The annual Philadelphia Folk Festival is getting “tweaked,” says emcee Gene Shay, in order to keep its core older audience but at the same time attract a younger audience for the three day extravaganza of traditional and contemporary folk, blues, alternative country and ethnic music. For example, this year, organizers have added a beer garden. Proceeds from beer sales will go directly to the Philadelphia Folksong Society, which puts on the annual event and a bevy of smaller concerts throughout the year.
Grammy Award winning folk singer Tom Paxton, 70, laughed in a phone interview last week from his home in Alexandria, VA, as he pointed out, “and they’re booking younger performers, like me!”
Paxton is among a handful of folk veterans who will return to the Old Pool Farm in Schwenksville, PA, at the three-day festival, Friday through Sunday, August 15 to 17, which ends Sunday night at 10 p.m., two hours earlier than its former closing time of midnight on Sunday. Other veteran musicians include Judy Collins, Al Stewart, and Janis Ian, who just released her autobiography.
Paxton’s memories about the festival date back to his first visit, the second or third year the festival was held. “Already, it was as big as the Newport Folk Festival, in terms of prestige,” Paxton says, “and it has remained one of the biggest folk festivals in the States. Along with Winnipeg in Canada, it’s one of the two biggest folk festivals in North America.
“From the beginning, what I loved about the festival was that they blended traditional people like Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson with singer-songwriters who were more contemporary,” he says. “So, many significant performers have broken out of there, like Dar Williams and Shawn Colvin. And I was there that year when Arlo Guthrie first blew the place apart in the late 1960s. This goes back many years, but I was there the night Archie Fisher, the Scottish folk singer, asked me if I thought he should do this song Eric Bogle had written, called ‘Waltzing Matilda.’ That was the first time that song was ever played in North America, and you can’t believe the impact the song had that night.”
Reminded that none other than his highness, Bob Dylan, came to the festival one year in the late ’60s, just to hang out, Paxton says, “when I played the Isle of Wight in 1969 in England, all the Beatles came down there just to hang out, so no, it doesn’t surprise me that Dylan would be there one year.”
Paxton, raised in Oklahoma, graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1959 with a BFA in drama. His father, who worked in chemical manufacturing, died when he was 10 and he was largely raised by his mother, a housewife.
“I wanted to become an actor,” says Paxton. “Thank God I became a folk singer instead, it’s much more secure. I went for the security of folk music!”
A guitarist, singer, and legendary songwriter, Paxton says he was a ham from the time he was in first grade, when he played Uncle Sam in a school play and he basked in the applause of a young audience. “When they applauded, I thought, ‘I like this.’”
At the dawn of the 1960s folk-blues renaissance Paxton was attending basic training in the Army at Fort Dix and began to hang out at coffee houses in Greenwich Village. “I got involved in the Village in 1960 when it was all just beginning to happen,” he says, “and that led to my playing other coffee houses around the country, but the Gaslight is where I really got started, along with people like Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Phil Ochs, Eric Anderson, and Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary. We were all there together.”
Paxton made his recording debut in 1964 for the Elektra Records label, which would quickly grow in the 1960s and ’70s to be one of the dominant rock ‘n’ roll record companies.
“I did make a record in 1962, but it was just a private thing recorded at the Gaslight. My first album, ‘Ramblin Boy,’ was produced by Paul Rothschild, who produced the Doors and Janis Joplin later on,” he says.
Today, Paxton records for Pennsylvania-based label Apple Seed Records, run by lawyer Jim Musselman. Paxton’s “Comedians and Angels” was released in February of this year. The album was produced by Nashville-based producer Jim Rooney, who Paxton first met in Cambridge, MA, in 1961. Over the years, Paxton’s songs have been recorded by a wide spectrum of folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll musicians, including Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, and others.
Paxton says his last appearance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival was about five years ago. “I’ve been too busy touring to play the festival for a while, and this year they’re going to have me lead a Topical Song Workshop Saturday morning at 11 a.m. We’ll see who’s awake at that hour,” he says. “I’m going to be joined by my friend David Massengill for that. The workshops are really the heart and soul of the Philly Folk Festival. All through the day you’ll see thousands of people on the hillside, checking out these workshops — musicians talking about how they do what they do and why they do things the way they do.”
47th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, Friday through Sunday, August 15 to 17, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Old Pool Farm, Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. Performers include Tom Paxton, Kathy Mattea, James Keelaghan, the Lee Boys, David Massengill, Judy Collins, Janis Ian, Trout Fishing in America, Michael Doucet and Beausoleil, and Al Stewart. $30 day pass; $142 weekend pass. 800-556-FOLK (3655) or www.folkfest.org.