Three of the Best Folk Festivals in the USA

The vast United States holds innumerable folk festivals every year, but only a few stand out from the crowd as the very best examples. Whether it’s their stunning location, history, musical line up or provision of other activities – each one of these folk festivals offers their own unique and beautiful opportunities to experience the wonder of modern and traditional folk music in a live setting.

Newport Folk Festival, Newport, Rhode Island

First opening its doors in 1959, the Newport Folk Festival (along with its sister the Newport Jazz Festival) is considered the original modern music festival in the USA – and possibly even the world.

Mostly known today as the venue for the debut performance of Bob Dylan’s ‘electric era’, Newport has seen a veritable who’s who of folk legends over the years, including Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Donovan, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers and more. The festival has also been a bastion of the Civil Rights movement since 1963, when a mixed race folk band called The Freedom Singers formed and marched into the town in support of African-American civil rights.

Kutztown Folk Festival, Kutztown, Pennsylvania

More than just a music festival, Kutztown is a nine-day experience encompassing everything about the traditional folk way of life in the USA. That covers music and art, but also clothing, industry, values and much more.

Centered around the 4th of July, the festival features a huge array of dancers and musicians – but also over 200 local craftsmen practicing traditional methods of production. All of which means Kutztown Festival is one of the best places in America to buy family-made goods that will last a lifetime – or just chow down on some gorgeous locally made food that still follows recipes from a hundred years ago. Stalls include a working 19th century bread oven that cooks up a storm every morning of the festival, and regional deserts such as Shoofly Pie, corn fritters and apple dumplings. 

Merlefest, Wilkesboro, North Carolina

Merlefest, Wilkesboro, North Carolina
Merlefest, Wilkesboro, North Carolina

In a touchingly personal story, Merlefest is named after Merle Watson – the late son of legendary blind savant blues and folk guitar player Doc Watson. The festival was founded after Merle, who used to perform regularly with father, died in a farm accident in 1985. The initial gathering of friends and family to celebrate Merle’s life and music was so upliftingly successful the family decided to start an entire festival in his memory.

Today, it attracts over 75,000 people a year – making it one of the largest music festivals of any genre in the USA.

Artists are encouraged to participate in each other’s sets and even form impromptu jam sessions during stage down time, which encourages punters to come flocking for one off performances they might not ever see anywhere else. Held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, Merlefest also raises millions of dollars every year for sensory-deprived educational facilities and students across the nation.