1959 was the year folk broke thanks to Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane, and the first Newport Folk Festival they co-headlined
Sixty years ago this summer, promoter George Wein was lining up performers for what would be the first Newport Folk Festival, a spin-off of the jazz fest he’d been running since 1954. He knew that for ticket sales, he needed a big draw, and no one—no one in folk music, or pop music, for that matter—was bigger than the Kingston Trio.
Since breaking through with their single “Tom Dooley” and self-titled debut album, the trio had totally demolished the folk ceiling and become the hottest act in America. Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane got their start in the clubs around the Bay Area, like San Francisco’s Purple Onion and Hungry i, playing a rousing hybrid of traditional folk and calypso (which had become a huge deal with Harry Belafonte’s albums in the mid-’50s) that also made room for songs by Woody Guthrie (“Hard, Ain’t It Hard”) and Broadway composers Lerner and Loewe (“They Called the Wind Mariah” from Paint Your Wagon). Their impact was massive.
After the Kingston Trio album hit number one in 1958, and a Hungry i live set came within a hair of that as a follow-up, the group recorded The Kingston Trio At Large, released at the beginning of June 1959 (Happy diamond anniversary); it went on to top the Billboard album chart for fifteen weeks before relinquishing the slot to Johnny Mathis (they reclaimed the chart summit with Here We Go Again! in December). So getting the country’s premier musical ensemble for the premiere Newport Folk Festival was quite a coup for Wein. The trio had a condition: they had played the prior year at the Newport Jazz Festival on a folk bill, and while they’d be happy to play at the new folk-centric event, they also wanted a repeat engagement at the jazz one on 4th of July weekend. Wein pretty much had no choice but to agree.
While the Newport Jazz and Newport Folk Festivals are known for many things—Bert Stern’s wonderful documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day was filmed there on jazz weekend; Joan Baez had a breakout set the following Sunday—in some ways the Kingston Trio’s appearances were as controversial as Bob Dylan’s electric set at Newport would be six years later. What, jazz fans wondered, were the Kingston Trio—who, while they were accustomed to sharing bills with jazzy artists in nightclubs, showed scant jazz influence on their records—doing as the opening act on the closing night, setting the stage for Louis Armstrong and his All Stars? Wein, in his memoir, acknowledged the problem: “Their set at the jazz festival wasn’t terrible, but it provided just the ammunition the press needed to sound the cry of “commercialism at Newport.’”
The response to their performance at the Folk event also was, let’s say, divided. Surely many of the people in attendance bought their festival day-tickets specifically to see the Kingston Trio. There were college kids who had been spinning The Kingston Trio and the Hungry i albums on the hi-fi’s in their dorms; there were parents who schlepped their preteen children. Better they be exposed to the trio’s clean-cut, if occasionally murderous, repertoire and presentation than to rock’n’roll (the Kingston’s did throw a fleeting phrase of the Everly Brothers’ “Bird Dog,” a current hit, into a Newport song intro).
And then there were folk’s true believers, eager to see Reverend Gary Davis, Jean Ritchie, and Memphis Slim (they also got to see Bo Diddley, so lucky them). To that crowd, the Kingston Trio might as well have been Danny and the Juniors. They were far too polished, and too popular. Another problem: they were slated to headline the last night, which meant they would have gone on way past a lot of those children’s bedtime. Besieged by parents wanted to get home, Wein decided to have the Kingston Trio go on before Earl Scruggs. But when the Trio’s time on stage was up, and Scruggs was in the wings, the audience was clamoring for more of the Kingstons, so to placate the rowdy crowd, they promised to come out and play some more songs when Scruggs had wrapped up. Wein: “I lost a lot of friends in the folk world because of that slipup…For some folk purists, it would take years for me to achieve redemption. Insulting Scruggs, who could be considered the Louis Armstrong of the banjo, was like insulting ‘Pops’ himself.”
In the book The Face of Folk Music, with photos by David Gahr, writer Robert Shelton admits, “Not everyone was pleased with the style of the Kingston Trio,” who he said represented the “two polarities of the folk boom—show business and traditional song.” But none of that controversy did anything to stop the momentum of the Kingston Trio. They nearly owned the rest of 1959. By the end of the year, all four of their Capitol albums (not including the Stereo Concert LP that Capitol licensed from someone who’d recorded a live gig, and wasn’t even released in monophonic form) sat in Billboard’s top 10. In July, right around the time of Newport, Billboard published an article “Folk Music Becomes Big Business in Pop Field.” Another article from later in ’59 announced, “Kingston Concert Trek Looms as a Bonanza.” College shows, in particular, proved “a gold mine for the folk trio.” At one Indiana campus gig, “Lineup at the b.o. began at 10 p.m. the night before by students employed by fraternity houses to wait up all night to buy stacks of tickets for frat members.” Kingston Trio tix were, we can assume, valuable currency in the wooing of sorority girls in 1959.
Folk music was the Next Big Thing (Dave Van Ronk called it “The Great Folk Scare”), which made the anti-rock’n’roll forces happy, and record companies started looking for their own groups to cash in on the boom: the Limelighters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Brothers Four, the Highwaymen, the Journeymen (the Folksmen, the trio in Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, are a pitch-perfect amalgam of all these post-Kingstons outfits), Peter, Paul & Mary. For a while, the Kingston Trio remained among the most popular album-selling acts in the U.S. Between 1960 and 1963, nine of their albums made the top 10. With the rise of Baez, and Dylan and Phil Ochs and the new folk insurgents, however, the relatively apolitical and not a little bit corny “hootenanny” craze of the early ’60s started to feel even more dated.
Some musicians connected to the Folk Scare managed to adapt: John Phillips from the Journeymen formed the Mamas and the Papas; Jim McGuinn, who’d backed the Chad Mitchell Trio, started the Byrds; Barry McGuire, a singer in the New Christy Minstrels, scored with “Eve of Destruction” (you can get the Cliff Notes version of this history on “Creeque Alley”). By the time the Kingston Trio released their final, live album on Capitol (Back in Town, which returned them to the small stage of the Hungry i), in the summer of ’64, they were from an era that felt distant. One of the songs they did on Back in Town was an early—possibly the first—recording of Chet Powers’s “Let’s Get Together” (you know that one: “Come on people now, smile on your brother…”), before Jefferson Airplane and the Youngbloods got around to it. There are a bunch of songs like that in their catalog. “Seasons in the Sun” on Time to Think; “It Was a Very Good Year” and “Lemon Tree” on Goin’ Places; “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” on New Frontier; “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” on College Concert. All recorded before the versions that put those songs on the map.
Listen to the Kingston Trio’s set from the ’59 Newport Folk Festival today, and it’s hard to hear what got people so riled up. There is that conflict between authenticity, whatever that might mean (was Joan Baez more “authentic,” or was her act just closer to an imagined ideal of folk purism?), and commercialism, but that’s nonsense. They do their fun novelty hit “M.T.A.,” “All My Sorrows” (aka “All My Trials,” a staple of many a folk setlist), a Woody Guthrie song, a comic number “Merry Little Minuet,” Lord Intruder’s calypso hit “Zombie Jamboree.” All in all, context aside (sorry, Earl Scruggs, you deserved better), it doesn’t sound like a bad way to spend a summer’s night.