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Newport Folk Festival turns 50: The ultimate playlist

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2009 is a big year for historic music festival anniversaries. There’s Woodstock, of course, coming up on the big 4-0 this summer. The Essence Music Festival celebrated its 15th year a few weeks back. And then there’s the Newport Folk Festival, which first gathered the finest talents from the booming folk music scene in a Rhode Island park back in 1959. Popular consciousness of the festival’s history often begins and ends with Bob Dylan’s controversial electric set in 1965, but that’s far from the only memorable moment Newport has witnessed through the decades.

The line-up for Folk Festival 50, which is taking place in Newport this weekend, is pretty amazing even aside from the anniversary angle. You’ve got everyone from 90-year-old Pete Seeger, who helped organize the original festival in ’59, to seasoned veterans like Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, all rubbing shoulders with hip young folkies like Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine. I wish I could be there, but I can’t — so I’ve consoled myself by putting together a playlist featuring the best artists who’ll be performing tonight and tomorrow. Hear the first song below, then click through to the jump for the rest.

Are any of you lucky enough to be heading to Newport this year? Who are you most looking forward to seeing? Let us know in the comments!

Joan Baez, “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word”

Dylan famously penned this song while he and Baez were dating, then never got around to releasing it himself. Fair enough: Great though he is, there’s no way Bob (or anyone else) could have imbued his own words with the emotional nuance that Baez delivers here.

Pete Seeger, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”

How to pick just one song from the countless contributions that Pete has made to the folk canon over the years? I could fill this entire playlist with now-classic tunes he either wrote or popularized, and I’d barely be scratching the surface. Consider this trenchant 1967 anti-war protest as a starting point for exploring Seeger’s work further.

Fleet Foxes, “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”

If Fleet Foxes are creating songs this beautiful while they’re still in their early twenties, just imagine what they’ll have done by the time they reach Seeger’s age.

The Decemberists, “Grace Cathedral Hill”

I’m not the world’s hugest fan of the Decemberists’ new rock opera — but that doesn’t change how much I love the rest of their output, like this mournful little gem from their 2002 debut.

Iron & Wine, “Carousel”

Fans looking for new material from Sam Beam’s indie-folk troupe after two years of relative silence have had to content themselves lately with a (very good) rarities set. Who knows what they’ll play at Newport, but if I were on the scene I’d be pulling for this woozy reverie from 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog.

Billy Bragg and Wilco, “California Stars”

Though Bragg is appearing alone at Newport, this collab is too lovely for us to pass up. It’s one of many highlights from Mermaid Avenue, the 1998 set on which the British firebrand teamed up with Wilco to write new melodies for unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics.

Arlo Guthrie, “Al the Goose”

Speaking of the Guthrie family, here’s a typically whimsical tune Woody’s son sang 30 years ago about, yes, a beloved fowl. Make sure to squawk your appreciation if Arlo happens to play it again this weekend.

Brett Dennen, “Darlin’ Do Not Fear”

Sure, he’s a little closer to the pop end of the spectrum than some of the artists on this playlist, but that’s no reason to ignore Dennen’s plaintive, Paul Simon-esque songcraft.

The Low Anthem, “Charlie Darwin”

Does the fact that these Providence, R.I. locals have been receiving some much-deserved buzz for this harmony-laden ballad count as an example of natural selection in action? No? Whatever you say, biology whiz. We like it just fine all the same.

Mavis Staples, “Eyes on the Prize”

If you find yourself feeling lulled to sleep by some of the slower selections on this playlist, wake yourself right up with a fierce rendition of the civil-rights anthem by a soul legend.

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Bad Veins, “Fake Baby”: Music Mix exclusive

Tim Buckley: Exclusive track

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