Philadelphia Folk Festival preview

Weekend Jamboree
By: Daniel Shearer, TimeOFF August 16, 2001
The Philadelphia Folk Festival celebrates its 40th year Aug. 24-26 with a diverse mix of new and traditional music.

Longtime radio personality and Delaware Valley folk icon Gene Shay will host the Philadelphia Folk Festival in Schwenksville, Pa., Aug. 24-26. Mr. Shay helped found the event in 1962.
Longtime radio personality and Delaware Valley folk icon Gene Shay will host the Philadelphia Folk Festival in Schwenksville, Pa., Aug. 24-26. Mr. Shay helped found the event in 1962.

Shortly after sunrise on the last full weekend of August, the first of thousands of visitors gather at an old farm near Schwenksville, Pa., for an annual tradition.
The gates swing open as the William Tell Overture booms over the loudspeakers. Bogged down by bulky folding chairs and blankets, the crowd surges toward the stage. There’s no shortage of room, but a sizable group assembles early to stake their claim near the main stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, held this year Aug. 24-26. Blankets are usually respected as boundaries. Once they’re in place, the atmosphere relaxes.
“It’s so funny to watch these people try to maneuver to the front without hurting one another,” says Gene Shay, one of the festival founders and longtime radio host of The Folk Show, Sundays from 4-8 p.m. on WXPN 88.5-FM. “They want to run in and get the optimum spot, the best position on the hillside.”
Now in its 40th year, the three-day festival will draw an impressive collection of performers, among them, Judy Collins, Dave Van Ronk, Arlo Guthrie and his daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Tony Trischka, Janis Ian and Richie Havens. But that’s just the on-stage talent. One of the festival’s most charming aspects are groups of wandering musicians, visitors who bring folk instruments with a mission to mingle. As many as 5,000 people come to camp for the entire weekend, sharing music well into the night.
“Recent years, we’ve started a quiet camping area, far away from the regular camping zone,” Mr. Shay says. “There still are jam sessions, and there are still some people who do play drums, but the festival tries to dissuade people from heavy-duty percussion.
“That got out of hand over the years. Young people would bring bongos and congas, even sticks, and bang on anything, including port-o-pots. All night long it sounded like some sort of jungle gathering. The worst part about it was you couldn’t sleep, which was really annoying to volunteers who had to get up and work in the morning.”
Since the first festival, organized by the Philadelphia Folksong Society and held on a small farm near Paoli, Pa., in 1962, the event has grown to include a crafts festival, children’s activities and an extensive list of dance and performance workshops. Mr. Shay served as master of ceremonies for that first show, a role he’s repeated every year since then, including this year.

The three-day festival will draw an impressive collection of performers, Janis Ian among them.
The three-day festival will draw an impressive collection of performers, Janis Ian (above) among them.

“Here’s a little folksong society that only had $150 in our whole treasury,” Mr. Shay says. “We were going to put on a two-day festival, and we had to pay all the performers. We had to get food out there, rent toilets. It was a very nervous situation.
“We got Martin Guitar to help us out financially, at least to guarantee our losses, and then we started asking some performers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bobby Thompson, this street singer, Blind Gary Davis. But when Pete Seeger agreed to do the festival, we knew right away we were going to be a hit.”
C. F. Martin Co. has continued its funding for the event, financing construction of a larger stage for this year’s festival, which may draw 35,000 or more concert goers over the weekend. The event will also coincide with the release of a 40th Anniversary CD boxed set, distributed on Mr. Shay’s record label, Sliced Bread.
“The album is very much indicative of the festival spirit,” Mr. Shay says. “There are 58 performances by John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Forbert, some classic stuff. Nickel Creek, a hot new bluegrass band that will be at the festival again this year, they’re on the album, along with people like John Hartford, Mississippi John Hurt and also people like Eddie From Ohio, The Nields. There’s a great little piece with Arlo Guthrie, talking about his problems with the police in Philadelphia.”
Festival offerings have expanded over the years to include a broad stylistic mix. The Laura Love Band, a roots, folk and funk group, is back again this year, along with Celtic rockers Tempest, Irish fiddler Eileen Ivers and singer-songwriter Tom Rush. The high-energy Celtic group Whirligig tops the list of newcomers. Also expect performances from singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, the Tarbox Ramblers, an old-time music band, and an unusual electric-folk group, Groovelily.
“Groovelily came on my radio show about six months ago,” Mr. Shay says. “They do some traditional or folky things with their fiddle. They have a piece called ‘Gotham City Breakdown’ that has a nice feel to it. They’re young and vibrant, a band that could ultimately be rock ‘n’ roll superstars because they have the look for it and they know how to handle themselves with savvy.”
Groovelily’s lead singer, Valerie Vigoda, a classically trained violinist who at age 14 became the youngest woman ever admitted to Princeton University, thrashes her six-string electric fiddle with abandon. Her husband, Brendan Milburn, backs her on keyboard with Princeton native Gene Lewin, a Princeton High School graduate and P.U. alumnus, on drums.

Festival newcomers Groovelily, left to right, Gene Lewin, Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn, push the folk envelope with pop-influenced original tunes.
Festival newcomers Groovelily, left to right, Gene Lewin, Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn, push the folk envelope with pop-influenced original tunes.

