Jon Batiste On His Civil Rights-Themed Newport Folk Festival Set: 'A Musical Response Of This Nature Was Necessary'

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Jon Batiste performs during Newport Folk Festival 2018 at Fort Adams State Park on July 29, 2018 in Newport, R.I.

The bandleader wanted to revive and reimagine 1968’s most potent protest anthems with Leon Bridges, Brittany Howard, Mavis Staples and more for the folk festival finale.

Every year, right before the sun dips behind the wall of Fort Adams, a hefty fraction of the Newport Folk Festival’s lineup floods the main stage and clusters around the mics to close the weekend with a sing-along program. Arms encircle the waists of not-quite-strangers; harmonies are sorted on the fly; an Avett Brother may shoulder up to a Lumineer, and John McCauley of Deer Tick is usually around, guitar in hand and captain’s hat on head. Everyone makes way for Mavis Staples, because no matter who’s on stage, they all know that Queen Mavis needs a mic, and they all gladly hand theirs over to the living legend. Perhaps these players are former touring buddies or friends from the festival circuit, or maybe they never met until they found themselves singing the words to songs they didn’t write but which still belong to them anyway by way of tradition and community.

At the end of this particular Sunday (July 29), Jon Batiste, along with the Dap-Kings, his current backing band, led a congregation that included Brittany Howard, Valerie June, Brandi Carlile, Gary Clark Jr., the Lone Bellow, Rachael Price, Nicole Atkins, Hiss Golden Messenger, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Leon Bridges (a surprise, last-minute addition) and a mass of Newport Folk’s 2018 performers for a program titled “A Change is Gonna Come,” which pulled inspiration from the forces that shaped 1968 in U.S. history as well as the music that grew out of that tumultuous year.

For Batiste, the significance of the occasion wasn’t lost on him: the Late Show bandleader and Juilliard-educated jazz impresario considers festival founder George Wein a close mentor, and he’s played both Newport Folk and Newport Jazz -- one of the few artists to do so. He knows what it means to work with beloved standards and dress them up in modern trappings, and that was one of his goals with “A Change is Gonna Come”: to highlight just how relevant protest songs written in the midst of the Vietnam War and at the height of the Civil Rights Movement are in the context of 2018, and to do so while celebrating the genius of artists like Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Staples Singers and more.

Below, Batiste tells Billboard about how he put together the performance and why it was so important for these voices to ring out at Newport Folk.

When did initial conversations start about "A Change Is Gonna Come?"

16 months ago.

Damn.

Jay Sweet [the festival's executive producer] approached us and was interested in doing something really special, something that would also resonate with the kind of times we were seeing on the news and on the Late Show, just because we talk about it every night. Everything started to accelerate in a direction where a musical response of this nature was necessary.

Was it surreal to be dusting off these songs that are anchored in such a specific time period and making them sound current?

I love the idea of lineage. We’re all part of the human race, but as a part of the human race, there are these different lineages, culturally, that you’re born into, and you don’t have a choice about it. I’m a link in the chain. A lot of these artists are a link in the chain of a great cultural lineage. For me, it really isn’t about reworking these songs: It’s about taking a part of what’s naturally ours, what’s naturally mine, and really speaking to that in a contemporary context.

What was the biggest challenge in getting this together? Was it planning a program not necessarily knowing who was going to be joining you onstage?

I wrote the program and the setlist months before we actually got together to rehearse. We only rehearsed that morning; with the Dap-Kings, we only rehearsed the day before. There were only two rehearsals involved. In my mind, I envisioned the entire program once I got everyone who I wanted on the bill confirmed. There were a few last-minute additions, but none outside of the realm of what I was expecting. I left moments for that in the program I planned. For instance, if someone came up who we didn’t know was coming, there would be a spot for them -- but the majority of what you saw was what I had envisioned. The biggest challenge, really, was trying to figure out how to show people what we’re all about without proselytizing, to not beat them over the head with it. If it was too on the nose, I felt like it would be less effective. The music has messages in it that you don’t have to say verbatim. It can be felt. They’re more powerful if they’re felt. It really was matching the artist with the song and the sequence of the show.

You don’t just hand over a Bob Dylan sing-along to anyone. How did you decide on Brandi Carlile as the one to spearhead "The Times They Are A-Changing"?

