Back to Blog

A letter home from the Folk Festival – 1963

August 21st, 2012

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We received a copy of this letter from Frank’s granddaughter via our Facebook page. Frank wrote this to his wife after attending the Newport Folk Festival in 1963.

– – –

Tuesday, July 30, 1963

Dear Wifey –

In spite of all the mixed thoughts running through my mind (like mainly your coming here) I must let my thoughts settle and tell you about the folk festival. It really left an impression on me.

I guess the best way to do it is to let you see it through my eyes, so here it goes:

Saturday morning Tom Burton and I got into town about 9:00 in the morning. Now Newport R.I. is a small, lazy town that is really quaint in its antiquity. But overnight a change had taken place. The cobblestone streets were alive with people and vehicles. Anything that was capable of carrying people or possessions was arriving in that town.

And the people! Max, you could not believe the people that were jamming the parks, walking the streets, riding motorcycles, bicycles and cars, walking, running …..

They were every shape, size, race, religion, and creed. They were dirty and they were clean. They were young and they were old. They wore boots and shoes and sandals. They were barefoot. They had beards and goatees. They were clean shaven.

There were girls with hair so long they could sit on it, and guys with hair so long they could braid it. There were beatniks, farmers, college kids, families and businessmen.

They slept in the parks, on the beaches, in hotels and apartments, and cars – or they didn’t sleep. And every one of them had a guitar or banjo. The instruments were hung over shoulders, strapped on Vespa motor scooters, or stuck in cases bearing “Newport or Bust” slogans.

Music was incessant. What kind of music do you like? A walk through one of the small parks produced every kind of folk music imaginable.

How about that red-headed guy over there playing the autoharp and singing southern mountain songs? Or those two guys and that girl – sound a little like Peter, Paul and Mary, don’t they? Or that crowd of people all singing together. Or the 3 banjo pickers under that tree? Or… well, that could go on forever. Angel, I heard some of the finest amateur music here that you would ever want to hear. And the number of people playing and singing was literally uncountable.

And while we were sitting on a beach a little overwhelmed by the immensity of it all, who should come along humming prettily to herself but Joan Baez. And after she’d gone by we pinched ourselves to make sure we were still OK and walked on over to the grounds where the afternoon workshops and panels were being held, and we almost bumped into Sonny Terry and Bob Dylan who were coming down the street.

When we got to the first of the small platforms inside the park, I thought I heard a familiar voice. Sure enough, Bess Hawes, lecturing on ballads. After she finished I went over to talk to her to find out how she was, and she introduced me to Alan Lomax. While we were talking, a tall, beanpole of a guy broke into the conversation to say something to Lomax – sure enough, Pete Seeger.

Back out on the street among the crowd we spotted two guys with banjo cases who didn’t stand out any more than anyone else in that banjo-guitar carrying crowd. But upon closer inspection it turned out to be Mike Seeger and John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers. And coming out of one of the little shop were two women – one of them Bessie Jones.

Well, that settled it. I brought my camera out Sunday, and spent the day taking pictures around the town and in the park itself. I got them all. Seeger, Jack Elliot, Doc Watson, Bess Hawes, Alan Lomax, Sonny Terry, John Cohen, Clarence Ashley… they were all over the place.

By the way, I got about a half dozen slides of you-know-who (Joan Baez) tripping down the street in a tan blouse and shorts chucking little kids under the chin and drinking Kool-Aid from a little sidewalk stand. She sure loves kids. But she seems to be bothered by nosy photographers who walk up and take her picture from about 2 feet away. So after I received a dirty look for that shot, I went away to find other things to photograph.

Sunday night’s show was outstanding. Joan Baez was the outstandingest of all. She did some songs I’d never heard before, and “All My Trails”, “Mary Hamilton”, and an extremely humorous rock and roll song which she sang straight except for a slight nasal quality. It’s unexplainable. Maybe it’ll come out on the Folk Festival record.

The show was a real topping to a fantastically rewarding weekend. The whole thing was extremely well planned, executed, and controlled. It was a real thrill to see so many people on such a large scale just put aside social and economic barriers and accept each other as people. It was gratifying beyond words. Ask me about it when we’re together in a couple weeks. I’d like to talk more about it.

Love you,