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.
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It would appear that the Philadelphia Folk Festival has changed little since singer/songwriter icon Pete Seeger headlined the first event in 1962. Veteran and newbie campers still construct a tent city on the hillside. They come whether the festival brings dust and wind, rain and chill, or searing sun and heat. On T-shirts and flags throughout the festival grounds, you’ll still see tie-dyed spirals or the Philadelphia Folksong Society’s familiar smiling banjo logo.
Yet, beneath the surface, the PFF is always bringing something new to the mix in subtle ways, revitalizing connections with the past while tracing influences to the present and beyond. And every now and again, the event takes a turn for the surreal—like the year when dust devils lifted a handful of tents into the afternoon sky like giant box kites.
Then there’s the perpetual give-and-take between traditional acts and more contemporary performers. This year, Thompson, who first played the festival in 1970 as part of the trailblazing British folk band Fairport Convention, will share the top billing with Tweedy, lead singer for the sonically adventurous Chicago-based rock band Wilco, which rose to prominence during the past 15 years.
“Traditionally, folk is the music of the people, and this event is based on the audience,” says Jesse Lundy, of Narberth-based festival sponsor Point Entertainment. “We’re taking a temperature reading every year, seeing what people think.”
A successful local concert promoter, Point Entertainment has provided artistic direction for the folk festival over the past three years. “Now it’s getting to the point where the people who founded the festival have kids and grandkids who have created their own campsites,” says Lundy. “They’re our future audience.”
This year marks the musical homecoming of Jah Levi, son of Kenneth S. Goldstein, world-renowned folklorist and one of the festival’s founders. Raised in Philadelphia, Levi spent his formative years mingling with folk musicians when the event drew just a few hundred people. “I was brought up all around the festival,” says Levi. “Some of the most special memories were just being there backstage.”
Musical and cultural discovery lies at the heart of the Philadelphia Folk Festival. “It’s not as pure as some of the other folk festivals,” Lundy admits. “This year, we’re having Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams. They’re a rock band. But that’s the thing about this event—it draws such an open-minded audience.”
To learn more, visit pfs.org.
For a recap of this year's Folk Festival, including photos, click here.
Hey, Aspiring Songwriters ...
Want a shot at playing your tunes at the Philadelphia Folk Festival? Or how about summer gigs at places like the Kimmel Center, the Bethlehem Music Festival or Sellersville Theater?
Such is the good fortune that has befallen winners of the Philadelphia Songwriters Project’s latest songwriting contest. This year’s finals showcase was held in May at Brownie’s 23 East in Ardmore, netting four winners: Tania Alexandra (pictured), Johnny Miles, Ryan Tennis and the Fleeting Ends.
Formed in 2002 by Ardmore’s Dena Marchiony and Stu Shames, the nonprofit organization provides resources and opportunities for a broad cross-section of talent in our area. Last year was the project’s first songwriting contest, and already its winners are scoring high-profile gigs, including an Aug. 20 performance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. “This will give artists the opportunity to see how a concert is done at big venues,” says Marchiony.
To learn more about the contest, visit phillysongwriters.com.