The 2022 Newport Folk Festival featured artists in genres from hip-hop to rock, punk to bluegrass. One young artist is among those focused on keeping the folk tradition alive.
I spoke to teenage banjo extraordinaire Nora Brown who is turning 17 next week. Needless to say, she was excited to be returning to the festival where she played a brief set last year.
“I was here last year for a workshop on the Museum Stage and learned how historic and impactful this place is,” Brown told me in a brief interview.
While many teenagers opt for guitar or drums, Brown has been playing banjo since she was six. She performed at the Foundation Stage on Friday after playing “For Pete’s Sake” the night before at Jane Pickens Theater. She was extra thrilled to be a part of the Pete Seeger stamp ceremony.
“I really admire the work that Pete did,” explained Brown. “He was so important in the folk revival. He made sure the music he played was authentic, getting involved in the research component and mixing in his own ideas. It was very special to be on that stage and I could tell it meant a lot to all the people watching.”
Brown is about to release a solo album Long Time to be Gone, her third record, “all recorded at St. Ann’s Church, a beautiful historic church in Brooklyn,” she noted.
I asked her how kids her age respond to her chosen instrument.
“The banjo is a really recognizable instrument,” explained Brown. “Everybody knows it, but not everyone knows that it can be played other than in a bluegrass style. It can be one of those instruments that are very comical – people have a very stereotypical image of what that instrument is, and what it sounds like in their heads.”
“It’s often portrayed as a white instrument, but it’s not,” she continued. “It’s sometimes portrayed as a loud and annoying sort of sound, which it can be, but there are many ways you can play it. I go to a music school so a lot of the people that I’m friends with are involved in some art form, so people start to get it.”
Brown plays live shows on weekends and throughout the summer. “I’m doing my first real tour in August with my buddy Stephanie Coleman, she plays fiddle. We’re going up the East Coast to Canada and back down, it’s probably going to be the most consecutive thing I’ve done in a short period of time on the road.”
She appreciates the Newport Folk experience and how the festival is designed to support the artists. “I really like how they make space for collaboration; it feels like a very tight community and I’m happy that they welcome you into it. It’s a good feeling. You can hear so many genres, it’s a great place to be exposed to smaller artists.”