Jay Sweet, Producer of the Newport Folk Festival (NFF) since 2009, is swiftly approaching a couple anniversaries. One being in November, which will mark his official first year as the Executive Producer of The Newport Festivals Foundation, Inc. and the other being, this July, the 57th year of the Newport Folk Festival. It’s safe to say Sweet wears a lot of hats, literally and figuratively.
Amidst all of the hustle and bustle of pre-folk prep, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sweet. His answers to my questions were honest, raw, and undoubtedly charming. Sweet’s brain seems to be a labyrinth sewn together by melodies, connecting one song or artist with the next, seamlessly. One of the things I loved most about interviewing Sweet is his ability to stay grounded and remain humble. He knows what an honorable position he is in and it is not something that he takes lightly.
Reciting past musical lineups seem to be Sweet’s version of the ABC’s – and that is just one of the things that makes him a remarkable Producer, person, and citizen of this seemingly endless world of musical possibility. I told Sweet that I would try and ask him questions that he hasn’t been asked before, we both laughed and he said, “Good luck”.
I asked Sweet if there was a specific artist whose stage presence impressed or inspired him the most. He had a lot to say on the matter, not only did he speak of artists that left a lasting impact on him but he told me about his most memorable moments of Newport Folk Festival as a whole. He began by telling me, “I get moved every hour.”
I supposed I could just end there, Sweet’s initial response gave me those all encompassing goosebumps that (I think) we all get when we feel the vibrations shaking the earth at NFF.
“I look back at some things … for me, I always go to when I finally got Iron & Wine to play by himself, on an acoustic, and how he slowly stepped away from the microphone and softly played to see how quiet he could get the crowd.”
Sweet’s main concern is to preserve the festival’s integrity, keeping it as close to its roots as possible.
“It took me six years to get Jack White to play the festival and I was nervous he wouldn’t understand the historical significance of what it was all about and [I was wondering] if he read any of my personal letters. The fact that he opened with Blues music and closed with ‘Goodnight Irene’… (Jay and I both exchanged our sentiments about the set, and I admitted to crying while hearing Jack White’s voice hanging in space while singing his rendition of ‘Goodnight Irene’ by Pete Seeger) … it meant that he had understood my plea for wanting to continue with the tradition that Newport had in place. When you get an artist like that, of immense popularity, that pays his due diligence before playing means he knows where he’s at.”
Since Sweet holds a candle to the roots of Newport Folk Festival, I only thought it appropriate to ask about his own roots. I was under the impression that he had always been a huge music fan, or perhaps grew up in a family that inspired him in some way, musically. So, the question basically begged itself, what was the first concert he had been to? The first record he owned?
“I was very fortunate that I remember, this is true: My Dad was a major vinyl collector, this was way before the internet. On rainy days, my Dad would suggest that I organize his record collection in anyway I want to, this was third or fourth grade. I remember what stood out to me was that he had a tremendous number of performances in Newport. This was 35 years before I had even sniffed at the thought that I would be even remotely tied to that.”
Talk about synchronisty.
“My first concert I was twelve and I begged [to go]. I went to my first sleep away camp and a guy needed some money. I had a $10 bill, which means nothing in the middle of nowhere Maine, for a keg party, I figured, and he gave he three bootlegged Grateful Dead in exchange for the $10 bill…so, that Fall, when I was twelve I asked my parents to take me to see the Grateful Dead. I saw them on October 21st,1983 at Worcester Cetrum.“
For the sake of posterity, shout out to all the parents that are still raising their kids on vinyl, you’re doing a world of good. Also, – according to some Dead Heads I’ve corresponded with over the years, this was the first Dead show at Worcester Centrum, needless to say it was a groundbreaking event, even if the Dead had a little bit of a shaky start to the 80’s.
Newport Folk Festival has had a long life, almost six decades. As some of the older folk artists get older, I wonder if it has been more difficult to keep NFF true to it’s roots.
“I think the festival has gone more back to its roots than it has actually ever been. At its inception it was set up to mirror the artists of the day that were not getting the publics attention because maybe they were: too black, too political, too ‘back woods’, too non-popular. All the original artists were people not being played on the radio. The artists that originally played the festival played at community halls or coffee shops or busked because of their race or gender.”
With the ‘festival culture’ becoming something hip, if you are looking to come to Newport Folk Festival expecting Coachella, you’re in the wrong place. Similar to most things in life, there are a lot of misconceptions circling around. I asked Sweet, “What is one misconception about NFF, or folk music in general?”
“That folk is not just someone playing an acoustic guitar wearing Birkenstocks…
… when you’re feeling upset about what is happening in the world, you aren’t pulling out a Mike Seeger record but you may pull out a Courtney Barnett record…you aren’t listening to Taylor Swift but you may listen to My Morning Jacket … I don’t really defend it, I am just thinking that a lot of people are wrong when they define ‘folk’ … we can listen to the voices that actually say something… we are extremely inclusive, people find a haven [here] that isn’t based on laser shows and scantily clad dancers. This festival is based on music because there is nothing else there, no waterslide or silent discos.”
Sweet segues into, what would have been, my next question. He tells me what makes NFF different than any other festival.
“It is more of a tribe than any other … it isn’t about drugs in a field, not that any of those things are wrong, but, it’s communing over music. It is over at 7:30 so it isn’t about the party, it isn’t about trying to be seen in a magazine. Quite frankly it isn’t about the biggest names in the world, it is good music and good people. Adding 1 +1 = 3, the third thing is this communing, I can’t use it any other way… …it’s a music festival for people who hate music festivals .”
This year there are a few returning artists but also many new emerging faces and sounds. The Newport Folk Festival has been the catalyst for the careers of many bands who have graced the stage. Names that were not ‘big’ are now selling out amphitheaters and stadiums. Recent names like: Leon Bridges, Alabama Shakes, and Nathaniel Ratecliff & The Night Sweats and historical icons like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. I wanted to ask Sweet who he felt the next up incoming artists may be, and who he is most excited to see this year.
“That’s a tough question, it’s weird because someone like Raury, he is something we haven’t really done in the past, I am pretty excited about that. Margo Price is going to have a very long career, I think she’s just an incredible performer. John Moreland will be a songwriter for the ages. In all truth, I think I probably listen to Rayland Baxter probably more than anyone in the lineup, just in my office, just, you know, for me.”
Talking to Sweet was like taking a walk through time, and I think we can all agree that he has put in his 10,000 hours to becoming a master at his craft. Thank you, Jay Sweet, for preserving the tradition that George Wein gave birth to almost sixty years ago and may the tradition be honored for years to come.
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