Philly Folk Festival returns in person for 60th anniversary

Margo Price performs with her band at the Philadelphia Folk Festival

File photo: Margo Price performs with her band at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 2019. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

The four-day Philadelphia Folk Festival returns entirely in person this week, beginning Thursday for campers. Ticketed concerts on seven stages run Friday through Sunday.

This is the 60th anniversary of the festival, calculated by its own math.

First held in 1962, there have already been 60 festivals since then, making the Philly Folk America’s longest-running outdoor music festival. But the last two were held virtually due to the pandemic.

The 60th anniversary year would have been 2021, but instead the festival called that year the 59 ½ anniversary, because according to executive director Justin Nordell, a digital-only event doesn’t really count.

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“The Philadelphia Folk Festival is all about community, and not being able to bring our full community together doesn’t feel like an anniversary,” said Nordell. “We’re the oldest continuously run outdoor music festival in all of North America, I feel like we can make the rules and break the rules.”

Fans of Philly Folk tend to come out in larger numbers during landmark anniversary years. Whether because of the nice round number “60” or the return of the festival from a two-year hiatus, Nordell said ticket sales this year are the best since he became director in 2015.

The event at the Old Poole Farm near will be the same size and stature of festivals of the past, with seven stages, 80 acres of campground for mingling, and artisans. The noticeable changes will be hand sanitizing stations, more frequent cleaning, and construction fencing around the perimeter.

In years past the boundary of the grounds had been marked with plastic mesh snow fencing, which Nordell said is flimsy and not secure enough.

“Times have changed in the last two years. Safety is one of the most paramount things according to festival-goer surveys,” he said. “Our rules involve no ground fires, no fireworks, no firearms, to make sure that everybody is safe and secure. That’s one of the most important things to us.”

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The lineup includes artists that have previously appeared in every decade of the festival, including older acts like Happy Traum, Tom Rush and Jim Kweskin. Headliners include the modern bluegrass band the Punch Brothers, the husband and wife soul duo The War and Treaty, and guitarist and rapper Michael Franti with his fusion of hip hop, reggae, and folk.

One of the more surprising headliners for a folk festival is Arrested Development, the group from Atlanta, Georgia, who were a trailblazing hip hop band in the 1990s. They will perform on Saturday night.

It may not always sound like traditional folk music, but Nordell says the festival’s definition of folk has evolved over the last 60 years.

“Folk music has always been about the marriage, or the divorce, of storytelling and musicality. But the stories we listen to have really, really changed,” he said. “We’re inviting storytellers of all different shapes, sizes, races, gender identities and people from all over the world. We have people coming from South Korea, from Finland to share their stories with us. Those are incredibly wonderful, unique sounds that we haven’t been able to share before.”

During the pandemic the festival developed a robust digital platform that enabled it to present live streaming performances when audiences had to stay at home. It also made available its extensive archive of recorded performances, both audio and video, from decades of previous festivals.

Nordell said the festival is continuing with that commitment to digital content. Festival goers — either onsite or at home — can buy a digital pass that gives them unlimited access to both live and archival performances for the month of August. During the festival the live streams from all seven stages will be recorded and released as on-demand videos the following day.

“Digital access is something that was a dream even before the pandemic,” he said. “We have 63 countries where people have signed up to watch the digital festival so far this year, the furthest away being three people in Japan.”

Much of the appeal of the Philly Folk Festival is the activity that happens off stage in the campgrounds, where strangers socialize and spontaneous jam sessions erupt, which can only happen at an in-person festival.

Nordell discovered some fans have developed a hunger for the festival’s digital offerings, as the month-long digital pass went live on August 1.

“At 12:01 A.M. we had someone on the site hitting refresh,” said Nordell. “I could watch it from the back end.”

The Philadelphia Folk Festival runs from Thursday to Sunday at the Old Poole Farm near Schwenksville, PA. Single-day tickets for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday range from $70 – $85 (adult), $45 – $52.50 (youth 12-17), and $8 for children 4 – 11. Children under 4 are free.

All-festival passes, without camping, range from $199 (adults), $120.50 (youth), to $10 (child).

Camping passes range from $254 (adult), $148 (youth), to $20 (child). There will be a small lineup of performances on Thursday night for campers.

The all-access digital pass is $65.

The festival offers a variety of add-on costs for RVs, reserved parking, and reserved seating.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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