Philadelphia Folk Festival co-founder Jeanette Yanks dies

The Philadelphia Folksong Society (PFS), along with the tens of thousands of fans of its annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, has lost one of its most dedicated supporters.

Jeanette Yanks died Monday, June 25, during a trip to Cleveland at the age of 84. No one from the PFS could confirm her age but the Cleveland funeral home Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz listed her age as 84 on its website.

Yanks and her late husband, Howard Yanks, co-founded the Philadelphia Folksong Society (PFS) in West Mt. Airy in 1957. A funeral was held Sunday in Southampton, Pa.

Yanks didn’t view reaching her eighties as any reason to cut back on her work supporting PFS’s many programs. Now, her loss is keenly felt by PFS staffers accustomed to seeing her every day. “There was a surreal quality to the day. We all kept looking at each other, like, where’s Jeanette?” said PFS President Lisa Schwartz.

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According to Schwartz, who now also serves as Chairman of Promotions and Marketing for the Folk Festival, a welcoming friendship for all ages was typical of Yanks. “She defied, not defined, her generation,” Schwartz insists, “because she refused to grow old. Nothing dated her. She loved the kids. She loved to be around music. Oh my God, did she love to laugh.”

Schwartz remembers Yanks claiming that she couldn’t carry a tune if it had a handle. Though neither of them were musicians, the Yanks’ love of music drew them to found PFS, which began life on a shoestring budget out of Howard’s insurance brokerage office.

“We love to say that PFS was basically a group of people who got together and just decided that this was something they could do,” Schwartz says. “They loved music and loved being around it, so why not? It’s all about moxie.”

Yanks quickly found myriad ways to support PFS and expand its programs. “For her, it was so holistic,” Schwartz says. Yanks not only chaired the Folk Festival ticketing committee as well as working onsite in the Festival’s ticketing office for decades: she worked tirelessly on many other PSF offerings, including annual programs like Fall Fling, Spring Thing, and the Cabin Fever Festival.

Though Yanks had no children of her own, Schwartz remembers that she was like a loving parent to everyone who knew her.

If Schwartz’s family members were ill, Yanks would call to ask about them. “That’s the kind of person she was,” Schwartz explains. “‘My boys in the office are working too hard’, she’d say, and she’d show up with sandwiches for them.”

“She bragged about all of us, and kept our clippings up on the fridge. When my career came around and I had the opportunity to be on the board [at PFS], she was behind me, clapping all the way.”

In 1974, Yanks founded Odyssey of American Music, the PFS program closest to her heart and perhaps her greatest legacy. With a vision to bring a music-infused curriculum to under-served schools without arts funding of their own, Yanks launched a program to bring professional folk musicians into the classrooms of the Delaware Valley.

“The Odyssey program is very, very, very important,” Yanks said in an interview with NewsWorks reporter Howard Pitkow at the 2010 Folk Festival. She made a point of visiting participating schools herself, and observed many of the musicians’ sessions.

“When I sit in the classroom and I watch those little children, their faces glow like a Christmas tree,” Yanks said of watching the kids in a close-up session with a professional musician. “I have countless letters in my file that came from superintendents of schools and from teachers, and they were the most precious letters you would ever want to get.”

Despite the program’s tiny budget, Yanks “had a way of being able to talk to very prominent musicians, and explain why they had to go into this under served school for whatever budget they had,” Schwartz says. “Jeanette was a stalwart. As long as she ran the program, no school was left out who wanted to join.”

Yanks’s passing was particularly sad for Schwartz, who had planned to bring Yanks onstage at this year’s Folk Festival to honor her for over fifty years of “tireless efforts and unbelievable determination.” Instead, Schwartz presented the certificate to Yanks’s surviving family last weekend.

Honoring Yanks in public was important to Schwartz. “It was never about her,” she says. “There was no ego with Jeanette.”

For Schwartz, proof of Yanks’s selfless dedication lies in the fact that none of the programs she helmed over the years are crippled by her absence. “She always made sure the committees stood on their own two feet,” Schwartz says. “While there will be a gaping hole, they will continue to function because of her diligence on this.”

It will take time to fully register losing Yanks: “it hasn’t hit most of us,” Schwartz admits. She says it’s going to be “devastating” when set-up for this year’s Folk Festival commences in August, and Yanks is not there.

“I love the Festival and I love the people,” Yanks said in 2010. “When my husband passed away from cancer, this was like a chosen family. They were so supportive and so good and so kind to me.”

“She was a grandmother to my son,” Schwartz says. “For him, it’s an always. She will always be here. She will always be in the ticket booth, smiling.”

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