Former Rhode Islander pens history of Newport Folk Festival

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Rick Massimo, former Rhode Islander and Providence Journal arts writer, has written an educational and entertaining history of the Newport Jazz Festival from its humble beginnings in 1959 to last year’s sold-out concerts. “I Got a Song” is filled with stories, interviews and a lively discussion on just what is folk music, anyway.

Massimo had access to the people involved not only in performing but, just as important, in putting together the festivals. He also spent many hours with the man he describes as “the founder of the feast,” George Wein.

Massimo follows the history of the festival and folk music as it changes focus through the years. He takes us back to Newport’s Freebody Park, where Studs Terkel emceed the ’59 festival, which featured Pete Seeger, Odetta, Joan Baez, Earl Scruggs and the Kingston Trio.

As early as 1965, musicologists were pondering over “What is Folk Music,” a topic that is just as relevant today.

He takes us through the riots of the late ’60s, the festival leaving Newport in the ’70s, its return to its current home at Fort Adams in 1985, declining attendance at the turn of the century, and the “new” festivals of the 2011-2016 period, when the event sold out before any performers were announced.

Massimo gives us an up-close look at two of the biggest legends in folk history: Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, and what a contrast they are. Seeger was the glue that held the festival together. Those of us who were there over the years remember the intimate sing-alongs and the joining of fellow musicians on stage. And who can forget the day that Dylan went electric back in the summer of 1965 and the ripples it made in the folk community.

I personally remember Dylan’s return in 2002 and his contempt for his audience and the press, standing in the back of the stage with his hat over his eyes, never speaking to his admirers and ordering that no pictures were to be taken by the press or the public. Rumors were rampant that Dylan would appear when the festival featured a “Tribute to Dylan,” but he was nowhere in site.

“I Got a Song” is written with loving care and respect for the genre and is a must read for folk aficionados and anyone who has ever sung “This Land is Your Land.” The book is released by Wesleyan University Press (paperback: $24.95) Massimo will appear at Books on the Square in Providence for a signing on July 27.

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