Gene Shay, legendary folk music radio host and co-founder, in 1962, of the equally legendary Philadelphia Folk Festival, is looking forward to another summer picnic. The "Godfather of Philly Folk Music," is returning for his 42nd year as host and emcee of the singing, strumming, and yodeling music festival that has touched audiences numbering in the tens of thousands.
This year Shay’s favorite picnic will provide no less than 50 folk, world, and roots music groups offering 22 hours of homemade music over three days. It’s a Philadelphia neighborhood blowout that lures back former residents and also draws long-established folksong constituencies from New Jersey, Bucks County, and the Lehigh Valley.
The 42nd edition of the Philadelphia Folk Festival unfolds Friday, August 22, through Sunday, August 24, at the Old Pool Farm near Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. Ani DiFranco, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Loudon Wainwright III, and Kathleen Edwards are among this year’s top attractions, with support from Terri Hendrix, BeauSoleil, Todd Snider, Eddie From Ohio, the Holmes Brothers, Odetta, and Mark Erelli.
"I never get tired of it," says Shay in a phone interview. "It’s an annual fete held at the end of every summer by Philadelphians for Philadelphians. It’s like a family reunion in a way — I get to see all my friends, meet my listeners, and see performers I might not have heard live before. They come to me on my own turf and we have lunch together out under a tree."
Shay’s four decades of dedication, preservation, and promotion of folk music — not only in Philadelphia, but around the country — were saluted this spring with a sold-out all-star concert in his honor and a special commendation by the Philadelphia Music Alliance.
Shay says the festival is founded on but not bounded by folk traditions. Philadelphia one of the nation’s oldest and most prolific music capitals. Its folk scene is rivaled only by Boston’s. "These are not relics," he reminds us. "It’s fluid and in motion — a work in progress."
What makes the Philadelphia folk music scene so strong?
"One reason is the Philadelphia Folksong Society, producer of the folk festival" Shay explains. The Folksong Society, founded 45 years ago, provides lots of services including a regular monthly concert series one Sunday each month from October to June at the Germantown Academy Art Center in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania.
Shay says revenues from the non-profit, all-volunteer folk festival reinforces the Folksong Society by pumping money back into the community. Its activities range from awarding scholarships in folklore research to hiring folksingers to perform at hospitals, retirement homes, and community centers. "It’s a cyclical thing that helps feeds the community," he says.
"The other reason is my show. Not too many major cities have a folk music radio show that has been on the radio for 42 years." In January 1998, Shay expanded his weekly program, broadcast on University of Pennsylvania’s popular WXPN station, from two to four hours. It airs from 4 to 8 p.m. on Sundays.
Shay and longtime folk music activist Carl Apter are the friends and partners behind the Sliced Bread Record label, a label which specializes in singer-songwriter and folk music. Although both the Folksong Society and the festival are not-for-profit, the label is for profit. "But we haven’t made one yet."
At this point Shay reminds us of the old folkie joke:
Question: How do make a million dollars in the folk music business?
Answer: You start with two million.
Shay says he finds that isolated communities provide the most fertile ground for the birth of original folk songs. These communities might be rural hideaways or they might also be an army barracks, a prison, or a kids summer camp. Shay says those summer camp songs and "zipper songs" — songs where you put in your own words — are typical of the ways groups of people get to sing about what’s on their mind.
Traditional song has long been the poor citizen’s way of speaking truth to power. Laments and songs of protest date way back. They gathered a head of steam during Europe’s industrial revolution when miners and textile workers found themselves trapped in hard, repetitive labor, faced with an unequal balance of power. He cites "Pay Day at Coal Creek," written by a miner early in the 20th century, as an example of a classic protest song.
What ever happened to the protest songs of the 1960s?
"At the end of the Vietnam War protest music was on the wane," he replies. "Even Phil Ochs was so upset with the fact that he had lost his raison d’etre that he took up drinking and that led to his suicide." The war’s end began another cycle of complacency, like the one in the 1950s when college kids were only worrying about their careers. "But there’s always plenty to protest against," Shay adds. "Nowadays things are picking up again."
Anne Hills, John McCutcheon, and Tom Paxton are among those who have written topical protest songs for the 21st century, including Paxton’s new one about "Homeland Security."
At the Folk Festival, veteran folksinger and civil rights activist Odetta is among the featured artists. So is alternative music’s success story Ani DiFranco.
"Ani DiFranco has a lot to protest about," says Shay. "She sees things before we see them. She saw how the record companies were treating their own people and she herself avoided that whole scene."
Every era has some songs that outlast all the others, songs Shay called the anthems of their day. "I find that some of the best protest songs are the ones that are comedic — you can get bogged down in misery."
Take the Country Joe and the Fish 1967 anthem, "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag":
And it’s one, two, three What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, Next stop is Vi-et-nam.
"That song will last and last," he says. "You’ll find it in every documentary that will ever be made about the war." Although Shay notes that "today’s world is more fragmented and scared, and we don’t known who are enemies are," he still recognizes that the next timeless anthem could be born at any moment.
This year’s festival opens Friday, August 22, at 11 a.m., with hands-on workshops, followed by a showcase concert featuring Pieta Brown with Bo Ramsey, Mark Erelli, Terri Hendrix, Magpie, Xavier Rudd, the Run of the Mill String Band, and Todd Snider.
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys headline Friday evening’s concert, starting at 7:30 p.m., along with Baka Beyond, Sons of the San Joaquin, Tempest, Loudon Wainwright III, Plena Libre, Dennis Hangey, and Roger Deitz.
Mary Chapin Carpenter is featured in a Saturday afternoon concert at 4 p.m., along with the Alison Brown Quartet.
Internationally-renowned blues and gospel artist Odetta and BeauSoleil with Michael Doucet are showcased Saturday evening at the 7:30 p.m. concert, along with Bob Brozman and Led Kaapana, Eddie from Ohio, Fourtold, the Holmes Brothers, and Magie.
The final concert, beginning Sunday at 4 p.m., features Ani DiFranco, Kathleen Edwards (one of Rolling Stone’s "Ten to Watch in 2003"), Disappear Fear, Bob Fanke, John Gorka, Nerissa & Katryna Nields, Pinmonkey, and April Verch. This year the Sunday concert ends two hours earlier than in previous years to help festival-goers get back to their schools and day jobs on Monday.
The festival also sponsors three days of workshops and dancing, along with children’s activities, crafts demonstrations, juggling, and storytelling. Campers can spend the weekend at the event in the Festival campgrounds, jamming, and joining a large campfire sing after each concert.
The Philadelphia Folk Festival is closer to Shay’s heart than any of the many others he visits and works across the land. Most importantly, he says, this festival has "a certain sense of community and humanity about it."
"There’s enough intolerance, bigotry, greed, and selfishness in the world," says Shay. "Thank God there are musicians who are willing to stand up and say something about it. Music’s so much more delightful than speechmaking."
Philadelphia Folk Festival , Old Pool Farm, Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, 800-556-3655. The 42nd annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, a three-day festival filled with music, dance, workshops, crafts, camping, storytelling, and children’s activities. Www.folkfest.org. Single day’s admission $34 to $46; all-festival ticket $87. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, August 22-24, 11 a.m. to midnight.