In a hearkening back to its roots, and in tribute to Seeger, the festival is launching a new program this year to provide a platform for folk musicians who carry the spirit of Seeger's life and work. For Pete's Sake, organized by Chris Funk of The Decemberists, will feature workshops and performances by little-known acts with a variety of styles and instruments: hurdy-gurdy players, a Scottish fiddler, a legendary buck dancer accompanied by his banjo-playing grandson.
Those who knew Seeger say it's the tribute he would have wanted, with a focus on the music, not on him.
A banjo player, singer and political activist, Seeger wrote his own songs but also revived and adapted traditional folk songs and verses and popularized them: songs like "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn! Turn! Turn!" "We Shall Overcome" and "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?"
The first festival happened in 1959, when Seeger was still blacklisted from commercial television after refusing to answer questions about his "associations, philosophy or religion" before a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in 1955. He was later convicted of contempt of Congress, but it was ultimately overturned.
George Wein, who founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, recalls visiting Seeger and his wife, Toshi, at their home in Beacon, New York, to talk about launching the folk festival.
"Pete said, `I'll do it if every artist gets the same money: $50,'" Wein said. "Every artist agreed to work for $50. Only Pete Seeger could have done that."
Seeger was deeply involved with the folk festival until he died in January at 94, often leading a traditional singalong that brought together many of the weekend's musicians to mark the festival's end. In his 90s, he even once climbed the rafters to watch The Decemberists.
Jay Sweet, the folk festival's producer, said his last conversation with Seeger was about ideas to provide support for traditional folk acts. The Seeger foundation is helping provide funding for the program.
"He said, `I want you to use everything you've built, this community, to shine the light on the artists who need it the most,'" Sweet said.
In typical Seeger fashion, he used the back of an envelope to jot down several ideas - bagpipe players, penny whistlers, buck dancers - then faxed it to Sweet.
"It was the only mandate that I've ever been given by Pete," Sweet said.
After Seeger's death, Sweet thought about planning a huge tribute to him at Newport, but Seeger's grandson, musician Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, talked him out of it.
Instead they came up with For Pete's Sake, and Sweet put Funk in charge. Funk, who plays instruments as varied as guitar, saxophone, piano and theremin for The Decemberists and Black Prairie, calls Seeger one of the greatest Americans who ever lived and says it's the most fitting tribute to Seeger he can think of. He set out with Seeger's ideas, and some of his own, to hunt down artists for the new program.
The program will be held in an intimate coffee-shop-sized setting and will start each day with an open stage, allowing members of the public to jam on guitars or banjos left around the room. Artists will perform, participate in workshops about their craft and answer questions. Last year, Funk hosted workshops at the festival with lesser-known artists, but bigger names would sometimes stop by, like The Lumineers and The Avett Brothers, in the spirit of the festival known for its collaborations among artists.
Funk says he wants to spur people's curiosity and get them to dig deeper into music, drawing lines between cultures and styles.
"It's really fun to invigorate the lineup with people that are unknown to the greater public," Funk said.
One of those is Katie McNally, a champion Scottish fiddle player from Boston, who will perform with pianist Neil Pearlman. McNally said she never thought she would play Newport, especially since it has become more focused on indie rock in recent years. What most excites her, she said, is to make traditional music relevant to people today.
"Even traditional music isn't a time capsule. I'm a 21st-century person," she said. "I think Pete Seeger did that. .... With the advent of rock `n' roll, he kind of brought people back to their roots."