I was listening to her album, and [she's] the idea of someone who’s a true link in that chain -- representing Bob Dylan, representing those great troubadours that spread those messages that we all know and love now. You don’t really wanna get somebody who’s not a part of that lineage to sing that song, and I saw that she obviously was the choice. I was listening to Brandi’s album for about two weeks, almost nonstop, because I was on a vacation and doing a lot of hiking. She was the one for that song. We got together, and I wanted it to be something that was so much in her lane. Tim and Phil [Hanseroth], they’ve been playing with her for the last 17 years -- I really followed their lead. They had an arrangement of it that they already did. I added to that arrangement. That was the one I touched the least on the set.

Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive delivered a jaw-dropping performance when she sang Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." Can you speak on that?

I wanted her to sing it. Her voice is one of my favorite voices that I’ve ever heard. She's one of the truest singers, a natural golden voice. It was amazing hearing her for the first time. The song has gravitas. It has weight, and you need somebody to really deliver it powerfully. I wanted her to do that for sure. But also, it’s a song that originates from the perspective of a black man in the '60s. So, it’s almost like this subversive thing to have her sing it. She can sing it, but also, some would say she can’t sing it, and the answer to that I’ve left it in the air. I just wanted to put that out there, almost as something to not even spark debate, but more conversation. I was hoping people would pick up on that.

This seems like a great point to discuss “Ohio” and your work with Gary Clark Jr. and Leon Bridges. It was such a contrast -- not only to what we’d seen from Jason Isbell and David Crosby's performance of the song on the first day of the festival, but also from what we typically see from you guys. Is this an example of that?

That moment was special because when you talk about lineage, you’re talking about the lineage of soul music or the lineage of blues, the lineage of New Orleans, the lineage of jazz -- all of these different lineages that the three of us represent, coming together to take on a song that was written about a heinous, heinous time in America that we’re seeing come back around in a weird way. History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes -- that’s the Mark Twain quote. The idea of us making that statement right now with what we represent, that’s the power of music and collaboration, especially with an intention. Right now, artists really have to have an intention. When we went into the studio and recorded together for [my upcoming album Hollywood Africans, it was the] idea of us coming together with an intention to say something that is not only meaningful but resonant for what’s going on right now.

A wonderful moment that highlighted a fusion of influences was when you and Chris Thile performed his Punch Brothers song "My Oh My" later in the set. I keep thinking about it and how a better metaphor can’t be written for American rock and roll, with you, him, your piano and his mandolin  -- jazz and blues and folk and bluegrass all at once. This was the second time you performed this in front of a live audience, right?

Yes, second time. Chris is a musician of the highest order. He’s one of those guys who is not only a virtuoso, he’s a great performer, a visionary in terms of his craft and his instrument. When we got together, the first time we actually met and started to talk about music, that was evident to me. We just started to imagine, “What could we say together that hasn’t been said? How can we create a moment that is unforgettable but still within the realm of what you’re presenting with this show?” That, to me, was a perfect way of doing it: That was an original song of his, but we took it and transformed it even from his version, and even he was like, “Man, that’s the version I should’ve recorded on the record.”

The way that we talk about music, we talk about it like it’s life. We don’t ever talk about chords and scales and things like that. When we play, we lock eyes and the rest takes care of itself. It’s a wild thing. I’ve never really had that with another musician. It was kind of a moment of musical exploration that exploded into this climax. I don’t even remember how the piano bench got knocked over, but I was standing up by the end of it, drenched in sweat.

It was a beautiful dialogue, and it does speak to what we’re talking about, which is extending the conversation from 1968 to 2018 and learning from what people listened to and wrote to get through that time. It’s hard to fathom how you wrapped that all up in two minutes, but that’s exactly what you did.

That’s it! How do we wrap it up but also extend it in terms of what we’re doing now? It’s a lineage. It’s never, ever going to be irrelevant to look back at the past and connect to the past. Ever.

You had your own Hendrix-at-Woodstock moment with your rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." You took on the National Anthem, along with "This Land is Your Land." Why was it important to incorporate these songs into this particular set, and to do so in that way?

Because that’s our history. Our history is the way that we connect with the ancestors. If we connect with the ancestors and learn from them, learn the greatest ideals of what they set forth and what they wanted to achieve and what they did achieve, then we could move forward… The ancestors put things in these songs that we can learn from and grow from. If we don’t include these songs, it’s like someone who is growing up and would rather not know about anything from their grandparents’ generation, and because of that, they may have a lot of holes in their development.

Many prefer to leave history and politics out of music -- they want artists to “shut up and sing,” for them to leave politics at the door. This set didn’t do that. Do you have any thoughts on that attitude and escapist approach to music? Is this directly at odds with what we’re talking about?

