The 50th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival begins this week

The Philadelphia Folk Festival hits the half-century mark this year. The 50th annual festival takes place August 19-21 at the Old Poole Farm in Upper Salford PA near Schwenksville. The Mt. Airy-based organizers say that the festival will honor the traditions it has represented over those fifty years, as well as offering cutting-edge contemporary entertainment with a nod to the future.

Concerns that the festival might lose its core values and its connection to the musical tradition that first launched it—which arose a few years ago as the festival expanded its musical scope—have never really materialized. The folk scene and the music scene in general have grown substantially since Bob Dylan was booed for playing with an electric band at the Newport Folk Festival forty-six years ago.

Indeed the notion of “folk music” has always been somewhat of an invention of the music business, fostered by the growth of the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Woody Guthrie never referred to himself as a “folk singer” until he settled in New York City and became part of the folk revival there. Lisa Schwartz, President of the Philadelphia Folksong Society and the person most responsible for promoting the festival, says “If you ask eight people to give you the definition of folk music, you’ll get nine different, distinct answers.”


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Arlo Guthrie returns

Still there are artists who will always be classified as “folk,” such as Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie, who will be making his sixth appearance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival this year. His enduring classic “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” will always remind those who were around in the 1960s of those heady times, with the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, hippies, new age consciousness, and the search for new kinds of meaning in life, as well as some ways of speaking that evoke laughter these days (“I was rappin’ with the fuzz,” and such). Arlo Guthrie is now a Republican, though not of the Tea Party flavor, and is the patriarch himself of the musical Guthrie family, with his daughters Sarah Lee Guthrie and Cathy Guthrie and son Abe Guthrie all making music now.


Other featured artists

In addition to Guthrie there are plenty of other performers from the old guard of the folk revival and the festival itself, including the two Toms, Paxton and Rush. Paxton is the writer of enduring favorites including “The Last Thing On My Mind,” and “Ramblin’ Boy,” and Rush still has that magic touch that makes every song he does, from old Bukka White blues numbers to early Joni Mitchell and James Taylor songs his own. The two Davids, Bromberg and Amram, will also be playing this year. Both are natives of the area. Amram’s fusion of musical styles from around the world and disregard for stylistic borders may just be “folk” in the truest sense.

Among the new breed of singer-songwriters is Dan Bern, who sometimes spoofs Bob Dylan and older folkies, though much of his material is sharply political and loaded with present-day social commentary. At 46, Bern is only relatively new. The David Wax Museum, whose music revolves around the twin axes of David Wax’s Mexican influences and Suz Slezak’s old-time and Celtic bent, is a young and exciting example of “performance folk.” Elizabeth Butters, a young guitarist, singer, and dulcimer player from the Boston area, dresses in previous-turn-of-the-century attire and sings in a truly unadorned manner, as one might imagine people sang and passed along songs to family and friends before the days of recording.

With six stages, and music ranging from the “sacred steel” guitars of the Campbell Brothers, to Trombone Shorty’s funky brass band, from Celtic music by Burning Bridget Cleary and folk-rockers Tempest, to the intimate harmonies of the young duo acts Dala and Madison Violet, the fact is that no one will be able to see all of the music at this festival – – but there should be something for everyone. There will be children’s activities in “Dulcimer Grove” and a chance for kids to join an instant band, and workshops on everything from blues music to composting.


The facilities

Camping, always popular, is available in two flavors, the traditional camping with late-night jamming, and quiet camping for those who actually want to sleep. Shower facilities and even an ATM will be available, so you can buy artists’ CDs.


This year’s MC is…

WXPN’s folk host Gene Shay will be the MC, as he has been for all forty-nine preceding festivals. Be prepared for a few cringe-inducing jokes; it wouldn’t be the Philadelphia Folk Festival without them, and no one is better suited to introduce the diverse musicians performing than this tireless, lifelong promoter of folk music, whatever forms it takes.

Jonny Meister is the host of WXPN’s Blues & Beyond and The Blues Show.


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