Throwback Thursday: My Odyssey to the 1964 Newport Folk Festival

Indelible Experience

One person’s odyssey is another’s trip. And what a trip it was. In more ways than one. A pot-filled, mythological musical only a 16 year old could enjoy. But as I look back upon it now, 50 years ago, I remember it as though it happened just yesterday. That’s the hallmark of an indelible experience — one you remember, one that lasts, an experience that slams you in the head, never letting go. The good, bad and ugly. Like a longshot hit of supreme hash. We were going to The Newport Folk Festival. Going to see Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man himself, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Mississippi John Hurt, among a host of others. They were our heroes in those days leading up to the Summer of Love.

Pennsylvania Turkey-pike

We got on the Pennsylvania Turnpike outside of Pittsburgh and set sail to the east, plying the oncoming waves cresting in that long corridor of smog, headed toward New Jersey, NYC and Newport. It wasn’t easy. We very nearly didn’t make it. Almost had to turn around and slink back to the house with our tails tucked between our legs. I was, of course, driving, getting onto the ramp leading to the toll booths. On one side were cars streaming by in the opposite direction, a ten-inch high concrete barrier separating the two opposite flows of traffic.

Carefree was sitting on the back bench, playing a guitar and singing, when he passed gas. I looked back in the rear view mirror and laughed, then I felt the bus hit the barrier and pop over it into the opposite lane. Luckily, there were no cars coming. I managed to get the VW onto the opposite shoulder, waiting for the cops to come, when my cousin told me to drive back over. I didn’t think my mother’s bus could make another pass. I’d have to get a running start. Two cars came around the bend straight toward us. With my 16-year-old heart pounding like an 80 year old on his last legs and thinking that any minute the cops would come, I kicked it into gear and sped across the lane in front of the oncoming cars, jumped over the barrier, landed in the correct lane. I took a deep breath and let it out, shifted gears and moved forward. Seemed there was no damage. The tires and suspension had held. For now. You couldn’t bring a good VW bus down. We were merrily on our way to the toll booths. We got our ticket at the exchange and got onto the turnpike. Don’t lose the ticket, I said. Mo promptly put it in the glove compartment next to the baggie of pot.

My Odyssey to the 1964 Newport Folk Festival

Coal Trucks

I pulled over as soon as I could and we changed drivers. Mo was at the wheel now. Anyone who has ever driven the Pennsylvania Turnpike in those early days of the ‘60s knows the road was narrow, pock-marked, hilly and winding to the point of meandering, especially in the western end of the state. Like a family of cyclops lurching toward us, bludgeons raised, gigantic coal trucks rumbled past our bus. Filled to overflowing with coal, they blew by the bus, nearly blowing us off the road with turbulence like the vortices of jet airplanes taking off in front of us. The seas were roiling. We had to stop and make safe port.

Break out the Weed

To say that I was terrified and that I thought we could die at any moment was an understatement. We pulled over. It was Carefree’s turn to drive. Before he got behind the wheel, I reached into the glove compartment, pushed bits of paper out of the way, some of which fell on the floor. I found the baggie of weed and brought it out into the light of the day, where it belonged. I’m gonna roll one, I said. My nerves were frayed and I needed a hit. Indeed. I needed to calm down and take it easy. Everyone agreed. We walked up into the woods to a wire fence in the trees. Here we took turns passing the joint around from hand to hand, finger to finger, mouth to mouth. If listened hard enough, I could almost hear the Sirens calling to us, Follow us into the woods, if you dare. My sixteen-year-old heart fluttered at the thought. After a few minutes and a few tokes I was feeling fine, ready to roll. I turned away. Maybe there would be Sirens at the festival?

The Magic Bus

We climbed back in the bus, now The Magic Bus, and got back on the road. We made good time and we’re soon past the fifth tunnel and closing in on Philadelphia. We changed drivers again, had another smoke and took off. Mo was driving again, and I was frailing my banjo in the back seat singing “Darlin Cory.” Before we left home, we took the middle seat out and put a mattress on the floor. We were rounding a long, tight curve when a car came up fast behind us and passed at a high speed, swerving on two wheels, disappearing around the bend. When we came ‘round, the car was lying in the center of the roar, overturned. Four bodies lay on the road, scattered like dead leaves, blood leaking onto the pavement. We pulled over. A coal truck pulled up behind the bus, black diesel fumes enveloping us.

My Odyssey to the 1964 Newport Folk Festival

Wreck

We got out, ashen-faced, weak-kneed. I felt like I was going to get sick. I had never seen anything like this, never death, not in living color, not like this, only on TV — and that was in black and white. The truck driver told us to get back in our vehicle and leave. I understood we were supposed help, being the first ones on the scene, but the truck driver knew we would be no use in this. He would take care of the emergency. We all told him no. He shrugged and went to his truck. He radioed the cops on his CB. We stood by the side of the road, and the cops appeared out of nowhere. We gave our statements and then they sent us on our way. We were all shaken, and didn’t say a word for a hundred miles.

Who the Hell Took My Weed?

We got to the final tollbooth at the end of the turnpike. Carefree was driving. I reached in to fetch the ticket. I rustled my hand around, but couldn’t find it. I took everything out, put the bag of pot under the seat. Looked inside, practically sticking my head in. It was gone. Must have fallen out when I was fishing for the weed when we stopped five hours earlier. The car in front of us made it through the toll booth. We were next. We came to the window. The man looked at us. Held out his hand. Carefree looked at me, then back to the collector. He said sheepishly, We don’t have it, sir. The ticket, I mean. He shrugged. We seem to have lost it. Sorry. The man pulled up a card and looked at a table of figures in front of him and said, You’ll have to pay the whole fee from east to west. Since we had virtually come the whole way in that direction, it mattered little. Maybe five dollars more than what we would have paid. We rustled up the coin and were on our way.

My Odyssey to the 1964 Newport Folk Festival

Arrival

We wound our way into New Jersey, then up into New York and reached Newport, Rhode Island, late that night, around 10, after getting lost numerous times, taking wrong turns and ending up in backend backwaters. Reading the maps with a flashlight proved impossible. Asking for directions at gas stations seemed the only way to go. We’d been on the road at least 15 hours. It was pitch dark when we found a campground outside the festival grounds, paid a fee and parked the bus next to another car with a tent pitched beside it. The joint was jumping. Campfires lit up the night and the sound of acoustic music filled the air. We decamped from the bus, set up a tent, built a fire and sat down on the ground, lighting into the beer we had saved. The pot came out and we settled in like hedgehogs in a hedgerow. A woman with long braided red hair about my age appeared out of the dark and stepped into the light. She sat down, looked at me and said, Hello, my name is Helen. Oh yeah, my odyssey was turning out to be quit the trip. In more ways than one.

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