Touring the folk festival circuit this year, Groovelily played the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival in June, closing the Friday night show after Peter, Paul & Mary. The band must have done something right, because festival promoters booked them for an encore performance next year.
“Peter and Paul kind of befriended us at Kerrville and are continuing to be involved with us in a helpful way,” Ms. Vigoda says. “I love playing festivals and the whole receptivity of the folk community. People don’t limit us to being traditional in any way.
“We definitely play pop music, and the respect that we’re getting from the folk community, I think, is just because we’re good songwriters. They listen to lyrics and pay attention.”
The band’s independently produced 12-song CD, Little Light, seems well positioned to land a record contract, a catchy mix of radio-friendly tunes with nods to the ska-pop band No Doubt, an immensely likable folk-reggae rendition of the ’80s ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is” complete with scat, and even hints at 20th century chamber music. The band has been around since 1994. In that time, Ms. Vigoda’s career has had boosts from tours with Tina Turner, Joe Jackson and Cher. She also hit the road in 1997 with pop-star Cyndi Lauper.
“Cyndi’s all about the drama of rock theater,” Ms. Vigoda says. “She would push me out into the audience and say over the microphone to 20,000 people, ‘This is Valerie. She’s from a classical music background and we’re gonna turn her into a rock ‘n’ roll rebel!’ Then she would drag me across the stage by my hair while I was doing the solo, or push me into the audience. I had to be shaking my booty out there, which was a totally new thing.”

WHILE GROOVELILY WALKS THE LINE between modern rock and folk, one of the festival’s other shining stars this year has remained traditional throughout his 40-year career. Since 1964, singer-songwriter Tom Paxton has been a regular at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

Topical singer-songwriter Tom Paxton first played the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1964.
Topical singer-songwriter Tom Paxton first played the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1964.

He’s the real deal, one of the most gifted artists from the ’60s folk revival. Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, John Denver, even Neil Diamond and Placido Domingo, have all recorded Mr. Paxton’s songs. He’ll perform on the first day of the show and will be part of several songwriting workshops throughout the weekend.
“I love teaching songwriting, if such a thing is possible,” Mr. Paxton says. “As my dear friend, the late Bob Gibson used to say, ‘You can’t steer a sailboat until it’s moving. The same would be true, I think, of a songwriter. You can coach a songwriter who’s already got a piece of work to show you.
“I’m always looking for simplicity and clarity. By the way, there’s no sin in songwriting I haven’t committed myself, so when I’m talking to people, I’m talking as someone who’s been there.”
Dozens of his tunes are now considered folk standards. “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” “My Lady’s a Wild, Flying Dove,” and “Ramblin’ Boy,” all have similar lazy picking patterns and crystal clear melodies. On the topical side, his ’60s anthem “Daily News” took aim at media-induced fears of communism, while “Yuppies in the Sky,” written in the early ’80s, slammed materialistic pursuits with gut-busting wit.
“I’m not a preacher,” he says. “I never was. Preachers tell you how you’re supposed to feel and think, and I don’t do that. I’m not afraid to make a point, but it’s my point. You’re free to interpret it any way you like.”
His music still carries a political edge, though, not all of it humorous. One of his more recent songs, “On the Road from Srebrenica,” discusses the slaughter in the Balkans.
“Talk about timely,” he says. “Just last week, one of the generals involved in that got sentenced to 46 years in the Hague tribunal for his complicity in that massacre. Believe me, the song’s not funny.”
Still, audiences always want to hear his classics, and he’s happy to oblige.
“I don’t mind doing the old songs any more than I would get tired of singing ‘I Ride an Old Paint,’ ” Mr. Paxton says. “If the song was good to begin with, it’s still good. There’s nothing that I sing from the old days that I’m embarrassed about. The songs that embarrass me I no longer sing, but they don’t happen to be the best songs. ‘The Last Thing on My Mind,’ ‘Ramblin’ Boy,’ ‘Bottle of Wine,’ ‘I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,’ I still enjoy singing all of them.”

The Philadelphia Folk Festival takes place at Old Pool Farm, Route 29, near Schwenksville, Pa., Aug. 24-26. Three-day festival tickets cost $76 in advance, $83 at the gate; with camping $113 in advance, $120 at the gate. Day and evening ticket combos also available, $28-$43 in advance, $32-$50 at the gate. Gate prices go into effect Aug. 23. For information, call (800) 556-3655. On the Web:
Schedule: Fri. 2:30-6 p.m. Steve Blackwell & Friends, Ruthie Foster with Cyd Cassone, Groovelily, Erin McKeown, SONiA, Tarbox Ramblers, Whirligig; Fri. 7:30 p.m. to midnight, Kim & Reggie Harris, Laura Love Band, Tom Paxton, Solas, Tempest, Dave Van Ronk; Sat. showcase, Tarbox Ramblers, Charivari, Laura Love Band, 4 Way Street, Nickel Creek; Sat. 4-6 p.m., Arlo Guthrie, Lila Downs; Sat 7:30 p.m.-midnight, Eileen Ivers, Jimmy Johnson, Nickel Creek, Utah Phillips, Chris Smither, Jay Ungar, Molly Mason & Swingology, Strauss/Warschauer Duo; Sun showcase: Rig, The Mammals, April Verch, Tempest; Sun. 4-6 p.m., David Bromberg & Friends, Laurie Lewis; Sun. 7:30 p.m.-midnight, Charivari, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Janis Ian, Tom Rush, Wayfaring Strangers — Andy Statman, Jennifer Kimball, Tony Trischka, Matt Glaser, John McGann, Ruth Unger, Jim Whitney. For information about the Folk Festival 40th Anniversary CD boxed set, visit

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