Bay Street Theater and the Sag Harbor Center For The Arts is hosting a screening of Newport Folk Festival: A Retrospective on Friday, April 8 at 8 p.m. Compiled by film archivist and documentarian Joe Lauro, the footage will feature full performances by many of the legends who appeared at the Newport Folk Festival between 1963 and 1965—during the height of the ’60s folk craze—all filmed by the documentarian Murray Lerner. This means seminal performances from the hot performers of the era—like a baby-faced Bob Dylan and his mentor Joan Baez—as well as from the many rediscoveries who found late fame and glory in those heady years—like Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis.
“It’s a balance between the guys who were new on the scene at the time and the traditional folk musicians,” says Lauro. “So there’s Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan, Judy Collins, and a very young Phil Ochs as well as the visceral, raw performances of groups like the Georgia Sea Island Singers and the Reverend Robert Wilkins. There’s also some great footage of Doc Watson playing with Bill Monroe—it was Doc’s first big gig.” As an added bonus at the Bay Street screening, Murray Lerner himself will be on hand to talk about the film and answer questions.
In the history of music, there are a few artifacts that managed to achieve legendary status without ever having seen the light of day. They are the “lost” masterpieces. There’s the original Smile album, Brian Wilson’s unfinished tour de force, of which the listening public got only glimpses for years, but which nonetheless cemented Wilson’s reputation as a visionary genius. There’s the unreleased Amazing Grace, a 1971 concert film of Aretha Franklin in her absolute prime, recording the bestselling gospel album ever produced. And then there’s this footage of the Newport Folk Festival.
“Lerner’s really been waiting for the right moment,” says Lauro. “Most of these performances have never been seen.”
Enthusiasts have gotten tantalizing glimpses of Lerner’s material over the years. In 1967, Lerner released a film called Festival, which captured the excitement of the concerts but which suffered from the reduction of musicians’ performances to fragmentary excerpts. Then, a few years ago, the footage featuring Bob Dylan’s appearances at the Newport Folk Festival surfaced in a DVD release titled The Other Side of the Mirror. The public was finally able to see these classic Dylan performances, including the very moment when Dylan went electric. This was a most welcome addition to the Dylan canon, but for hardcore folkies it only whet their appetite for the rest of the film. This feeling is especially acute because so little good footage exists of amazing performers like Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis—and Lerner’s black and white footage of these artists is crystal clear with very good sound quality.
“At the time, Vanguard Records was recording the Newport concerts for commercial release,” notes Lauro. “So, for the most part, the sound is excellent.”
Lauro plans additional screenings of the material going forward, with an eventual goal of producing a full-length documentary. “There was an interesting conflict in the folk world at the time between the traditionalists like Pete Seeger and the more modernist performers—and it really played out at Newport. That’s what I think the film will focus on.”
The Internet seems to have ushered in an age when many of the “lost” masterpieces are finding their way to release—if only as a means to counter illegal bootlegs. In 2011, Brian Wilson’s Smile was finally cobbled together from incomplete recordings. Word has it that we might finally get to see Franklin’s Amazing Grace—that is, if delicate negotiations with the Queen of Soul don’t break down. And now, Joe Lauro’s finally revealing the long anticipated Newport Folk Festival footage, right here at Bay Street Theater. Folkies rejoice!
Newport Folk Festival: A Retrospective on Friday, April 8 at 8 p.m. at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater is likely to sell out. Visit baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500 for ticket information.