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Songs for the People

Newport Folk Festival hits L.A. with a lineup focusing on singer-songwriters.

September 17, 1998|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If there's one term used to describe a music genre that needs reworking, it's "folk."

Even Nanci Griffith, one of the headliners of the Newport Folk Festival tour that comes to the Greek Theatre on Sunday, has a lot of problems with the narrow way the term is often applied.

"Pete Seeger defines folk as simply being songs for the people," the Texas native says. "I agree with this. I consider rap music to be folk music, and jazz and country blues to be folk music. They're American institutions and creations, and that's folk music."

Don't panic, folk fans. Griffith won't be rapping Sunday. But she will be celebrating the ever-evolving folk process honored on her new "Other Voices, Too," a second volume of sessions she did with a gaggle of performers (Emmylou Harris, Jerry Jeff Walker) and songwriters (from Stephen Foster to Texas troubadour Guy Clark to English folk-rocker Richard Thompson).

On the festival lineup, she's joined by Newport veteran Joan Baez, respected singer-songwriters Thompson and John Hiatt and Bruce Cockburn, newer figures Mark Eitzel, Marc Cohn and the country-rock band Wilco, Cajun band Beausoleil and jazz banjoist Bela Fleck. It covers a wide range, but it all fits within the basic framework of modern folk--an oeuvre that was in part defined by the original Newport Folk Festival, held in the seaside Rhode Island town.

It was 40 years ago that George Wein, founder of the established Newport Jazz Festival, hosted a lineup of musicians mining the fertile grounds of folk traditions, from the Anglo-Irish music rooted in the Appalachians to the blues of the Mississippi Delta to the ballads of the Texas plains.

Newport is where such rural treasures as Doc Watson and Ralph Stanley were elevated to icon status, the first place in the U.S. outside of Louisiana to feature French Cajun musicians, and a center of the protest movement. And, of course, it was at Newport in 1965 that Bob Dylan grabbed folk by the throat--and got booed in the process--by "going electric."

Can the new tour, launched this year with a 13-city trek, serve to define folk music today? Probably not, says Bob Jones, senior producer at Festival Productions, Wein's company.

"In the early days, you could count the folk festivals around the country on two hands," Jones says. "Now there's a zillion of them. No single event can be definitive in that way. And we didn't want to offer things already being done in the market. There are fabulous bluegrass festivals in and around Newport, for example. So I stayed away from those acts for this tour."

What he can do instead is gather a cast that has carried on and personalized the traditions of Newport.

"We niched this much more toward the singer-songwriters and younger musicians," he says. "Not that they're all new. But the ones who have been around for a while have kept on with the pace of evolving; Joan Baez and Richard Thompson, for example. This is pretty representative of Newport, not past festivals, but the festival in its current form."

But, Griffith says, it's a good start in reclaiming the active and broad meaning of folk music.

"Something like 'Walk Right Back,' Sonny Curtis' song which was a hit for the Everly Brothers in '62, was not considered rock 'n' roll or hillbilly or country or Dust Bowl or anything. It was American folk music."

BE THERE

Newport Folk Festival on Tour, with Nanci Griffith, Joan Baez, Richard Thompson, John Hiatt, Mark Eitzel, Marc Cohn, Wilco, Beausoleil, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Sunday at the Greek Theatre, 2700 Vermont Canyon Road, 3 p.m. $27.75-$57.75; children under 12, $5. (323) 480-3232.

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