By TJ McGlinchey
Photos By Bill Dolton & Lisa Schaffer
By the grace of my parents’ good taste and mental fortitude; I’ve grown up with the extreme privilege of attending the Philadelphia Folk Festival every summer in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. During seemingly the hottest and/or rainiest weekend of August; my entire family would spend four days witnessing the crafts of amazingly artful musicians, dancers, poets, painters, jugglers, candlemakers, paper cutters, glassblowers, and other awesome artists. As we all know, this kind of gathering and merry-making can’t happen right now. This year, as most other festivals have completely canceled for safety reasons surrounding COVID-19, The Philadelphia Folksong Society is pushing forward with a completely different model than ever before for their historically longest-running festival. In 2020, the 59th Anual Philadelphia Folk Festival is entirely online.
In a year when so much is going wrong, it’s uplifting and comforting to know that the folk fest is still there, even if only virtually. We may have lost our dear founder Gene Shay, but we can continue to carry on his vision of providing a plethora of musically entertaining and educational performances and opportunities. Many wonderful artists and others have been lost this year as well, including the prolific John Prine; but we can carry on supporting the community that creates amazing people like them. We may not be able to wander through Dulcimer Grove, meander around the Society Sales Tent, or bliss out in front of the Martin Guitar Main Stage; but PFS has put together a wonderful online experience, partnered with Mountain View Staging, including an interactive map of multiple stages, shops, and more that feels very, shall we say, festy. Additionally, ticket-holders gain access to decades of never-before-accessible archival footage of over 800 past performances from festival years 1983 thru 2019 (check out 2012 Main Stage for a younger version of myself giving my debut performance).
One advantage of an online experience is their ability to book acts that may or may not have participated depending on touring schedules and budgetary concerns. This year’s lineup includes Ben Gibbard, The Lone Bellow, Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg, Shakey Graves, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Susan Werner, Ivan Neville, Trixie Mattel, Josh Ritter, Robert Earl-Keen, Allen Stone, Rhiannon Giddens, Francesco Turrisi, and so many more. The festival certainly continues to shine in terms of its Main Stage. However, the Camp Stage and Front Porch Stage are also packed with prodigious performers. Camp Stage features acts including William Prince, Gangstagrass, We Banjo 3, The Suitcase Junket, Talisk, Lisa Canny, and the presentation of the Woody Guthrie Prize honoring Joan Baez. The Front Porch Stage features many performers from The Philadelphia Music Co-op and other local favorites such as John Flynn, Terri Hendrix, Lloyd Maines, Andrea Nardello, Katherine Rondeau, Avi Wisnia, Kuf Knotz, Christine Elise, John Byrne, The Cheddar Boys, The Honey Badgers, Erin Fox, Emily Drinker, Hotsy Totsy, GF Patrick, myself, and many others.
The festival means so much to so many people around the country and across the globe that it’s not surprising that PFS has decided to take on the herculean task of pivoting to an online model despite having such a limited amount of time to prepare. The festival’s organizers have partnered with Mountain View Staging to create a unique broadcasting-platform-template to complete the mission. Executive Director Justin Nordell and his team have worked night and day answering a non-stop barrage of calls, texts, and emails since the moment they decided to make this move. They and the board of directors have all been doing their part to ensure that this year’s festival goes on uninterrupted. As always, the overarching mission is ensuring that the festival has the budget they need to make all of this happen and to secure the future of the festival and the society by conducting their largest annual fundraiser.
You may or may not be aware that the folksong society exists physically, outside of the festival in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia. They operate year-round as a concert venue while simultaneously providing educational workshops, music classes, and much more. They also house the Philadelphia Music Co-op and the Odyssey of American Music program which provides folk-music-education programming into city schools. The Folk Song Society has been operating since 1957 and the festival began in 1971. In addition to the folk fest that happens every August at Old Poole Farm, PFS presents smaller gatherings including Fall Fling and Spring Thing which are more about workshops and community building than they are showcases for amazing performers. There are dozens and dozens of opportunities throughout the year to participate in real, honest-to-goodness music-making and merriment (including house concerts!). Members regularly enjoy an overabundance of musicality in their lives. In a country where music and arts programs are the first to be cut during budget meetings for school districts, PFS is providing a strong supplemental pedagogy distilled from the essential essences of American music.
Both the folk song society and the festival foster a music-making/art-making community that spills over into every major organization in the city. The people who make the festival happen each year are not just the production crew, the talent-buyers, the vendors, and the board of directors. The people who make the festival what it is each year are you and me; the performers, attendees, and volunteers. Ask around; there’s at least one person at your place of work that has attended or volunteered at the festival. It’s an institution. The society’s membership includes people in every industry. You can’t throw a battery at Santa Claus in Philadelphia without hitting someone who’s been to the folk fest (Yes, Virginia, Santa has been to the fest). You can hear the festival’s influence on every local singer-songwriter. The festival and the people who attend it have indelibly changed the musical and artistic culture of our beloved city.
