We’re kicking off a recurring blog series spotlighting books recently reviewed in the pages of the Oral History Review. We’ve asked authors of those books to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our inaugural post, here’s Rick Massimo, discussing I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
This is the first-ever book devoted to the history of the Newport Folk Festival, which began in 1959 and (with two interruptions) continues today. It’s been a launching pad for stars such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie; it’s as popular today as it’s ever been, and it has maintained that popularity by changing with, and reflecting, the musical and cultural times that surround it – sometimes to the consternation of its oldest fans.
How does oral history contribute to your book?
As a journalist, I work with interviews to construct a narrative all the time. Probably the most obvious contribution of oral history comes in the chapter about Bob Dylan going electric in 1965. I structure this chapter by stringing together quotes from people who were at the show as it happened, from observers and critics in its aftermath, and people looking back on the event today.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
In the case of the Bob Dylan chapter, oral history served to convey the kaleidoscopic nature of the event and of its effects. While the tapes are out there for anyone to hear for themselves, the impact of Dylan’s 1965 performance was different for virtually everyone who saw it, and after a certain point there is no single interpretation of what the performance meant. That made a collection of quotes – roughly chronologically organized, sometimes contradictory, sometimes showing one speaker contradicting himself – the form that makes the point I wanted to make.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
Oral historians of music will be interested in the many interviews included in the book, from modern-day rock stars such as Jeff Tweedy, Colin Meloy, and Jim James, to longtime observers such as Dar Williams and Tom Rush, as well as original organizers such as George Wein, Bob Jones and Pete Seeger – all talking about the history of Newport and their place in it, as well as Newport’s place in the musical and cultural life of the U.S. over the past 60 years.
What is the one thing you most want people to remember about the book?
I conclude the introduction by describing the Newport Folk Festival as an annual posing of the questions “What is folk music?” and “What can it do?” And I describe the musical progression at Newport over the past six decades – and the disagreements over legacy that can ensue – as “one conversation stretched out over a lifetime.” With any luck, the reader comes to the end of the book convinced of the implication there – that for all the musical differences between the people who have performed there, they ultimately have more in common than not.