The Philadelphia Folk Festival grooves to a subtle yet distinct Main Line tune.
Photo by Jared Castaldi
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The Philadelphia Folk Festival may be the oldest music event of its kind in North America, but don’t let its age fool you into thinking it’s always the same old, same old. Every August for 49 years, a Schwenksville farm is transformed into a destination for more than 12,000 music lovers, families, hippies and bohemians from across the country—locals, too.
“I enjoy it more than a concert because of the camping, and I enjoy it more than camping because of the music,” says Phoenixville’s Casey McCarthy, one of the 2,000 festival volunteers providing security, directing traffic, disposing of trash and generally keeping things running.
If he had to pick a favorite festival experience, it would have to be when Philadelphia’s Espers curated a showcase of psychedelic folk music. McCarthy was familiar with the ’60s version—but he’d never encountered it in such a modern form. “The show was a few hours of musical nirvana,” he recalls.
In truth, if you asked each person in attendance for a highlight, you’d seldom hear a similar response. After all, the Philadelphia Folk Festival packs far more music into its schedule than anyone could actually witness in one weekend. This year’s event delivers more than 48 hours of it from five dozen acts spread over six stages—a cornucopia of blues, gospel, folk, country and world music.
Each year, festival organizers tap a rich pool of local talent, who, this year, will join Taj Mahal, the Subdudes, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson and other national and international acts.
“Playing the main stage in front of all of those people was huge for us and felt awesome,” says past participant Sean Hoots, frontman for West Chester’s Hoots and Hellmouth. “But the most amazing times were in the campground singing, playing music, and spending time with friends, campers and the volunteers.”
Downingtown’s Liz Longley played the festival at age 18 as part of WXPN’s local music showcase. She recalls being blown away by the crowd response. “There was great energy,” she says. “Everyone there is a true music lover.”
And her fan base continues to grow. Now 23, the Berklee College of Music graduate opens for the likes of Shawn Colvin and Nanci Griffith. She’ll cap off her summer tour this month at the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival in Colorado.
But that PFF experience in 2006 will always hold a special place in her heart. It was there that she met Johnny Duke, a guitar virtuoso who studied with David Bromberg. They began dating shortly after. “The Philadelphia Folk Festival introduced me to the love of my life,” she says.