Part I: Finding the Groove at 49th Annual Philly Folk Fest

Good evening folks! Big things have been happening in Shady Groove Land. For the last 4 weeks I have been frequenting the many festivals, carnivals, and county fairs that the summer has to offer and it has definitely had me feeling like a carney of sorts. So as this past weekend wrapped up my past month of carney living, I found myself at one of the nations oldest Folk Festivals, The Philadelphia Folk Fest. In fact the Philly Folk Fest is now the longest continual running music festival in North America. Beginning in 1962 as a celebration of the folk arts, fans have been heading up to Old Pool Farm in Schwenksville, PA to camp, play, listen, relax, live and learn the best folk music around. DJ Gene Shay was there when it began in 1962 and he was there this year; 49 years consistently serving as master of ceremonies.

This being my first time as a Philly Folk Fest attendee, I was fascinated by the good-natured, non-commercial, environmentally friendly, and overall laid-back feel of the festival. My first impression was of utter surprise at the amount of people that were camping when I arrived on Thursday night. The campsite was PACKED and the festival didn’t even start until Friday. Tent city was in full effect and many of the campers had been there since Monday! Pre-fest, which is what I had arrived for, was an event solely for the festivals campers. And there to kick-off the 49th annual festival was local hero, Hoots and Hellmouth, who headlined the camp stage that night. The Pre-fest volunteers and campers are notoriously the most rowdy and riotous fans and this night was no different; we were ready to go! Hoots did not disappoint, biting and feeding off the energy of the crowd with a rollickin’, barn-stompin’ great set filled with such amazing energy that is quite honestly, absent from many live bands these days. That really set the mood for the whole weekend. As much as I thought that Hoots’ energy level that kicked off the festival could not be reached again, I was proved wrong several more times throughout the weekend.

For me it was the not simply the bands and artists on the festival program that made the festival so special. I was honestly taken aback by the incessant energy and musical prowess demonstrated by the people in tent city. I would say just about 70% of the people camping had an instrument of some sort. If one had an instrument, they played it. Many brought guitars, mandolins, hand-made dulcimers and drums, tambourines, clarinets, recorders, alto and soprano saxophones, congas, bongos and just about any instrument you can think of. Our campsite was actually directly across from the campsite of Philadelphia Jug Band who came complete with kazoos, washboards, and of course, glass “jugs”. The legendary Jug Band is a group of 60 and 70 year olds who have been attending, camping, and of course playing at the Fest for 40+ years. This band of iconic, folk elders and countless other passerby’s played every night of the festival from midnight to around 3am and drew a crowd each time. It was truly amazing to me the kind of camaraderie and wise musical prowess that was displayed by the group; the kind that only 40 years of playing together will produce. If I had gone to the festival and strictly saw the Jug Band I would’ve been happy. But there is more. So much more…..

Aside from the Jug Band and its followers, one could walk down the roads and trails of the campground and find another jam session happening a few yards away. It seemed that if one had ever owned or played an instrument of any kind they were apt to be jamming at some point during the 3-day festival. Everyone played, everyone sang, everyone drummed, everyone learned, everyone listened. We were all musicians this weekend. It was a spectacular display of good-natured fun and love of music. As I walked around I was many times left speechless by the wonderful happenings that were taking place. Late-night dance parties and jam sessions that lasted till the sun came up were an every night occurrence. Many of the festivals bands on the program were also seen and heard in the campground on numerous occasions. Some bands actually camped with the rest of us. Most of the campsites also had great names such as “Fish Pro Crow”, “Kom Say Hai”, and “Who Hill” to name a few. I honestly cannot say enough about the overall mood and experience of camping. Oh, beautiful tent city, how you quench my thirst. I am left completely satiated.
to be continued……….

  • Thanks so much for highlighting the Philadelphia Folk Festival. We are so excited you were able to join us. It is truly a mystifying experience and I believe we are all left a bit, as you say, satiated.

    Until the 50th,

    Levi Landis
    Executive Director
    Philadelphia Folksong Society

    Levi Landis

    August 26, 2010

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