The Newport Folk Festival was founded in 1959 by George Wein, founder of the already-well-established Newport Jazz Festival, backed by its original board: Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger and Albert Grossman.
The Festival is renowned for introducing a number of performers who went on to become major stars, most notably Joan Baez (who appeared as an unannounced guest of Bob Gibson in 1959), and Bob Dylan (managed by Grossman), whose first Newport appearance in 1963 is generally regarded as his premiere national performance. Dylan became the artist most famously (and infamously) associated with the festival. In 1963 and 1964, Dylan was accompanied by Joan Baez.
The festival draws on folk music in a wide and loosened sense. For instance, in the 1960s there were famous performances by Johnny Cash and Howlin' Wolf, artists usually described as representing country music and blues respectively. The festival was associated with the 1960s Blues Revival, where artists "lost" since the 1940s (e.g. Delta blues singers) were "rediscovered".
Concerts have been a rich source of recordings. Murray Lerner directed the 1967 film Festival based on the 1963-1965 festivals, now available on DVD.
The Electric Dylan Controversy
Bob Dylan's 1963 and 1964 performances had made him popular with the Newport crowd, but on July 25, 1965 Dylan was booed by some fans when he played with backing from Mike Bloomfield on Guitar and others from an electric blues/rock and roll band known as The Paul Butterfield Blues Band while headlining the festival. It is usually said that the reason for the crowd's hostile reception was Dylan's 'abandoning' of the folk orthodoxy, or poor sound quality on the night (or a combination of the two). This incident, Dylan's first live 'plugged-in' set of his professional career, marked the shift in his artistic direction from folk to rock, and had wider implications for both styles of music.
The Newport Folk Festival fell on hard times in the later 1960s, even closing its doors for a number of years, beginning in 1971, but was revived in 1985, and has since become one of the major folk music festivals in the United States, alongside the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which began in 1960 and is now the longest continual running music festival in North America, and the Kerrville Folk Festival which began in 1972.
The Newport festival has run without interruption ever since 1985, although in a different form from its 1960s heyday; the event has gone from not-for-profit to for-profit, the crowd has shrunk from 20,000 to 10,000 and evening concerts have been canceled. Furthermore, the festival has enlisted the aid of major sponsors, including Ben & Jerry's and Dunkin' Donuts. The 2007 festival featured musicians such as Linda Ronstadt, who was the Friday night headliner, in addition to other well known musicians such as the Allman Brothers Band, Emmylou Harris, Alejandro Escovedo, Cheryl Wheeler, Hazel Dickens and Ralph Stanley. The 2008 Newport Folk Festival headliners included Jimmy Buffett, Stephen and Damian Marley, The Black Crowes, Levon Helm and Jakob Dylan.