NEWPORT, R.I. -- Pete Seeger, a prime force behind the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and a fixture at many events it inspired over the past three decades, says he is full of nostalgia at age 70.
But it is not nostalgia that draws Seeger back to the stage this weekend, his first Newport Folk Festival appearance in 19 years. With banjo in tow, Seeger keeps singing about ecology and environmental causes, and the universal truths about life on the eve of the 21st century.
'I would turn the clock back if I could, to the days when we lived in little villages and took care of each other. We had to. If we didn't, we were dead. When I sing, I am trying to give a village spirit to audiences wherever we go,' Seeger said last week from his home in upstate New York.
'I'm 70 years old, but I'm curious as ever to see what will happen next and want to stick around a while,' he said. 'My voice is half gone, but if somebody knows where the rest of it is, I'd like to go find it.'
The Newport festival, revived in 1985 after a 16-year absence, will be held Saturday and Sunday at picturesque Fort Adams State Park in Newport under the sponsorship of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. The weekend lineup, a blend of established players and emerging talents, also includes two other festival pioneers, Odetta and Theodore Bikel.
From 1959 to 1969, the Newport Folk Festival was a showcase for the best regional and emerging young folk talent in America.
It launched the careers of Joan Baez, then a barefoot teenager whose pure soprano captivated the 1959 audience, and of Arlo Guthrie, whose Alice's Restaurant folk rap made its debut in 1969. Some in Newport booed Bob Dylan in 1965 when he played electric guitar in the acoustic music setting. Now, most festival bands pack synthesizers.
In the early days, performers played for $50 a night plus expenses. The Newport Folk Foundation used the proceeds to support regional and local groups and seek out unknown musicians in the mountains and bayous.
It was a prime time for Seeger, who chronologically became a link between Woody Guthrie's folk ballads of the 1930s and '40s and the message music that Phil Ochs and Dylan spun in the '60s and '70s.
'Festivals accomplish something which is very unfolky,' Seeger said. 'In a sense, they make pop music out of folk music. It becomes money played in the marketplace and that makes money. Folk music is not made for money.'
But Seeger also said festivals are needed as much -- if not more - today than they were during the 1950s and '60s when singers railed against McCarthyism, the establishment and the Vietnam War.
'I'm very glad there are literally thousands of festivals now. Little ones and some that are so darned big they defy description,' Seeger said. 'When Newport closed 20 years ago, many on the festival spurred events around the country, like in Kerrville, Texas.
'I just returned from festivals in Winnipeg and Vancouver, Canada that put us to shame here. There were performers from 20 different parts of the world -- Africa, China and the Near East. People were putting it all out on the table.
'If the human race gets its act together, we will build a beautiful city out of the world. With a billion people arguing passionately with each other about how to build the city and keep it beautiful -- not just watching the one-eyed monster in everybody's living room.'
Producer George Wein brought the event back to Newport in 1985 without corporate support. In 1987, it took a sponsor, Nestle, which was criticized from the stage by several performers for marketing infant formula to Third World mothers in the 1970s. Nestle dropped its affiliation.
Last year, retired hippies Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took over sponsorship in an arrangement the Vermont ice cream makers said would last for many years.
They used the event to publicize their new non-profit group, One Percent for Peace, which seeks to have every country in the world spend 1 percent of its defense budget on exchange programs to promote peace through understanding.
The festival remains a showcase for the range of musical styles that now fall under the broad mantle of folk: Cajun and Celtic, the blues and bluegrass, social protest, country, and the downright eclectic.
The Saturday schedule includes Odetta, B.B. King, John Hiatt, Buckwheat Zydeco, Ry Cooder, Shawn Colvin, Laura Nyro, and Cheryl Wheeler. A free 90-minute songwriter's workshop in the morning will feature David Massengil, Ashley Cleveland, Bill Morrissey, Frank Tedesso, and Northern Lights.
Sunday's lineup is Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Leon Redbone, the Clancy Brothers with Robbie O'Connell, and John Lee Hooker. The workshop will include Massengil, Christine Lavin, Jack Hardy, Rod MacDonald and Chris Smither.