What do Seamus Ennis, The Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash all have in common? The 5th Annual Newport Folk Festival.
On July 23rd, 1964 the 5th Annual Newport Folk Festival took place in Freebody Park in Newport, Rhode Island. Beginning in 1959 and continuing to this day, the festival has provided the stage for some of the biggest names in music from all over the world and from Ireland in particular.
To say that this festival is drenched in history would be an understatement. Newport Folk Festival boasts strong links to the Civil Rights Movement in the early 60s, the introduction to the music of Kris Kristofferson and James Taylor (who had his ‘Young Performers’ set cut short due to the announcement of the Apollo 11 mission landing on the moon in 1969), and infamously the concert Bob Dylan ‘went electric’ in 1965. Just one year before this groundbreaking progression in Bob Dylan's music, he was featured on the same billing as Ireland's very own Seamus Ennis and The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem (Note their billing one above Bob Dylan on the Sunday set-times).
The Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan share a long and illustrious past together. After appearing on the Ed O’Sullivan show clad in their distinctive Aran sweatshirts, the Clancy Brothers became a household name in America. They played regularly in Greenwich Village and this is where Bob Dylan became enthralled and inspired. In Liam Clancy’s obituary he notes that “people who were trying to escape oppressed backgrounds, like mine and Bob Dylan’s, were congregating in Greenwich Village. It was a place you could be yourself.” Dylan, quoted in a documentary dedicated to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, said of Liam Clancy: “I’d never heard a singer as good as Liam, ever. He was just the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life – still is probably”.
Buoyed by the rebel songs of the Clancy Brothers, Dylan attempted to take the passion of the brother’s songs and transpose it into his own. As Dylan states in his book Chronicles: “I got to be friends with Liam... All through the night, they would sing drinking songs, country ballads and rousing rebel songs that would lift the roof.” This professional and fraternal relationship they all had was lifelong and there was no doubt a sense of camaraderie on the weekend of the Newport Festival in 1964.
Seamus Ennis, too, was no stranger to acclaim from audiences and peers Stateside either and played twice over the course of the weekend, joined on the first occasion by a number of players including Muddy Waters. Ennis’s first set included his Uilleann Pipes, some spoken stories and a few numbers that were sung, and the second set was joined with the one and only Judy Collins among others. Not only that, the festival that year also had Ennis, The Clancy Brothers, and Tommy Makem rubbing shoulders with Johnny Cash and Joan Baez.
If we could get our hands on a time machine...