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150 years of major American music festivals rooted in Rhode Island

Three major music festivals shape summer in Rhode Island, and wrap up Labor Day Weekend with the original Rhythm and Roots Festival.

Donna the Buffalo at Rhythm and Roots 2012
Donna the Buffalo at Rhythm and Roots 2012
Dale Apple
Photo of Jessee Havey of The Duhks Rhythm and Roots 2012
Ron Cowie

American Roots music, often called Americana, envelopes a wide spectrum of genres that originated in the Americas. Jazz, folk, dixieland, bluegrass, Cajun, zydeco, and blues were all brewed and blended on American soil. Most of these cross-pollinating musical styles are continually innovated and developed by artists both within, and without, its borders. Emotive and rhythmic American roots sounds that originated within the last few centuries serve as a broad trunk that support all music styles that have branched out afterward, like rock ‘n’ roll, country, R&B, and for that matter, pop.

Festivals have long been a way for fans to celebrate music, but also are places where various genres are shaped. Festival environments traditionally provide grounds where masters meet and mingle with young innovators, and even occasionally jam on stage in amazing combinations to delight of audiences.

No location outside of New Orleans or Chicago can be said to celebrate roots music more perhaps than southern Rhode Island. Since the inception of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, hundreds of thousands have flocked to Rhode Island for summer fun and long-running live music traditions like the Newport Folk Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival and the Rhythm and Roots Festival which takes place in Charlestown, Rhode Island. During a five week span from late July through late August, these three festivals share a similar "beat" on Americana music, and each are highly-regarded gatherings where audiences can explore music from the finest traditionalists, and wildest creative forces in American roots music.

As a driving force in American roots music in the region for over 35 years, Chuck Wentworth, producer of Rhythm and Roots elaborates on the essence of what he looks for when booking bands, "you know when people play from the heart. When they are there for the sake of making music, not to make money or achieve fame, just for the joy of playing." He goes on to elaborate, "you understand what roots is about when you hear young kids playing bluegrass together and taking pride in the fact that this music is passed from generation to generation. You know when you see Mark Savoy at his store in Louisiana on a Saturday morning and hear the old musicians who've never left Louisiana to understand what it is all about. It's non-cognitive."

Wentworth tips his hat to the Newport festivals, "Newport Folk Festival first introduced this powerful roots music to young, hungry audiences," and he continues, “and there has been no looking back.”

People of all ages have proven they are hungry for meaning in their music; and to dance, groove and boogie as well. Perhaps this is why the third of the major RI festivals, Rhythm and Roots, features two large, tented dancing areas including one next to the main stage where headliners are featured.

This year, the "five stages, all ages" Rhythm and Roots festival takes place at Ninigret Park in Charlestown, RI over Labor Day weekend (August 29-31, 2014). This festival attracts especially colorful festival-goers in that on site camping is permitted, and celebrants come with colorful flags, gear, costumes and spirit to transform the town park into an impromptu musical village. Rhythm and Roots also focuses on dancing, and offers free Cajun and Zydeco dance instruction as well as musical workshops with performers, Q&A's and intimate performances on smaller stages.

At Rhythm and Roots, many performers take their turn electrifying the audience and teaching the next generation. The 2014 festival host band will be the Grammy nominees The Duhks, and the lineup includes legendary jam band Leftover Salmon; world beat, fan-favorite Donna the Buffalo; Steve Riley & Mamou Playboys; Jim Lauderdale with The Travelin' McCourys; Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun; soulful rocker Anders Osborne; Prince-meets-James Brown steel guitar powerhouse AJ Ghent; and Masters of the Fiddle Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy and Rhode Island native Sarah Potenza. There are over 30 performers slated in the 2014 festival lineup, and there will also be a special Canadian artist tribute with the famed Matt Andersen and up and coming French-Irish folk artists Ten Strings and a Goatskin.

Rhode Island is a special place for summer festivals, and take place in historically significant and naturally beautiful locations steeped in tradition like Fort Adams in Newport, and Ninigret Park. The Charlestown, Rhode Island 227 acre camping-friendly Ninigret has a pond with beach too, just in case you need to cool off from all that dancing.

Fast Facts:

  • Newport Folk Festival turns 55 this year and takes place at Fort Adams July 25-27, 2014
  • Newport Jazz Festival is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and takes place at Fort Adams August 1-3, 2014
  • The 17th Annual Rhythm & Roots Festival is the second incarnation of the Cajun Bluegrass Music Festival in Escoheag, RI. These two festivals together have run in South County, RI for a total of 35 years.
  • Rhythm & Roots takes place August 29-31, 2014 (Labor Day Weekend) in Charlestown, RI

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