The Newport Folk Festival provided a platform for many strands of music: folk, blues, topical songs and gospel. The common link between these varied forms was that they were all music of the people, rather than Tin Pan Alley or “industry” music. This fascinating 19-track collection gathers some of the biggest names of gospel who appeared at the festival between 1959 and 1966. Black gospel acts were often spotlighted during the evening concerts and were also heavily involved with Sunday morning workshop sessions, proving quite a revelation toNewport’s predominately white audiences.
Amongst the earlier tracks here are the Reverend Gary Davis, who sings an energetic ‘Samson And Delilah’ accompanied by some great guitar work, and the Reverend Alex Bradford with the Stone Temple Baptist Church Singers with a similarly powerful ‘Highway To Heaven’. These were recorded at the first 1959 festival, but many of the tracks here date from 1966, a year when there were several gospel acts booked to appear. Amongst them were the Swan Silvertones and the Dixie Hummingbirds, who open with the exciting ‘Christian’s Automobile’. Also from 1966 are three songs from Dorothy Love Coates & the Original Gospel Harmonettes. The spiritual tradition is represented by Bessie Jones and Janie Hunter singing ‘You Better Mind’, while the links between blues and gospel are illustrated by the inclusion of Son House’s rhythmic ‘John The Revelator’. Son had been brought to the festival to be part of the blues workshops, but as a preacher fitted in well with the gospel aspects of the occasion. Distinct rhythms were also a central part of ‘See God’s Ark A-Moving’ by the Moving Star Hall Singers. Festival favourites the Freedom Singers, known for their activism as well as their music, sing the well-known ‘This Little Light’. Also included are two acts who went on to find mainstream success: the Chambers Brothers, who show their roots with ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’, and the Staple Singers, who close the set with ‘Pray On My Child’.
This is by any standards a powerful and engaging album, with good explanatory notes documenting a rich aspect of the famed Newport Folk Festival where so many strands of socially important music came together for open-minded listeners. We are lucky to have it all so well represented by albums such as this and the others in the Vanguard series.