Philadelphia Folk Festival: Schwenksville, PA, August 18-21, 2011
August 18-21, 2011
In 1962, when folklorist and DJ Gene Shay took to the stage of the first Philadelphia Folk Festival in front of 700 folk enthusiasts to introduce Pete Seeger, he had no idea that 50 years later, at the age of seventy-five, he would take the stage again. As he has done every year since, he introduced the audience of 15,000 people to performers like Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton, The Kennedy's, Levon Helm, David Bromberg, Campbell Brothers, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews. One of America's longest running music festivals, the Philadelphia Folk Festival drew near record crowds to its 50th anniversary celebration at the Old Pool Farm in the Philadelphia suburbs, but to think of it as just another music festival, which we are all so familiar with, would be to miss the culture that has nurtured its existence for the last half century. Sponsored by the non-profit Philadelphia Folksong Society, the Folk Festival is made possible by over 2500 volunteers who run everything from parking to camping to security.
Ultimately, the Philadelphia Folk Festival is about the music. With five stages, including the large, permanent Martin Guitar Stage, the festival has hosted the likes of Janis Ian, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ani DeFranco, Jeff Tweety, Rebirth Brass Band, Judy Collins, The Decembrist, Doc Watson, and many other folk, jazz, and indie groups. Music veteran Michael Cloeren, who was named this year as the new festival director, promises the future festivals will be bigger and better than ever, as he hopes to appeal to folk purists as well as younger audiences with more contemporary tastes.
The fiftieth anniversary lineup was exceptional, with Bromberg leading his own band, as well as sitting in with Guthrie and Helm. Trombone Shorty Andrews dazzled the festival audience with his high-powered trumpet and trombone playing, including a three-minute circular breathing solo that amazed the thousands sitting out on the lawn at the main stage. He and his very talented band had the audience on their feet and screaming for more when their set ended. While time did not allow for band encores, he made a surprise appearance with the David Bromberg Big Band, and once again, nearly stole the set. Andrews is a dazzling and charismatic young player who is certainly making himself known on the music scene.
The festival ended with a spectacular performance by the Levon Helm Band. Helm, who has been recovering from throat cancer, assembled a powerful group of musicians who kept thousands glued to their seats in spite of a steady rain that turned the field to mush. While Helm's voice was obviously affected, his enthusiasm and talent for the music was quite evident in his drumming and mandolin playing. It was a great end for a great festival.
For fifty years, all of this music has been made possible by the yearly dedication of thousands of volunteers and regular festivalgoers, many of whom brag about their decades-long attendance. It is these regulars and volunteers who have created a culture unique to this festival. Arriving two days before the official start, the volunteers get first crack at what can only be considered a "land grab" in the camping area, with the general public repeating the scene a day later in an area reserved just for them. Over 65 camps, or what some consider tribes, are filled with tents by 6000 campers who create elaborate, yet rustic, areas that are often comprised of a main gathering tent surrounded by multiple smaller sleeping tents. These campsites often bear names such as Fish, Festicles, Canada, and Azzoles as a way of distinguishing one from another, and providing a sense of identity to its inhabitants. Many are decorated with items such as life guard chairs, saloon doors, fences, and flags. Campers come well supplied with food, drink, musical instruments, games, and music. For many, the festival is the campground, with some seldom leaving to attend the music venues.
Many compare the Philadelphia Folk Festival to Woodstock with its laid-back, cooperative atmosphere. In what might be called the "hippie" spirit, the fest is a place where many come annually to not be themselves. With an abundance of tie-dye clothing, sandals, and linen wear, campers are far removed from their usual responsibilities as teachers, bankers, and business people. The campground is a place of frolicking fun and a communal spirit as tribes absorb newbies and teach them the ropes and the rules of the festival. The creek that runs behind the festival grounds serves as a swimming hole for those who want to escape the August heat, and wash off the day's perspiration.