Philly Folk Fest goes online, for both music and camping

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Llama camper Matt Diamondstein plays guitar in Robert Bralows backyard

Robert Bralow set up a campsite in his backyard in Westchester, New York. Bralow is streaming the online festival and fellow Llama campers. Pictured is Llama camper Matt Diamondstein playing guitar, and Bralow's sons Owen and Andrew. (Courtesy of Mike Bralow)

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If this were a normal year, people would be driving vans, U-Hauls and RVs to the Old Pool Farm in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, this week to set up tents in the mud for three days of live music and, for many, late-summer bliss. But not this year.

Although stymied by COVID-19, the oldest continuously operated folk festival in America will go on for the 59th time, virtually.

The all-digital Philadelphia Folk Festival will feature three online stages of continuous live performances streamed from around the world. Some artists — particularly those in Canada, South Korea and Scotland — will be performing from performance centers in their home countries. Most of the other artists will be streaming themselves from wherever they are, with technical assistance from the festival’s partner, Mountain View Staging, to ensure the quality of the production.

About 35,000 people usually attend the festival over four days. In anniversary years, attendance can climb to more than 50,000. About 7,000 people typically put stakes in the ground and stay the whole weekend.

This year, the Old Pool Farm gets a break.

“We’re not using the Pool farm at all, which is saddening for a lot of people,” said Justin Nordell, director of the Philadelphia Folksong Society, which puts on the festival. “The fact of the matter is, it’s a working farm. If we don’t need it to put on the festival, they will continue to use the farm.”

Like many festivalgoers, Nordell is a lifelong “festie.” He first attended as a 4-month-old and has returned every year. He’s now 34; this will be his 35th festival.

“The thought of not being able to set foot on the Old Pool Farm this year has frankly brought tears to my eyes,” he said.

In an attempt to recreate the festival experience online, Nordell arranged to allow festivalgoers to camp online. Ticketholders can register themselves as campsites via Zoom and form groups with other “campers.” People can go to the festival website and wander through campsites and drop in to visit. Campsites can be open to anyone who wanders by in cyberspace, or restricted to only invited friends.

Normally, the campground is an entire ecosystem separate from the festival’s music stages. Over generations, devoted attendees have developed a system of group campsites where dozens of people cluster together with names like Azzoles, Aurora Borealis, F.L.I.D.S., Festicles, Mermaids, Canada, the Llamas, etc.

Some larger campsites are stages for impromptu jam sessions, but most are circles of friends that widen each year they return.

“I’m gonna be honest — there are some people that never go to see music,” said Nordell. “They are just there for their festival family, to be with the people they love, the people they get a lot of support from.”

Llama campsite at Philly Folk Fest
The Llamas are pictured at their campsite before the coronavirus pandemic dramatically altered the landscape of live entertainment. (Courtesy of Mike Bralow)

The Llamas, for example, is a group of about 25 people that started sometime in the 1990s.

“I couldn’t even tell you. It’s been at least 20 years,” said Mike Bralow, 31, of Philadelphia’s Point Breeze neighborhood. The Llamas often get together outside of the festival, sometimes gathering after Thanksgiving to have their own “Llamagiving.”

It was Bralow’s brother Robert who really got the Llamas started, and who will ultimately pass it onto the next generation.

“My brother has two kids who we call ‘crias,’ the word for baby llama,” said Bralow.

This year Bralow will join his brother, nephews and other Llamas online at their digital campsite. Robert, in Westchester, New York, has set up a physical campsite in his backyard where he and his sons will be sleeping outside, running an ethernet cable from the house so they can stream the festival on a laptop.

Llama campsite at Philly Folk Fest
The Llama campsite is pictured pre-coronavirus times. (Courtesy of Mike Bralow)

Mike normally takes the week off work to be at the festival, and even takes a few days off the following week to recuperate from camping. This year he bought a three-day pass for the digital festival, but it’s not the same.

“I’m still working full-time this week,” he said. “I work anywhere from my computer, so I can have the music on in the background. Other than that I’m working my usual hours.”

Steve Polsz in 1996 started the Grok campsite by hanging a bedsheet, painting on it purple letters reading “Grok the Fest,” and asking anyone passing by to sign it. It became an annual tradition, which has been passed down to his stepdaughter, Diana Esposito.

“I have taken the baton,” said Esposito, who says her parents have not been able to “Grok” for the last several years.

“While they wish they could physically camp at Grokfest, they can’t,” said Esposito. “One of the joys of this year is they can sit in their apartment and enjoy all the music of Fest without some of the other complications.”

Diana Esposito and her family
Diana Esposito and her family are pictured in their backyard this summer alongside the original 1996 Grok campsite banner. (Courtesy of Diana Esposito)

The word “Grok” was coined by Robert A. Heinlein in his 1961 science fiction novel “Stranger in a Strange Land.” It means to know something so well it becomes instinctual, or, more profoundly, to lose one’s individuality by merging into a larger group experience.

As a girl, Esposito used to be known as the “Kiss Girl” because she ran around the campground handing out chocolate Hershey’s Kisses. That is still her moniker, but now, as an ordained minister, she’s known as “Reverend Kiss.”

Esposito is raising her own kids as Groks. Her daughter, now 8, has attended every folk festival since she was in utero.

“I count it as a festival for her because she chose which band to dance to,” Esposito said. “She very vigorously kicked, almost as if she was dancing, to two bands: Full Frontal Folk and Tempest.”

Esposito says her daughter still listens to Full Frontal Folk to this day.

Ian Thomson-Hohl at the Grok campsite in 2012
Ian Thomson-Hohl at the Grok campsite in 2012. (Courtesy of Diana Esposito)

The original singer for Full Frontal Folk, to whom that fetus was dancing, was Courtney Malley. For years Malley had been both a performer at the festival with various bands and a camper at the Canada and Mermaids campsites. This year she will be a virtual camper to hang out with friends online, but not to listen to the music.

Malley has lost a significant amount of her hearing. She is still able to hear music, but not lyrics. While the experience of live music holds her interest, streaming music online does not.

“For me, a virtual festival will be none of the parts I enjoy the most: sitting on the hill with my friends and family experiencing the music and working my volunteer shifts with all the camaraderie that brings,” Malley wrote in an email. “But it will still be a shared experience, and in a time of pandemic we have to do what we must do.”

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