By Alexandra Jones
The Philadelphia Folk Festival has been a mainstay of the folk music scene for nearly half a century. Every year since its inception in 1962, folk fans have traveled to a spot near Schwenksville, PA to camp, celebrate folk arts, and hear the best that folk music has to offer. Origivation spoke with one of the PFF’s bookers, Point Entertainment’s Jesse Lundy, to put the history of this Philly music institution in the perspective of its present.
The Philadelphia Folk Festival started when folklorist and radio DJ Gene Shay founded the annual celebration of folk music. Shay has served as Master of Ceremonies at every PFF – this year’s will be his 49th in a row. He currently hosts WXPN’s “Folk Music with Gene Shay” broadcast and runs folk label Sliced Bread Records.
“Gene is one of the best resources on earth. He knows everyone, hears more music than most anyone else and generally is the king,” Lundy says via e-mail.
A significant trait of the always-mutating genre of folk music is its inclusiveness. Originally, that-which-was-called-folk was passed down orally in isolated Appalachian enclaves and remote islands, brought to the rest of the world via field recordings by musicologists and anthropologists. Along with “traditional” music – which has no known author, and is closest to the popular music tagged as “folk” – world music, Celtic music, and klezmer are just a few subgenres that an event like PFF happily includes each year. It’s a big tent.
“The definition of folk music is pliable,” Lundy says. “We know that the festival needs to uphold that legacy, and we hope that artists like Taj Mahal (blues, world), Richard Thompson (British folk), Mike Cross (Appalachian, etc.) and even Bonnie “Prince” Billy (who has done many programs of [traditional] music) do that. Of course, there are those who say this is folk music filtered through generations, and I don’t disagree, but again, these artists are helping spread the word to a newer generation as well as tipping their hats to tradition.”
This year, the PFF partnered with Chicago-based Giving Tree Band, who donated money to make the festival more environmentally sound. “No, they didn’t pay to play, but rather gave us the grant to help with our greening initiatives. Amazing,” Lundy says. “That just doesn’t happen…Or maybe it does…In 1962 Pete Seeger donated his fee back to the fest to help them get their feet on the ground.”
The challenge for programming the Philadelphia Folk Festival is clear: How to honor the festival’s half-century legacy while incorporating new folk talent? How to uphold longtime attendees’ expectations and attract new and young fans? How to create a festival for a genre of music that’s constantly growing and mutating?
“There’s the heritage of the event, and trying to protect that. In other words, you probably won’t see Sheryl Crow headlining any time,” Lundy explains. “But someone like Jeff Tweedy (or Decemberists last year) [has] real roots in folk music.”
And whether you’re a “Judas!”-yelling purist or a devotee of the latest bands sporting banjos and dulcimers alongside guitars and amps, you have to admit that even the idealistic, frequently lo-fi folk corner of the music industry runs on money. The PFF also serves as the largest fundraiser for the Philadelphia Folksong Society, an area nonprofit dedicated to preserving and supporting folk music through education and presentation.
“[We] have to consider selling tickets. So really what I’m saying is that there’s a balance between making sure the heritage is protected, selling [tickets] and helping to bring in a new audience so we can continue to work within the folk world.”
As folk music – and the PFF – has evolved, it’s important to look back on how the genre has grown.
“The bands at [PFF] have changed over time as the folk idiom has changed,” Lundy explains. “Proper folk music morphed into the singer-songwriter genre in the late ’60s [and] early ’70s, and suddenly Janis Ian and Doug Sahm could be part of things like this. In the ’80s, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin rose to prominence. In the ’90s, it was Ani [DiFranco] and Great Big Sea. Now we have music coming out of the indie rock world that really just is folk [music].”
And the 2010 PFF program reflects this gradual change: Longtime fans and folk purists will recognize vanguards like Taj Mahal and Richard Thompson, while a younger generation of fans – whose tastes may be more eclectic – will show up for indie rock/alt-country icon Jeff Tweedy and gruff iconoclast Will Oldham, performing under his Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker. About four dozen other acts, including local bands presented via WXPN and the Philadelphia Songwriters’ Project, will play the festival this year.
And as Lundy points out, a little band called Led Zeppelin played at the most venerated gathering of its kind, the Newport Folk Festival, in 1969 – and look how they both turned out. “[Who] can really put a tag on what’s what?” he asks. “We just try to keep the audience happy and excited while not allowing the event to just become some Coachella wannabe or a mirror of what WXPN is doing. I think [PFF] will always reflect the social conscience of what folk music is about. It’s not a pop music festival and it’s not about favors in the industry.”
Alexandra Jones writes, cooks, plays, and slings groceries in Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.