One of the factors that makes the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival the well-oiled machine that it is, is its volunteers. One volunteer who’s been involved with the Folksong Society since the birth of the festival in 1961 is Gene Shay, who has been playing folk and blues music on the radio in Philadelphia for 40 of the last 46 years. Shay also has a tremendous influence on the three-person committee who books the festival and was helpful in getting Jackson Browne to last year’s festival. Shay has been playing folk and blues music on the radio in Philadelphia for 40 of the last 46 years. He has also worked at a number of Philadelphia-based advertising agencies, allowing him the extra time and money to devote to volunteering for various other concerts the society puts on throughout the year in the greater Philadelphia area.
In recent years, the Philadelphia Folk Festival – which takes place this year from Friday to Sunday, August 17 to 19, on Old Poole Farm in Schwenksville, PA – has been tweaking and adjusting all sorts of things. "There’s a larger wooden dance floor now in the campgrounds and you can go over there and enjoy the campground concerts without its disturbing what’s going on at the main stage," Shay says in an interview from his home in suburban Philadelphia. Other improvements to the festival include healthier food offerings and parking packages.
The festival promoters have also sought out the slightly younger audience that can bear the heat and the ups and downs of mid-August weather. As one who’s attended nearly two dozen festivals, I can tell you, you’ll need to pack rain gear and bring long pants or a jacket for the evening concerts, because it often gets quite cool in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania.
Performers at this year’s Philadelphia Folk Festival include Son Volt, Bettye LeVette, Mavis Staples, Doc Watson, Sam Bush, Jonathan Edwards, Vance Gilbert, John Flynn and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, among more than 40 other individual artists or groups. The festival begins Friday, August 17, at 2:30 and ends on Sunday, August 19, at 9:30 p.m.
Another bell and whistle that’s new is the VIP area. "We’ve made it possible for patrons to come to the festival now to pay a little extra money and have a special VIP seating area and the chance to go backstage with their favorite performers," Shay says, "and so far, the program is working. Many older people with a little extra money to spend are willing to do this. The number of VIP tickets is limited but a lot of people are taking advantage of it."
For the younger audience, there’s Son Volt and the Carolina Chocolate Drops but for the older audience, there’s gospel great Mavis Staples and blues and bluegrass guitarist extraordinaire, Doc Watson. Shay notes that when the festival hosted Jackson Browne last year it brought a lot of non-folkies into the event. In the process, some of them may have discovered they really are "folkies" at heart. "Of course, we’d love to get Bruce Springsteen," Shay adds, "but that’s probably a few years off yet."
This year, the festival will host author Clay Eals, who wrote a book about Chicago-based singer, songwriter, and guitarist Steve Goodman, who died from leukemia in the 1980s, and was a frequent performer at the festival.
Shay, a founding member of the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance, says one of the key drawing points of the festival is the chance to see groupings of musicians you wouldn’t see elsewhere. "One thing about it that makes it unique is the number of improvised jams that nobody expects. One year, Steve Goodman brought David Bromberg on stage to jam with him. Another year John Hartford brought Tommy Smothers on during his show. These kinds of things are memorable. We surveyed our audience and found out it’s those type of one-of-a-kind jams that only happen when the chemistry is there.
Shay says that in the volunteer department they also "tend to be more gentle. I remember going to the Newport Folk Festival years ago and seeing Pinkerton guards everywhere. You won’t get that at the Philly Folk Festival."
While there are certain traditions at the festival, like Shay’s corny jokes and the big sweep to get patrons out of the festival site on Sunday afternoon before the evening concert so that trash may be picked up, longtime patrons like some of these traditions. "This year, instead of telling so many corny jokes, I’ve culled some video snippets from our archives," Shay says, "so patrons will get to see, on the big video screens, how thin David Bromberg was back in the 1970s and some other vintage footage we dug up out of our archives. Not that many organizations and festivals have the kind of archives that we do. We have a video of a young Janis Ian doing `At 17,’ and she does this complicated guitar run, and when she finishes, she says, `I was worried about that.’ "
Shay recalls the very first Philly Folk Festival as if it were yesterday, back in September, 1961. "There were perhaps 500 people there but we made enough money. Once Pete Seeger agreed to do the show, we were elated, we were all jumping around. We paid him $150 for his performance, but then, two weeks later, he sent the check back in the mail, saying, `Use this money to keep it going.’"
46th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, Friday through Sunday, August 17 to 19, Old Poole Farm, Schwenksville, PA. www.pfs.org or 215-247-1300.