Folk The Vote

Newport’s Tradition of Civic Engagement Continues with HeadCount

by John Peabody
February 2024

Every movement needs an anthem – the power of song to bring people together around a common cause. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Music is the soul of the movement.”

Few anthems in our history are as memorable and powerful as “We Shall Overcome,” the song that came to define and guide the Civil Rights Movement. The Freedom Singers sang it alongside Bob Dylan when they closed out the 1963 Folk Festival, and “We Shall Overcome” went beyond anthem status when it landed in Lyndon B. Johnson’s inaugural address in 1965. He quoted it, and “We Shall Overcome” became policy.

In 1963, Pete Seeger invited The Freedom Singers, who were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to perform at Newport because he saw the communal song as a potent social weapon of influence in the fight against segregation. That critical performance is just one page in folk music’s long history and partnership with activism and protest. Recognizing this important marriage, founder George Wein set the stage for artists and activists to inspire and rouse the masses for positive change. He made space for SNCC to help register voters during the 1960s, beginning a decades-long effort to promote civic engagement at the Festival that continues to this day.

Look no further than Newport Folk’s current partnership with HeadCount to see that tradition of civic engagement in action. During this election year, we asked Tim Bramlette, Headcount’s Senior Director of Partnerships and Marketing, to tell us about their work, impact, and how our festival helps.

Can you tell us about Headcount’s mission?

HeadCount is a non-partisan organization that uses the power of music and popular culture to register voters and promote participation in democracy. We reach young people and music fans where they already are – at concerts and online – to inform and empower.

How important is engaging musicians and music fans to your mission?

HeadCount was founded to bring voter registration to music fans and it will always be central to our mission. We are unique because we were started by a musician and a fan – and we were built up by volunteers who were both music industry professionals and fans. This is different from democracy organizations trying to get into a music space or engage young voters through music – we were born out of musicians and music fans.

When musicians invite HeadCount to appear at their events or use their digital platforms to promote our work and register fans, they become trusted messengers to their fanbase. This is essential to establishing the connection between the volunteer, voter, and HeadCount. Music fans, our core volunteers, are equally as important as they act as trusted, peer messengers in their community. It is just as easy to guess the opener or encore together as it is to talk about democracy in a live music space. This fan-to-fan connection is what makes that possible.

Why do folks volunteer to help you at events? What’s the motivating factor?

Last year we surveyed our volunteers about why they volunteer with HeadCount and it was a pretty even split between three reasons – music, democracy, and community. When you volunteer with HeadCount you get to be a part of the show – whether you are there at the invitation of the artist, festival, or promoter. And for those of us who are true music fans, being a part of the experience that has been curated for fans is an incredible experience. It is also a great way to give back to your community. We have so many volunteers who have gone to shows for years and consider live music to be home, and when you bring democracy and empowerment to your community in such an open space it is a magical combination.

People ask if we work in politics; We say no, we work in democracy.

Are you seeing a change in the younger voters in terms of urgency and willingness to register?

Absolutely. We hear a lot less “vote for what?” or “my vote doesn’t matter” than we did when we started in 2004. Young voters today have experienced a record number of events that have shaped their everyday lives that are directly impacted by public policy, from school shootings to natural disasters to COVID-19 and economic downturn. No matter where they stand on the issues, this shared experience has inspired a commitment to democratic participation.

While there is a shared experience shaped by these events, Gen Z is also the most diverse voting bloc in the history of our country. Race, sexual orientation, gender, immigration status, and even language shape this generation of voters who bring unique and important perspectives to the polls. We see the effects of this at the local, state, and federal levels.

What makes your partnership with Newport Folk unique?

The partnership with Newport Folk is so special because of our shared history in activism. HeadCount has been registering voters for 20 years strong with the support of promoters and artists who all love the Newport Folk Festival. When onsite, the HeadCount team is met with high fives from staff, fans, artists, and sponsors. We have become a beloved stop during the weekend to check in with one another and see what’s new in the world of music and politics. The most important feedback we hear from all of these people mentioned above is “How Can I Help?” and “Thank you for being here.” That says it all right there!

What kind of results is your partnership with Newport Folk driving?

HeadCount has been on site to register voters since 2008. Since then, we have helped nearly 7,000 attendees register to vote or verify their voter registration status and become active in the civic engagement process.

HeadCount attends over 50 music festivals per year, helping to register voters of all musical genres. And even though some of the festivals we attend have a massive capacity onsite, such as Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, Newport Folk has constantly been on our top 10 list for most successful festivals.

With over a decade of visits to the Fort, how has audience engagement evolved?

The Newport Folk Festival fanbase is multi-generational. I meet more parents onsite who are helping their kids register to vote with us for the first time here than at any other festival we attend. Watching a parent have a conversation with their now 18-year-old with the support of our trained volunteers is a beautiful thing. Each year our results get better and better. I leave the Fort with a bit more hope than when I arrived.