In addition to performing at the festival, I am also a member of the folksong society and the music co-op. In the interest of transparency, I must admit to you that the board president, John McGlinchey, is my father. He and my mother Johnnie Sue have been taking their children (myself and my siblings) to the festival since 1981. In turn, we have brought our children to the festival. Well, my siblings have brought theirs. My one-year-old daughter has yet to attend. My sister also recently gave birth to a new baby who has yet to plant their tiny, folky feet in the festival’s fairied field. Point being, this year is a turning point for the festival where its existence is truly at stake and I feel a personal responsibility to help rally the folks who usually attend and volunteer. But I’m motivated by more than just having a fun festival to attend every summer. For my family, it’s about cultural identity. It’s about humanity. It’s about feeding our soul and connecting with our fellow folks. This festival is my ‘home away from home’. It’s a place I want to hand down to my progeny just like the previous generation has done for me.
For an even more personal perspective (if that’s possible), I asked Justin Nordell, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Folksong Society, a few questions. I wanted to know how it’s going, who he’s most excited to see perform this year, and what it’s like putting on a festival entirely online. I also asked a few members of the Philadelphia Music Co-op to tell us why they feel the festival is so important and who they’re most excited to see perform
Justin Nordell: “It’s going incredibly well! Stressful, but well. Who knew putting on an online event would be more work than an in-person? As an out gay man, I’m proud of the number of LGBT artists on the bill this year, including drag legend Trixie Mattel, unapologetically black and queer Amethyst Kiah, Fest frequent flyer Susan Werner, out singer-songwriter and Juno-nominee Jack Pine, androgynous celestial beings Parlour Panther, hard femme queer radical Korean Canadian Janice Jo Lee, Xicana Xingona Dr. Diana Alvarez, country queer Paisley Fields, women’s folk music legend Tret Fure, queer artist and prison abolitionist Zoë Boekbinder, a favorite of the 2019 Festival Western Canada’s Mariel Buckley, half of the dynamic North Star Puppets identifies as nonbinary, as does half of Tui identify as gay, local singer-songwriters Avi Wisnia, Philly’s own Brandi Carlile-approved Andrea Nardello, and Omni-hypersexual 2019 Fest favorite Shirley Gnome, all of whom bring their unique stories and voices that demand your attention to the digital festival. Beyond that, since there is such little funding for artists in the United States compared to other countries, we are thrilled to be partnering with Canada, Ireland, Scotland, South Korea, and Wales to present artists from each country whose in-person Festivals were also canceled due to COVID-19. Incredible artists are coming from each, but if I had to give one to watch from each it would be First Nations artist Leela Gilday from Canada, string kings Slow Moving Clouds of Ireland, instant dance party Elephant Sessions from Scotland, traditional tunes with a modern twist girl group Ak Dan Gwang Chil from South Korea, and stunning songsmith Al Lewis of Wales!
How do you capture the magic of the Philadelphia Folk Festival and make it digital? It’s nearly impossible, so we have worked really hard to try and make the event as interactive as humanly possible while retaining many of the aspects (camping, crafts, food vendors, merch tent, etc.) that people know and love. Convincing people to leap with us to digital has certainly been the biggest challenge. The Philadelphia Folk Festival is known for many things (being the oldest continuously run outdoor music festival in North America, being the first outdoor music festival in North America to achieve the key-change pledge of 50/50 gender parity on and off our stages, delivering one of the most diverse and interesting festival lineups year after year both musically and socio-politically, etc.)… but we aren’t known for our technological prowess. It was INCREDIBLY important that this be an opportunity for us to not only provide people with something to look forward to but secure the future of folk by crafting a digital infrastructure for our event. Not only will people be able to enjoy the new music but decades of archival recordings never-before-available to our patrons. We will be able to offer the Festival digitally to anyone anywhere in the world not just this year during a pandemic but for years to come for those who are unable to physically get to or navigate the event. This is an investment inaccessibility and our organization’s future.
Do you know how people hand you a business card and tell you if they ever need anything to reach out? Well, one Mountain View Staging staffer had attended the Philadelphia Folk Festival once upon a time and done just that. To live stream 168 artists from 8 countries is an insurmountable undertaking. We needed a partner that had the proven track record of handling such an endeavor, and Mountain View Staging, with over two decades of streaming excellence as their pedigree, jumped at the chance. They have worked on everything from music to conferences to sports to national political conventions… with no dropped streams. We are incredibly excited that such a renowned company would partner with us to ensure that our event is an accessible success.”
Avi Wisnia: “The Philly Folk Fest is such an important cultural institution. I love the sense of community it has built over the years and the way it celebrates not only international artists but also homegrown Philly artists, giving a platform to a variety of voices. Even though we can’t be together in person this year, it’s so important that the tradition continues and I’m honored to be a part of it. I’m excited to catch Rhiannon Giddens, Trixie Mattel, Ben Gibbard, Susan Werner, and sets from all of my Philly local songwriter friends”
John Byrne: “I remember playing my first Folk Fest. We were booked for the Camp Stage on a Sunday afternoon. I got there the day before but I was too nervous about our set to relax and take it in. After our set, there was a dip in the river where an impromptu version of ‘Down to the River to Pray’ broke out and it was one of the most gorgeous things you could ever witness. Maura (Dwyer, my fiddle player) turned to me and said, ‘This is Folk Fest’. I spent the rest of the day finally embracing the beautiful community that gathers to listen and sing and be present. I couldn’t wait for the next year. We’ve been fortunate enough to be asked back four more times (including this year) and I feel very lucky to live in a city with this kind of magic on its doorstep. I think I’m most looking forward to Billy Bragg. Even though I’ve seen him live many times he never fails to leave me feeling completely rejuvenated as a person and a writer.”
