Like a successful night club where patrons come out for the atmosphere or to hang out – regardless of who’s performing – the Philadelphia Folk Festival at Old Pool Farm, in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, boasts literally thousands of patrons who come back year after year for the festival’s atmosphere. These repeat fans are there to hear music, for sure. But many come back again and again even if there aren’t enough blues, zydeco, contemporary folk or traditional folk performers to suit their own particular tastes.
"The festival organizers conducted a survey of patrons a couple of years ago, and they asked questions like ‘What are your favorite things about the folk festival,’" says WXPN-FM deejay Gene Shay, whose folk music program can be heard Sunday nights from 8 to 11 p.m. on 88.5, WXPN. Shay also serves as emcee for all three evenings of the folk festival. "The survey showed that the overall festival experience was the most important factor in deciding whether to come back." According to Shay, the reality is that individual musical preferences don’t enter into it much. "People just know they’re going to get something good, musically, and they’re going to have a wonderful time. After all, if you can’t find it on the main stage, you’ll find it on one of the side stages, or in the camping areas, or the parking lots."
Shay says a real draw to the festival is its "certain charm and funkiness. The site is an old farm, so it’s not as slick as the neatly manicured lawns they have at the MerleFest in North Carolina, and it’s not as structured in places like the inner city of Bethlehem, where the Bethlehem Musik Fest is held. It’s held on a farm, so it has a folksy feel to it."
While this year’s musical lineup is nothing short of stellar for fans of American roots music, patrons of the Philadelphia Folk Festival regularly put up with hot, humid days and sometimes thunderstorms to get their music "fix." Performers this year include Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller; Arlo Guthrie; blues pianist, vocalist, and songwriter Ann Rabson and her new band, the Annimators; and "Long, Tall" Marcia Ball and her band. Traditional folk singer and balladeer Peggy Seeger will perform, as will mandolin player David Grisman and his quintet. Wilmington, Delaware-based multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg will play backup to his wife’s vocal group, the Angel Band. And that’s just the short list. The full list of performers is posted on the Philadelphia Folksong Society’s festival website, www.folkfest.org.
In general, Shay says, outdoor music festivals all over the United States and Canada are having a tougher time attracting people. "It’s an economy thing, and it’s a weather thing. Who wants to suffer through incredible 90 degree heat – some people would think twice, even though they love the experience, they might forgo that experience to be in a nice air conditioned place."
Then there are the festival’s old timers, who’ve been coming every year since 1961, who just don’t have the stamina or desire to hang out at a hot, often humid, three-day folk outdoor folk festival. "And the younger people, many of them are into a different kind of music, they would rather go to a Lollapalooza or the Bonnaroo Festival, so one of the things we’re doing is outreach to get the younger people involved. Many of these younger people have great memories of the festival from when they were kids, because they were dragged there by their parents or grandparents. We’re trying to reach out to these people."
Although the audience make-up may shift and change, the festival, Shay points out, means a lot to a lot of people as a legacy of folk music. "It’s something that’s always there, it’s predictable, every year, on the last weekend in August, and it’s not shaken up by complete change from year to year. Our new, permanent stage was pretty much in keeping with our old stage, only this one offers better sightlines for more people.
"Tradition and predictability is important to these people, myself included," Shay continues, noting he got his first stromboli 25 years ago from the Upper Salford Volunteer Fire Department’s food stand at the festival, and he looks forward to having a stromboli there every year.
Also among the festival’s many traditions is the late Saturday afternoon and Sunday trash sweep, before the evening concert begins. Another tradition is the Scottish bagpiper who always comes out of the crowd at the top of the hill and walks down the hill to the center of the stage. By the time he reaches the microphone at center stage, he’s greeted by a thunderous applause from the audience, who are primed for Saturday evening’s concert.
"The thing about the Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon trash sweep, that was all based on the fact that there was another ticket you had to show for the evening concert," Shay says, "but at the same time, they needed to clean up the grounds for the evening concert. When they first started that sweep, they would line up arm to arm, and it almost looked like some kind of militaristic police action. We decided that didn’t look very good, so the next year, the volunteers all had funny costumes on."
It’s comical to watch and be a part of: all these trash volunteers dressed up in costumes, politely nudging people to get off the festival grounds, while Carl Orff’s ominous "Carmina Burana" plays loudly over the festival’s public address system.
"It worked, and it softened the hassle of getting people off their blankets and chairs for the trash sweep. Suddenly, instead of looking like some kind of police action, it became an artistic dance," Shay says, adding that it’s been a tradition at the festival for nearly 40 years.
One new innovation this year is ‘Friends of the Festival’ seating. This means reserved seats for the main stage concerts, with valet parking, access to the performers’ hospitality area, and the option of a backstage tour. "We’ve already sold out ‘Friends’ tickets this year," Shay says. "We found out that a lot of people don’t mind paying that extra $150 for a more comfortable festival experience."
The 44th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, Friday through Sunday, August 26 to 28, Old Pool Farm, Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. Performers include Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Marcia Ball, the David Grisman Quintet, Tempest, Ann Rabson & the Annimators, the Campbell Brothers, Peggy Seeger, the Avett Brothers, and more. For tickets, performance schedule, and directions call 800-556-FOLK or visit www.folkfest.org.