The repeat customer is very important to the marketing folks at the Philadelphia Folk Song Society, the nonprofit group that organizes the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival. Now in its 51st year, this massive gathering of American roots music fans is held every August, usually the third weekend, at the Old Pool Farm in Upper Salford Township, Pennsylvania.
What makes for repeat customers? Great memories of great music, and great experiences hanging out with other like-minded music fans. That’s why thousands of campers rand hundreds of day trippers keep coming back to the festival year after year.
This writer has attended every year but one since 1984. I was hyped on Philly Folk Festival for several years by New Jersey music photographer Bob Yahn and blues and folk musician Rik Palieri, both originally from East Brunswick. They related stories about how well-organized the Philadelphia Folk Festival was, and finally, after graduating from college, I attended for the first time in 1984.
That year I met one of my all-time blues heroes, Texas-based “Master of the Telecaster,” Albert Collins, who performed with his band, the Icebreakers. Also in attendance that year was the first blues act I ever saw, John Paul Hammond, son of the legendary Columbia Records talent scout and, to this day, one of the absolute finest performers of traditional acoustic blues you’ll find anywhere in the U.S.
I’ll never forget how humble Collins was after he’d completed his blow-the-roof-off-the-stage set. He appeared to be a tough black man from Houston, Texas, but in fact, he was modest and disarmingly polite. One of the all-time great blues-rock guitarists, Jimi Hendrix, first heard Collins in his native Texas in the mid-1960s, before he assumed superstar status, and was suitably impressed and influenced by Collins.
A year later, I met Junior Wells, the legendary harmonica player from Chicago, whose tunes “Help Me” and “Messin’ with the Kid” will always be part of the classic Chicago blues canon. I remember how he gave me his phone number in Chicago, but very carefully. “Now, don’t you give this number to anybody, you understand?” he said. I assured him repeatedly I wouldn’t let anybody have his phone number. He handed me a card “Junior Wells — Blues Harmonica” with his new phone number scrawled across the top.
A year later, in 1986, I recall how Queen Ida [Guillory] and her Bon Temps Zydeco Band managed to get upwards of 15,000 people dancing on the side of a hill in front of the main stage in the pouring rain. She humored her audience as she danced and played accordion at the same time, and said, “OK now folks, let’s get ready to do something we call zyde-aerobics!”
Longtime patrons of the festival can rattle off stories about various years, but the man who has memories of every single Philadelphia Folk Festival is Gene Shay, the well-known Philadelphia area folk and blues DJ. He currently hosts a popular folk show on WXPN, 88.5 FM, on Sunday nights from 8 to 11 p.m. Shay has been at every folk festival since the event started in 1962.
“I don’t know how many other people are around who can say that,” he says in an interview from his home in the Philadelphia suburbs. “I’m possibly the only person in the world to be at every one of them.”
Shay is best known at the Philadelphia Folk Festival as an m.c. on the main stage, or what’s now called the Martin Guitar Stage, since the Nazareth, Pennsylvania-based guitar manufacturer donated a permanent stage to the Folk Song Society about 12 years ago. But in his early years, Shay served as co-chair and then chairman of the festival, back in 1962 and ’63.
“During the second festival, I saw Pete Seeger walking around with a short stocky guy who I later found out was George Wein. They wanted to see how a festival worked with volunteer security,” Shay says. Wein had recently started his annual Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, having had great success with his Newport Jazz Festival since the mid-1950s.
“I only went to Newport Folk Festival once,” Shay recalls, “but I remember they had Pinkerton guards as security, and they were known to be notoriously anti-union guys, which I didn’t think fit well with a folk festival, but that was years ago.”
“When we had our first Philly Folk Festival in 1962, we had kids with straw hats and some kind of armband, and they were young people like us who just loved the music,” he recalls.
After a few years in Paoli and one year at a ski resort area, the festival moved to its current home at the Old Pool Farm near Schwenksville.
“The biggest problem we had initially was with the township officials and people,” Shay recalls. “They thought we were a bunch of dirty hippies, and they didn’t want to see black guys dating white girls. And it wasn’t until we got wise, after a few years there, we said to the local firefighters, ‘Why don’t you guys sell some hamburgers here at the festival?’ and they sold their hamburgers and made a lot of money and we did the same for the ladies’ auxiliaries.”
Once these local civic organizations in Upper Salford saw how much money could be made in one weekend at the festival, “suddenly, we were very much welcomed. And now, the neighbors all welcome it and many of them have yard sales during the event, and they all get free tickets if they want to attend.”
Shay recalls how Pete Seeger played the first Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1962 and then mailed his $150 check back to the organizers with a letter, saying simply, “why don’t you use this money for your next festival?”
“In those days, everybody was listed in alphabetical order and every performer got $150. If they did one workshop, they’d get $50 extra, if they did two workshops, $100 extra,” Shay recalls. “But the fact that we got a few hundred people out to a small farm in Paoli was enough to put us on the map.”
As older patrons of the festival realize they can’t stand the sometimes intense heat at the site or do the kind of walking they used to do, organizers have tweaked things to allow a more comfortable festival experience. Four years ago, organizers added a beer garden at the top of the hill that overlooks the main stage, and patrons can find shade and a beer there during the day, or a beer there at night while still being able to pay attention to the music on the main stage.
One thing longtime patrons have asked for are longer set times. So this year, the festival will showcase fewer performers, but their set times will be longer, at least on the Martin Guitar Stage. This year’s Saturday night Martin stage lineup includes the Holmes Brothers, Wanda Jackson, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and the Dukes, John Hiatt and the Combo, Little Feat, and Mike Cross, a guitar and violin virtuoso from North Carolina, from 4 p.m. to midnight.
Patrons requested an earlier end time on Sundays, and for the last six years the Sunday program has concluded at 9:30 p.m.
“Another thing that’s interesting this year is a lot of the bigger artists like John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Earle are bringing in their own sound engineers and their own sound boards,” Shay says. He has filled the increased set-up time between performers with archival videos from past Philly Folk Festivals.
“I’ve got three or four hours’ worth of ‘tweener videos’ and we’ll be playing these videos between sets. That adds a certain amount of depth to the festival,” he says.
“This is a stronger and more comprehensive lineup than I can recall in recent years and there really is a little bit of every kind of music in the lineup this year.”
51st Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, Old Pool Farm, Upper Salford Township, Pennsylvania. Friday to Sunday, August 17 to 19. John Hiatt and the Combo, Lucinda Williams, Mike Cross, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, Voices of the Wetlands All-Stars with Tab Benoit and Cyril Neville, Cedric Burnside, Big George Brock, Steve Earle and the Dukes, Wanda Jackson, Little Feat, Holmes Brothers, Tracy Grammer, Mary Gauthier, Red Clay Ramblers, others. See the full schedule online. All festival tickets: $145. Friday only: $65. Saturday only: $89. Sunday only: $79. 800-556-3655 or www.pfs.org/folk-festival.
Directions from Route 1 South: Take I-95 to Route 1 South in Pennsylvania, then take I-276 West to Exit 20 and merge onto I-476 North to Exit 31. Follow PA-63 West. Make a right on Shelly Road and a left on Salford Station Road. Approximate driving time: 90 minutes.