United Illuminating

The Broadside (Cambridge, Massachusetts),
August 3 and August 17, 1966.
by Ralph Earle

Regarding the cover...

They look like Jim Kweskin and Mel Lyman, and they are. But they are also members of United Illuminating, which was, says Mel, "the only really organized group who cooperated" at the Newport Folk Festival. United Illuminating was formed at Newport this year by performers, technicians, and staff workers who are concerned about what the festival has become. In the next issue of BROADSIDE will appear an article about United Illuminating, for in the long run, the story of United Illuminating will be the most important story to come out of Newport this year. Everyone who cares about folk music, whether they were at the Festival or not, should listen to what they have to say.

Ralph Earle

Mel Lyman and Jim Kweskin on the cover of The Broadside
(Cambridge, Massachusetts), August 3, 1966.
Photo by Rick Stafford

The Broadside
August 17, 1966.

Ralph Earle

"Joan Baez refused to come. She didn't like the feeling. When asked what feeling, she replied, 'Hate.'" The speaker was Mel Lyman. He and Jim Kweskin are the two performers on the twenty-man committee "United Illuminating," and they are concerned. Along with technicians and employees of the Newport Folk Festival, they are concerned about the Festival because they feel it is destroying itself. More and more performers are taking part, and, in order to keep chaos from reigning, the seven-man festival board has strangled the performers with rules.

"There are 26 performing groups on this Saturday night. That means eight minutes for each performer. How can Chuck Berry or The Lovin' Spoonful be expected to do anything in that amount of time? What is a festival for except for musicians to get up and blow? The machine is so big, there's so much buckpassing with seven on the board that you can't change it, so you've got to get rid of it." Jim was definitely not trying to sabotage the Newport Folk Festival. He and Mel and the rest of United Illuminating want to save the Festival by rebuilding it. But as Mel put it, "Every year, they build on the ruins of last year's festival." The hard fact is that with so many performers on the bill, the atmosphere has become so thick with restrictions on the performers' time, living quarters, and movement, that it has stifled the artistic expression of the performers themselves. Throughout the Festival, the large number of performers on each concert meant long, enervating microphone rehearsals which increased the tension and irritability of the performers and the staff. And on Saturday night, the pressure of time meant that Son House, Skip James, and Bukka White appeared together with about four minutes apiece in a performance that was a near disaster because they did not have the freedom to make music.

"There is an attitude here of fall in, do your gig and split," Mel added. "The only attempts at improving this festival are by legislating more rules. And those rules only serve to suffocate the spirit of a folk festival, which is joy. Pete Seeger once said, 'We are born in simplicity, and we die of complications.' And this festival is dying of complications."

Jim emphasized that everyone on the board has his heart in the right place. Nevertheless, each member of the board has his favorites and wants to see them on the stage. Consequently, the stage has been jammed to the point where the performers are no longer enjoying themselves.

"When a performer gets up on stage, he is reflecting the feeling of the festival." But what is to be expected of performers who are being constantly marshalled about, put into a Shindig atmosphere and left with no freedom to feel, to breathe, to express their love of music and for their audience? According to Jim, great credit should go to George Wein's staff. "They almost make it work." But what is needed, he and Mel feel, is a reorganization at the top. One man should be in charge of the Festival, and that man should be George Wein. With advice from the board, he should make all the decisions. "I have full confidence in George Wein and his ability to run a festival," Jim ended.

If Mr. Wein's personal feeling of a lack of expertise in folk music has been an inhibition to his taking charge in the past, he should accept this vote of confidence and take charge now. If he does, the purpose of United Illuminating can be fulfilled, and the Festival can become a rich and meaningful experience for the performers and the audience.

Mel Lyman