2024. The corporation “The Jazz Festival of Newport, R.I., Inc.” was established on April 28, 1954, by Louis and Elaine Lorillard for the purpose of “promoting an interest in music; conducting and holding music festivals…for the entertainment, amusement, recreation, and pleasure of the public.”1 The inaugural Jazz Festival was subsequently held on July 17 and July 18, 1954, at the Newport Casino (now the International Tennis Hall of Fame.) Over the next few years, co-producer George Wein had noticed younger festivalgoers’ interest in the folk music that would be played at the Jazz Festivals and took advantage of the lucrative opportunity to hold a smaller folk music festival alongside it. A 1959 advertisement for the inaugural festival in the Providence Journal lists such notable headliners as Pete Seeger, Odetta, The Kingston Trio, and John J. Niles, among others.2 With the assistance of manager Albert Grossman, the inaugural Newport Folk Festival was held on July 11 and July 12 in Newport’s Freebody Park and was attended by upwards of 12,000 patrons. While the second annual Newport Folk Festival in 1960 was subsequently met with positive press and attended by thousands of festivalgoers, a riot was incited during the Jazz Festival several weeks later thus resulting in a hiatus for both the Jazz and Folk Festivals until 1962 and 1963, respectively.3 

The 1960s ushered in a period of social change and shifting perspectives in the United States, and the Newport Folk Festival unequivocally reflected these sentiments over the course of the decade. Therefore, it is critical to consider the timing of the Newport Folk Festival in the greater context of both Newport’s history and American history as a whole. The latter decades of the nineteenth century and the first few of the twentieth had seen Newport become a famed summer resort for America’s richest and, despite the city’s shift toward military interests during the Second World War, had remained a popular tourist destination.4 The crowds drawn to the area by the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals aided in enhancing Newport’s existing influence in tourism and the realm of American popular culture during the postwar years.  

The broad genre of American folk music saw a popular revival in the 1930s and, in the decades to come, gained popularity with members of younger generations who saw the genre as a gateway for expression amidst the political and social turbulence of the Cold War years. The concert program from the 1960 Newport Folk Festival included remarks from folk legend Pete Seeger, who reflected on the then-recent commercialization of American folk music: “Due to a large extent of such popularizers of folk song as Burl Ives, Josh White, the Weavers, Harry Belafonte, and the Kingston Trio and to many other folk music publications, recordings and radio programs, we are in the midst of a tremendous revival of interest in folk music.”5 Moreover, it is important to consider how the messaging of folk music would have initially been received during the Red Scare of the early Cold War. Rick Massimo, author of I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival describes a “chill that fell over the music, and much of American culture in general, thanks to anticommunist hysterics.”6 The genre, albeit more popular than ever before, was considered by some to be subversive amidst the backdrop of the Cold War. Consequently, folk music tended to be viewed by some Americans as counteractive to the interests of the country’s cause against the Soviet Union.  

Performance of “We Shall Overcome” at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival as depicted in a May 1964 issue of Hootenanny magazine. AFC 2014/008: MS 06.04, Collection of the Library of Congress.

The activism of the civil rights movement was ever present at the Newport Folk Festival and is perhaps one of the first political movements to be demonstrated in the festival’s history. Several famous voices of the movement, namely Odetta and Mahalia Jackson, graced the stage of the Newport Folk Festival over the decade. The 1963 festival had a notably powerful presence of activism, during which Georgia-based quartet The Freedom Singers performed the protest song “We Shall Overcome with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.7 The artists held hands whilst they delivered the climactic performance as a demonstration of solidarity with the civil rights movement. On August 28, 1963, “We Shall Overcome” was performed at the March on Washington by Dylan and Baez, only one month after their performance at the Newport Folk Festival.8 Furthermore, on March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Congress and, in his speech, quoted the protest song’s title.9 In the first several years of its existence, the Newport Folk Festival contributed to the popularization of songs such as “We Shall Overcome” which would become anthems for social movements such as that for civil rights in the United States. A 2009 article in the Newport Daily News noted that “[Wein] did not start the folk festival with a direct political statement in mind. But the civil rights movement gained momentum in the early days of the festivals, leading to [the performance] in 1963.10 While the motives behind the festival’s fruition were not explicitly political, it is imperative to address the festival’s role within the greater context of the movement given its impact.

Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of culture shifts exemplified at the Newport Folk Festival was Bob Dylan’s 1965 performance of “Like a Rolling Stone” on an electric guitar, an instrument that had yet to be popularized in American folk music. Often considered to be one of the greatest American songwriters of all time, Bob Dylan’s music has become reminiscent of the counterculture that so greatly defined the 1960s. Dylan’s polarizing decision to “go electric” as a folk artist angered many fans who considered the performance too far of a departure from traditional, acoustic folk music. Despite the backlash from Dylan’s set, the unconventional performance facilitated the popularization of folk rock and is considered one of the most pivotal episodes in rock history. The impact of the performance was recalled in a 2002 issue of the Providence Sunday Journal, “The significance of Dylan’s electric set blossomed over time. Rock musicians would go on to pen Dylan-esque songs about wartime protests and personal freedom. Then they’d send their music soaring with rock ‘n’ roll guitar riffs.”11 Bob Dylan’s performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was a clear representation of the shift experienced by American culture and public outlook throughout the 1960s. Festival co-producer George Wein reflected on the performance, remarking that “[Dylan’s performance] was the beginning of the Woodstock generation, that night in Newport.”12 While the famed Woodstock Festival of 1969 is arguably the most famous depiction of musical counterculture in the latter half of the decade, the influence of Bob Dylan’s Fender Stratocaster on that day in 1965 deserves equal recognition.  

Cover for the 1965 Newport Folk Festival concert program (left) and enclosed advertisement for Harmony guitars (right). While Bob Dylan did not “go electric” on a Harmony guitar, the idea of the guitar being “The instrument of self-expression in song” during the 1960s reflects the impact of Bob Dylan’s 1965 performance on the folk music scene. AFC 2004/004: MS 05.01.15, Collection of the Library of Congress.

In its first decade, the Newport Folk Festival stood as a reflection of sociopolitical themes in the United States during the 1960s. As a period that encompasses several of the most significant turning points in modern history, the festival mirrored cultural and political implications that made this era of modern history so impactful. Reflecting on the significance of the Newport Folk Festival in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a 1985 article in the Providence Journal recalled that music festivals at this point in American history “weren’t simply entertainments, but communal celebrations that bordered on the spiritual.”13 As one of America’s first folk music festivals, the Newport Folk Festival has been an attestation to the relationship between folk music and the societal shifts of one of modern history’s most pivotal decades. 


1 State of Rhode Island, “Original Articles of Association,” Providence, April 28, 1954, Box UM50, Collection of the Newport Historical Society

2 “First Annual… Newport Folk Festival,” Providence Journal [Providence], Jun. 8, 1959, p. 4. 

3 Rick Massimo, I Got A Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2017), 28. 

4 Ibid, 116. 

5 “Program: Newport Folk Festival June 24, 25, 26, 1960 Freebody Park, Newport, R.I., 2021.023.002, Collection of the Newport Historical Society. 

6 Massimo, 14. 

7 Ibid, 36. 

8 Ibid. 

9 Lyndon B. Johnson, “March 15, 1965: Speech Before Congress on Voting Rights,” Miller Center, accessed July 2024, 

10 James J. Gillis, “The winds of change: Newport festival and folk music have come a long way since ‘59,” Newport Daily News [Newport], Jul. 31, 2009, p. A6. Box UM50, Collection of the Newport Historical Society. 

11 “Dylan: Electric performance 37 years ago shocked Newport fans,” Providence Sunday Journal [Providence], Jul. 28, 2002, p. A14. Accessed at Newport Historical Society, Box UM50. 

12 Gillis.

13 Tony Lioce, “Folk revisited: Still blowin’ in the wind,” Providence Journal [Providence], Jul. 28, 1985, p. 13. Collection of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum.