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Live Reviews

Philadelphia Folk Festival: Schwenksville, PA, August 18-21, 2011

By Published: September 18, 2011
And while the festival brings in some of the country's best folk, jazz, Irish, independent, and world musicians, some of the best music can be heard right in the campground in small groups around the campfires. Recognizing the quality of the camp bands, this year festival organizers chose several groups, including Hogmaw and the Philadelphia Jug Band, to appear on the main stage. Instruments are so abundant in the camping area that the festival offers an instrument check-in trailer manned 24 hours a day to keep instruments safe and dry while not being used. Drums, guitars, basses, banjos, and mandolins can be heard playing constantly as groups keep the jams going into the wee hours of the night.

But it is a small group of 60 dedicated volunteers known as Groundz that arrives in early July to transform this working hay farm into a venue that supports over 6000 campers, 10,000 day-trippers and an array of class acts in folk, jazz, and world music. Groundz volunteers are a family of close friends who each year turn a hayfield into a music venue. Many have called this group the heart of the festival. With only a few permanent buildings—one being the large, elaborate stage built with the help of the Martin Guitar Company—the Groundz crew spends weekends, starting July 4th, constructing craft booths, clearing fields, putting up fencing, and building makeshift structures to support all the other volunteers who make this festival possible. Many, such as Groundz chairman Lee Theis, give up their vacation to be a part of the annual construction. Asked what drives him to do this, Theis replied, "This is my heart." Theis' wife, Sue, and his daughters also assist, as do many other families who make building the folk festival a regular part of their summer. An emotional Ellen Ehrlich Superfine, a sixteen-year volunteer and co-chair of the Groundz committee, says..."the reward is seeing the field filled with smiling faces and the children's area filled with dancing children. I can't imagine doing anything else with my summer. This is sacred ground, and I want to be a part of making it special."

While the Groundz committee's does its work prior to the start of the festival, as well as the deconstruction and storage afterward, it is also charged with finding solutions to any structural problems that may occur during the event. The dedication of the group was apparent when a series of afternoon thunderstorms and high winds rolled through the festival on several occasions over the weekend. In one incident, a tall scaffold with a video screen fell near the main stage, and the massive tent over the camping headquarters was lifted, twisted, and destroyed, when a reported 70 mile per hour gust swept through the festival grounds early Friday evening. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The Groundz crew ran to both sites to stabilize, then dismantle the structures—all the while keeping festivalgoers away from any danger. Working through the night, new structures were in place by morning.

For its work and effort, the Groundz committee is provided with a separate camping area that allows this group to gel and develop its own rituals that include parties and shared meals. They have become a close family that gets together for several months each year to be a part of something bigger than any individual in the group. They have become so close that several deceased members have had some of their ashes spread in the Groundz fire pit during tearful memorial services. Groundz members have helped each other through sicknesses, and have been generous during periods of underemployment. Their work together over many years has no doubt brought this diverse group of construction workers, hair dressers, bio-technicians, mechanics, school teachers, photographers, and artists together as a tight-knit family unit.

And therein lies the difference in culture in the Philadelphia Folk Festival. While most festivals are about the music—and certainly that's what music festivals are about—this festival has the added attribute of 6,000 people coming together each year in a campground—a sacred ground to many—to form a family. These are groups that come together to recapture the close feelings they have for each other at this yearly event. Their love of music brings them to the farm, but it is their love for each other that has made the Philadelphia Folk Festival a success for the last half century. There is no doubt that this same culture of love will take it into the next fifty years.

Photo Credit

All Photos: Robert Pollock


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