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Lisa A. Walker

Newport, Rhode Island’s Musical History

Nat Geo staffer Lisa A. Walker recently returned from Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival where she witnessed deep music traditions in the seaside, New England town.

For a city probably known best for its mansions, cliff walks, boating, and breathtaking coastal scenery, Newport, Rhode Island, isn’t typically considered a music destination. But live music has been a part of Newport since the 1800s, and continues to thrive today.

According to Andrea McHugh of the Newport, Rhode Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, “Music has been an integral part of the seaport city’s heritage for centuries. It’s been documented that famed opera singers made Newport a part of their travels as far back as the early 1800s, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra played here in 1882, at a time when it was uncommon for them to play out of state.”

Come the 1950s, live music festivals were literally “born” in Newport. “There were no music festivals back then,” explained George Wein, jazz musician and founder of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals. “Ours were well before Woodstock was even conceived.”

The Newport Jazz Festival was the first of its kind in America and featured legendary performers Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis. The Newport Folk Festival is known for launching the careers of artists Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, in the ’60s. The festival went on to cultivate a broad range of folk music, and to revive other genres such as blues and gospel.

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Lisa A. Walker

Today, in addition to the renowned music festivals, visitors can patronize live music venues, workshops, and other events that bring music to Newport’s shores all year long. Be sure to check out the Newport Arts Festival (August 27-28), the 14th Annual Newport Waterfront Irish Festival (September 3-5), Newport Harborfest (October 1-2), International Oktoberfest (October 8-10), and the 41st Annual Christmas in Newport (December 2011) during the fall and winter seasons. Or listen to live music at one of these local venues:

Newport Yachting Center. This live music venue right on the waterfront features all types of music-related events year-round and is conveniently located near downtown shops, restaurants, and bars.

Newport Blues Café The cafe, located at the heart of Newport on the historic Thames Street, features live music every night.

One Pelham East Established in 1975, this hotspot has hosted legendary artists Jimmy Buffet and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Read Lisa A. Walker’s dispatch from the Newport Folk Festival at Nat Geo Music online.