Newport Folk Festival Celebrates 60 Years of a Musical Rainbow Connection

By Erik Philbrook, ASCAP Editor in Chief  •  August 5, 2019

Kermit the Frog, Portugal. The Man, Stephen Marley, J.S. Ondara, Madison Cunningham, Judy Collins, Kevin Morby, Our Native Daughters and More Resonate at Storied Fest

The lovers, the dreamers and me. We were all there singing “The Rainbow Connection” together with Kermit the Frog and Jim James of My Morning Jacket at the close of this year’s Newport Folk Festival. The buzz before the closing set was that there was a very special guest and it was going to be magical. Naturally, many believed it was going to be Bob Dylan himself, returning to the scene of some of his most history-making performances. When it was revealed to be everyone’s favorite amphibian entertainer instead, it was somehow…perfect. Kermit’s signature song, “The Rainbow Connection,” written by ASCAP President Paul Williams and Ken Asher, and which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary, has become a timeless and universal anthem for all who are seekers…of hope, peace, compassion and ultimately love.

The Newport Folk Festival, this year celebrating its own 60th anniversary, has long attracted songwriter-performers and music fans alike, who believe in the power of music to make that connection with our highest ideals. Indeed, Newport Folk Festival executive producer Jay Sweet and his team curated a program this year that was an unbridled celebration of diversity, inclusivity, community and so much more.

ASCAP members of all stripes graced stages large and small and represented some of the most exciting and enduring music from across the genre spectrum. From singer-songwriter Black Belt Eagle Scout, who hails from the Swinomish Indian Reservation in Washington State to Our Native Daughters (Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Rhiannon Giddens), who shined a light on African women’s stories of struggle and resistance, to J.S. Ondara, a gifted immigrant from Kenya with a golden voice and an acclaimed album (Tales of America) under his belt, there were many voices and stories from around the world to be experienced.

Reggae royalty great Stephen Marley masterfully delivered the sunny vibes and universal call to love that underscored the festival’s zeitgeist. “Music is in my DNA. I wasn’t a taught musician. I was a born musician,” he said. “It’s such a great duty to have the platform and use that platform. So while people have different political views, different cultures, music brings it all together. It’s a privilege to come play music for the masses and deliver that message as well.

Roots rock was represented in sets by such blues artists as Cedric Burnside and Devon Gilfillian, not to mention legendary Grateful Dead member Phil Lesh. African rock was represented magnificently by Jupiter & Okwess. Modern rock was represented in dynamic sets by Kevin Morby, E.B. the Younger and Portugal. The Man. And of course, folk and roots music, in all its various colors, remained at the heart of the festival. From Tony Award winner Anais Mitchell’s new folk group Bonny Light Horseman to The Milk Carton Kids, from I’m With Her (featuring Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan) to Colorado by way of South Africa's Gregory Alan Isakov, who delivered a blistering set on the Fort Stage with numerous string players surrounding a central microphone.

2019 ASCAP Abe Olman Scholarship recipient Madison Cunningham, who has emerged this past year as one of the most exciting singer-songwriters from the West Coast, was in awe of being part of the mix at the storied festival.

Cunningham said: It’s pretty surreal. I’ve been walking from stage to stage and thinking about the pictures I’ve seen from this place over the years. Iconic black and white photos of the artists of the past who have been here, like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and countless others. For me, it’s a huge pill to swallow. But I’m so thankful to be a part of it in some way.”

While one could take musical trips to far off corners of the musical map all weekend, Newport’s closing set brought it all back home to the festival’s central theme: We are stronger when we sing together. In addition to Kermit kicking off the set in the most memorable way, a parade of incredible performers hit the stage and offered a vivid display of unity and collaboration.

There was a powerful backing band including Benmont Tench, Wilco’s John Stirratt, Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney) who supported such guest performers as Hurray for the Riff Raff, Lake Street Dive, Judy Collins with Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes) and more.

The finale featured folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, just shy of his 88th birthday and who first graced the Newport stage 56 years ago in 1963. With dozens of performers and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band backing him up on folk favorites, it was a fitting reminder of Newport’s legendary history and its modern, continued impact on music and the music creators who have long been enriched by its vision.

One week later, on August 2nd, all ears turned to the Newport Jazz Festival. The ASCAP Foundation, led by President Paul Williams, and Newport Festivals Foundation, led by Founder & Chairman George Wein, continued their joint effort to benefit emerging jazz talent at the jazz fest by featuring a performance by Ben Morris, a versatile composer/pianist equally accomplished in the jazz and classical realms (read Deputy Editor Etan Rosenbloom’s interview). Morris joined a stellar lineup of ASCAP jazz talent, including Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Sons of Kemet, Makaya McCraven, Buika, Jenny Scheinman and more.


Photos by Erik Philbrook and Gwen Plumert