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This article by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
August 26, 1998. All rights reserved.
Philadelphia’s Folk Smorgasbord
Back in the 1980s, taking a leisurely, Monday morning
drive back from the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which I’ve attended
every August since 1984, I stopped in to see my friend Peter Price,
co-owner of John and Peter’s in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He said then
that for some people around New Hope, the annual musical gathering
at the Old Pool Farm in Schwenksville was "like the second coming
While there’s a bit of hyperbole there, it’s widely known that the
annual gathering at the natural, hillside amphitheater consistently
attracts upwards of 30,000 patrons. It also attracts an international
field of musicians and groups, as well as managers, artist agents,
festival booking agents, journalists, and radio DJs from the region,
the nation, and as far away as Europe.
For thousands of festival volunteers and diehard fans, the weeks
up to the event are almost as important as the event itself. Beginning
in early August, the anticipation for the event begins to build for
many patrons who attend year after year. Then, once it is underway,
the attraction of a range of music on four separate stages, transforms
the quiet farm hillside into a sea of humanity for three straight
days. And it always seems to end too quickly.
The Philadelphia Folk Festival was where I first got the chance to
meet and hang out with great blues and folk musicians, some of them
gone now: Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, John Hammond, Dave Van Ronk, Elizabeth
Cotten, Albert Collins, Junior Wells, David Amram, Katie Webster,
Dave Peabody from London, and quite literally, dozens of others. As
a listener, writer, and radio blues show host, the Philadelphia Folk
Festival has proved invaluable as a place to network and set up
This year’s Philadelphia Folk Festival lineup is once again a superb
smorgasbord of musicians and groups to suit every taste — be it
bluegrass, blues, contemporary, or traditional folk. The great
and singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie returns to the stage this year,
along with Chicago blues belter Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine.
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a guitar player and violinist
from southwest Louisiana, will perform his unique blend of swamp blues
and Cajun music, and singer and songwriter Josh White Jr. is also
As a reflection of the burgeoning folk scene, there
will be plenty of cutting edge, up-and-coming, singer-songwriters
and groups. These include Slaid Cleaves from Austin, Texas, the Nields
from Northampton, Massachusetts, Eddie From Ohio (the quartet from
Virginia), Annie Wenz, Louise Taylor, and many more. Established
crowd pleasers — including Arlo Guthrie, Christine Lavin, and
Tom Paxton — will perform both on the main stage and on the
informal workshop stages.
This year, appearing at the festival for the first time in about 30
years, is musicologist, historian, and musician "Philadelphia"
Jerry Ricks. Featured at the second Philadelphia Folk Festival of
1963, Ricks was part of the festival’s early years. A major influence
on the acoustic blues guitarist, singer-songwriter, and storyteller
Guy Davis, Ricks’ set is certain to be loaded with as many great
and anecdotes as it is with great songs.
The festival runs Friday, August 28, from 2:30 p.m. to midnight; and
Saturday and Sunday, August 29 and 30, from 11 a.m. to midnight. Extra
attractions include a children’s stage for young listeners, food
and a music sales booth that offers hard-to-find music by an array
of folk and blues performers.
The Philadelphia Folk Festival is a unique event, and thankfully,
one that’s been going strong for 37 years. Probably it will go on
for another 137 years. The festival’s history and legacy is rich and
varied, and pre-dates most of today’s patrons, who range in age from
toddlers to nonagenarians. True, the older fans may have trouble
one festival from another, since, after four or five years of annual
attendance, the years and sounds tend to blend together. And although
the younger ones may not know it yet, they’re part of our living,
breathing folk music tradition.
No, it may not be the second coming of Christ, but the Philly Folk
Fest is a time and place where new friendships are made, old
are renewed, and new and old songs are sung. And all these things
are part of the rich texture of the folk music continuum.
— Richard Skelly
Folksong Society, Old Pool Farm, Upper Salford (near Schwenksville),
Pennsylvania, 800-556-FOLK. $23 to $49. Friday, Saturday, and
August 28 to 30.
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