I’m not against it. I’m not against that attitude in the appropriate time -- for instance, there’s a time where the world was in a place that, you know, maybe that could be forgivable, even if that’s not necessarily my viewpoint. But I feel like right now we’re in a place where you have to choose a side. You have to make a statement if you have a platform. It’s an interesting place for me to be as an artist and as any person who has a platform, because even if you haven’t thought about these things, you have to think about them now. You have to speak on them. You can’t just escape from it, because there is no escape now. It’s too pervasive.

Is that difficult? When you were working with someone like Mavis, for example, I’m sure there were some heavy moments and profound realizations.

Oh my goodness. Whenever I’m around Mavis, I try to absorb as much as her spiritual aura as I can, because she’s the source, you know? She’s coming from singing and marching with Dr. King. These are our heroes in amber. I wanted to close the show with her because it points right to what we’re talking about. This person made it possible for us to be up here doing what we’re doing -- her and so many other great ones in our history that we should never forget. We should try to learn from them and gather as much of that direction and that intention that they’ve set forward as possible. It was an honor to have Mavis there, because she’s the thing that we’re talking about in the flesh.

The entire set was so positive, and by the time you wrapped, it felt like a party -- it was a celebration more than anything else. It felt appropriate, to end it on a high and hopeful note.

It’s cathartic, because people want a release right now. It was healing. That was the biggest thing that drove me with the set: It had to be healing. It can’t send people away feeling defeated or feeling this overwhelming amount of things we have to address. It should be something that gives them a release and encouragement.

What was the biggest surprise that happened during this performance?

Well, Mavis started to sing “Jesus on the Mainline,” and we rehearsed that at a different tempo, but she turned to me, and she’s like, “Sing a little bit to me, I just want to get in the spirit.” I started singing the song to her just to give her a sense of tone, you know, because she’s really all about trying to catch the spirit of the moment and being in the moment, and if that’s what she wanted, that’s what you give her. [Laughs] So, I started singing it, but then she started singing it in the mic, and it was a different tempo and feel than what we had rehearsed. But it was really cool because -- I don’t even know how to explain it other than that’s what it should’ve been. If she wanted to sing it a cappella at the beginning like that, that’s how it should be!

Why is it so important to have a communal situation where you’re singing these songs onstage with 50 or 60 people? Why is this a good thing for audiences to see right now?

Because in what other situation are we seeing togetherness and unity? There’s no other situation that I can think of, on any sort of consistent basis, that’s counteracting this negativity and division. The music, all these benevolent, transcendent spirits -- if we can conjure those more than the other, then we can become more unified. I’m always a believer in that. My whole work is about that. It’s really what drives me and a lot of what I do. I’m always gonna be doing that. As long as I’m out here, you’ll see me bringing together all of the people who are willing to be together.

What did the program teach you?

If I could boil it down to one lesson, it’s that everything is more connected than you think. It’s not only more connected than what we’re taught, but, really, there is no separation. It’s not something that we’re able to conceptualize as musicians or as people who throw ourselves into situations where we have to figure it out. For instance, if we had to go and live in a foreign country and be among a group of people who were supposedly much more different than us, I’m sure after a few years we’d be like, "This actually isn’t that different at all -- in fact, it’s the same."

That’s such a fundamental lesson about humanity, and I think music is a really great place to explore that. If we don’t figure out our own understanding of that, then all of these myths and self-imposed barriers that we’ve built up over all this time will continue to just grow and grow. We’ll evolve to become something that we’re not meant to be. I guess the biggest lesson is the same thing that I’ve always been saying as an artist: Everything is way more the same than it is different, and if you just tap into that, the more you really begin to understand what that is. That’s my quest: to de-categorize American music. Music without borders. If I can de-categorize it, then that will be a great example of art reflecting what an ideal space for humanity to live in would be.

Where do we go from here? Will this happen again? Will you incorporate elements of this into future performances?

I would love to... That’s one of the things that’s important to me, so I’m sure we’ll repeat it. When, I don’t know yet, but I’m very, very certain that you’ll see something of this nature again. I’m always brainstorming and creating these things in my mind. Sometimes I have a very overactive imagination. It’s a beautiful thing to harness all of these amazing artists and messengers, and now’s the time for it. We’re gonna see more and more people, I think, become politically engaged. More than politics, it’s about humanity. It’s almost like our way of contributing to saving the planet. It’s gonna happen. You’ll see it for sure.