Andrea Nardello: “Folk Fest is my favorite music festival of the year. I fell in love with everything about it the first time I performed. The community of people that attend this festival are the happiest and most loving people to surround yourself with. The amount of music that you can see throughout the weekend is incredible. The variety of artists that come from all over the world is amazing. I just glow the entire weekend. So this year I’m determined to celebrate fest the same even though we can’t be on the farm. It’s an honor to perform, even if we will be virtual. And the line up is once again incredible! I’m excited to see Talisk, Irish Mythen, Allen Stone, The Lone Bellow, and my local faves, Emily Drinker, Tin Bird Choir. I’m also excited to discover artists I’ve never heard before. I always get introduced to new music at Fest and this year will be no different. Happy Fest!”
GF Patrick: “Folk Fest is a coming together of musicians both professional and not to share in this thing that we all love. It’s a place where everyone is unapologetic about their willingness to dance to banjo and nasal voices. In a folk arts sense, it’s where the generations meet and for a moment see each other more clearly. I’m jonesing for some Shakey Graves. I missed his set last time he came through and I’ve been kicking myself ever since.”
Erin Fox: “Philadelphia Folk Fest is important to me because it holds a very special place in my heart as I’ve spent many an August of my aimless youth there. It was part of my growing up and helped shape my experience as a musician and an artist and showed me what being part of a grassroots music community is all about. I definitely wouldn’t be the same without it. Aside from the obvious answers here which are Ben Gibbard (because Death Cab for Cutie is one of my favorite bands) and Shakey Graves… I’m looking forward to seeing all of the Philly artists together on this bill who I’ve known and loved for so many years. There are so many incredible artists in Philly.”
Kuf Knotz: “The folk fest has such an amazing and rich history. So much talent has blessed the stages of this festival over the past 60 yrs. I have always loved the parallels and connection between folk and hip hop so to be a part of such a prestigious folk festival is super exciting & a nod to the progressive inclusion & direction of the festival. I am excited to see Gangstagrass (another hip-hop fusion band) all of the Philly local acts & Adia Victoria! She is amazing!”
Phoenix Leigh/North Star Puppets: “The folk fest has meant a lot to me since I began going with a group of friends when I was sixteen- in 2000. Camping, hanging with my best friends, and being surrounded by incredible music- it’s always been an amazing experience. I never thought I would be performing a kids’ show every year on the Dulcimer Grove Stage. It feels like a way to give something back to the Fest and take part in the ongoing grand tradition at the same time. Two years ago, my husband and I created Banjo Jo- a sixteen-foot tall walking version of the Smiling Banjo. We stroll the grounds and take photos with happy fest-goers. It’s a highlight of my year. This year is a stellar lineup. I can’t wait to see my longtime favorites Chris Smither and Richard Thompson. Buffy Sainte-Marie, Rhiannon Giddens, and Los Lobos. All the local acts- and the tributes to Gene Shay and John Prine. I always discover new musicians at Fest.”
Huston West / The Cheddar Boys: “Stoked to see Molly Tuttle. Saw her the first time two years ago at a tent by the ticket gate at the fest. It’s exciting for us to join as performers this year. I’ve been playing and busking around Philly for ten years and kept hearing I should check out folk fest. 3 years ago I went and volunteered. Same the following year. And now we get to play it. It’s an institution, lots of good folks, good music, and the mascot is a damn smiling banjo!”
It’s apparent in the enthusiasm of these performers’ endorsements that the folk festival is a positive influence on the lives of people looking to start a career in music as well as many who are simply seeking a community of fellow artists (and people who love them) in which to expand their family circles. Performance opportunities provided to up-and-coming musicians are invaluable in an ever-more-competitive professional landscape. The educational experience of performing for their peers and witnessing musical heroes work their craft in such a personally meaningful place could not be recreated in a university setting. And the opportunity to witness all of these artists at work in a welcoming community makes it all the more sweetly inviting for everyone else involved. This festival has spawned generations of musicians, artists, and generally great people across the Eastern seaboard and beyond. It’s part of what makes Philadelphia a very artistic and culturally diverse place to live.
However you’ve conveniently found yourself at the bottom of this particular rabbit hole, I’m glad you‘re here and I must give thanks for your attention span’s durability. You’ve graciously given me more time than what’s contemporarily possible for most. That’s about it from the top of this particular soapbox. Get tickets. I’m most excited to see Billy Bragg, Richard Thompson, and Los Lobos. Tune in, turn on, and drop your shoulders…
Peace and Love,
Rev. TJ McGlinchey, MFA, MAE
P.S. You can find me on the Front Porch Stage: Sunday 08/16/2020 @ 11:00 AM