This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #142. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
A tongue-in-cheek but also painfully earnest look at pop culture and anything else that deserves to be ridiculed while at the same time regarded with the utmost respect. It is written by Matt Marrone and emailed to Stu Horvath and David Shimomura, who adds any typos or factual errors that might appear within.
Around this time, most years, I write a gushing account of the Newport Folk Festival. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t do it last year. I can’t truly do it this year, either, since the event returned only in a limited capacity: fewer stages, fewer fans, less magic. They didn’t even call it the Newport Folk Festival. It was called, simply, Folk On.
But I went. I saw Tommy Prine play an emotional tribute to his dad, John, a legend lost last spring to COVID-19. I saw an admittedly nervous Lucy Dacus play one of her new songs to an audience for the first time, one of the many musicians getting their sea legs back after a year and a half of lockdown. I met – and, yes, took a selfie with – Jay Sweet, Newport Folk’s executive producer, who through his work has introduced me to so many of my all-time favorite artists.
It felt like a few tiny, careful steps forward rather than a giant leap back. Which it needed to be. After all, we’re not back yet. Anything more would have seemed inappropriate.
It made perfect sense, then, that many of my favorite Folk On moments were bittersweet. Tears less of joy than shared pain. A snippet from Prine’s ode to his father, with the seagulls circling over the harbor: “The times I miss the most, are the times we never had.” The song Dacus played for the first time, “Triple Dog Dare,” an autobiographical song about loneliness and self-discovery that ends with pure pipe dream fiction – a young Dacus convincing her girlfriend to run away from their homes together, and the lines, “They put our faces on the milk jugs/Missing children ’til they gave up/Your mama was right, and through the grief/[She] can’t fight the feeling of relief/Nothing worse could happen now.”
What hit hardest, though, was “Three White Horses and a Golden Chain,” the finale of “These 13,” a collaborative record from former Squirrel Nut Zippers band mates Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird full of the kind of old-timey songs it’s surprising to learn they wrote and didn’t just always exist. “Three White Horses and a Golden Chain” also ended their set at Folk On.
Three White Horses is a song about loss, in which Mathus and Bird sing variants of, “You know we’ll all be needing/Somebody when you come to die.” Then for three full minutes after the singing has trailed off and stopped for good, Bird whistles in his trademark style – if you haven’t heard it, it’s a trip – while performing a haunting violin solo, cutting and swirling through the air. The crowd fell dead silent as he played, a communal music moment impossible a year ago. Soon, you could sense ghosts, feeling as real as the actual, living people listening to Bird play, flying over and around shoulders and in-between the chairs – goosebump-raising apparitions dancing down from the tent-top to touch the toes in the grass.
And just like that it was over. We gave a standing ovation and moved on to the next set of the day.
It’s hard to believe that that happened almost a month ago already. Me, I’m still there, sitting as I face the Quad Stage, in no rush to let it go, until whatever awaits us – familiar, strange or nothing at all – next summer. Folk On.
Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.