Inside Longest-Running Music Festival in North America

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The first Philadelphia Folk Festival (PFF) in 1962 was attended by about 2,500 fans on a farm in rainy weather. In 2019, about 16 times as many fans – 32,000 – came to hear the music.

Billed as “the longest-running music festival in North America,” the festival is sponsored by the Philadelphia Folk Song Society (PFS). The PFF oversees the logistics of sheltering, parking, feeding and entertaining crowds, many camping overnight for all four days.

At that first gathering, legendary folk singer Pete Seeger performed, and a live album with 11 songs from artists was recorded. Since then, such famous and soon-to-be famous names as Judy Collins, David Bromberg, Paul Butterfield, and Arlo Guthrie have appeared. Last year, David Bromberg and a well-known actor who is also a singer and musician with a band, performed.

The event was the brain child of David Hadler, a member of the PFS, which had sponsored concerts and events at indoor facilities. Hadler's idea was to present an outdoor, two-day show featuring folk music. Disc jockey Gene Shay, who passed away earlier this year, hosted shows since the 1960s that gave Philadelphians an outlet to hear folk music, and emceed all but one event.

Long-time Philadelphia disc jokey Michael Tearson has attended more than 40 festivals. Since 2013, he has anchored a live streaming of music from the festival's main stage over the internet. “PFF has been a real part of my life for decades,” said Tearson. “The event has a long and glorious tradition and great store of legend,” but he worries that the audience is getting older and younger people are not following in their footsteps.

Oh, those hippies!
The inaugural festival was held at the Wilson Farm in Paoli, Chester County. Some neighbors objected to the behavior of the “hippies” who attended, and a few years later the local government withdrew PFS's permit to host the festival. It was moved to Spring Mount Ski Resort and then to Rahmer Park before moving to the 80-acre Old Pool Farm in Upper Salford Township in Montgomery County in 1971. The first year it was held there, a hurricane swept through the area.

“I lost my shoes whey they were sucked off while I was walking in the mud,” recalled Marion Rooney shortly before she died earlier this year. Rooney attended her first festival in the howling rain and wind when she was 16. “That's when I found out there were rocks in mud.” In her group was a veteran who returned from Vietnam, and the thunder and lightning generated an episode of post-traumatic stress, she recalled. Rooney was drenched, and borrowed clothes from a male friend, which she wore home with no shoes.

At another festival, it was so hot the crowds were doused with fire hoses. But these weather-related difficulties didn't prevent Rooney from enjoying the shows. Her favorite memory is on a clear summer night filled with the stars as she listened to Don McLean perform his song, Starry Night.

Behind the main stage is Dulcimer Grove, a copse of trees with a forest primeval feeling to it. People will hang hammocks between trees for anyone who wants to catch a nap or sip a soda in the shade. Families with young children can keep them entertained and occupied with a stage just for them, featuring crafts, juggling, magic, and music acts, such as the "Give and Take Jugglers" and the "North Star Puppets."

In 2016, Jason Ager performed by himself at the festival; last year he was joined by Jason Bachman and Micah Hebbel to form Jason Ager and the Golden Eagles. While he was growing up in Montgomery County, Ager saw friends who attended the festival, but he never made it, which he regrets. “Coupled with the camping, (the festival) it really becomes an event that exists in a space removed, it becomes a beautiful little island of like-minded people who love music and enjoy celebrating it!” said Ager, who sports a thick, black beard that reaches to his chest; he also earned a Ph.D. in German language and literature from Georgetown University.

Volunteers make festival go

A key part of the festival's success are the volunteers,who last year numbered almost as many as the attendance at the first PFF: 2,250.

Hymie Snyder and his family attended the first festival, and he started volunteering in 1967. Eventually, he became co-chairman of security, then started the purchasing committee. Thirty years after his death, several generations of his family help keep the event running smoothly, including his daughter, Sharon Fine, co-chairman of the volunteers committee. She was 11 when her parents brought her to the festival for the first time. Her mother, Diana, has been volunteering since 1968. 

Sharon Fine's children were destined to be involved: “My kids attended since they were in utero,” said Fine, who happens to be a radiologist. “My son Jeremy stopped coming because his wife isn't fond of camping. But they bring their kids every year for a visit, so there are four generations attending. My daughter Rachel attends when work allows, which is most of the time.”

She has seen the festival changes, some subtle, and some not-so-subtle.

“It's much more structured and organized,” she said. “The audience and volunteers are older. There are still plenty of teens and twenty-somethings, but there were very few middle-aged and older adults there when I was a kid. There's less strictly traditional music, although there's still plenty, but more folk-like music that appeals to a wider audience. The food is way better. If I took more time, I could probably think of another 20 or more things that are significantly different.”

Bagpipes have been intro since the start

What has not changed is the opening of the festival: a bagpiper walks down a hill toward the main stage. For many years and at the upcoming event, Dennis Hangey, has done the honors. Bob Siegel, president of the PFS during the first festival, conceived the idea. “He loved the tradition, the bit of pageantry and, more importantly, the way the sound of the pipes and the piper coming down the hill towards the main stage marked the start of the festival,” said Lisa Schwartz, who is festival and programming director for the PFF.

Without realizing it – or perhaps he did -- Siegel's idea about bagpipes had a connection to the origins of folk music.

“It actually originated in Scotland and Northern Ireland in the form of ballads that made their way to the Appalachian region, when those Scots-Irish settlers from Europe migrated to the area mostly in the 1700s,” said Levi Fox, a history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, who studies public history. “One example of Pennsylvania folk music would be the polka, which began in Bohemia in the mid-1800s than moved to various industrial towns of the northeast and midwest along with Eastern European settlers around 1900.”

There is more to the event than folk music: Philadelphia radio station WXPN disk jockey Helen Leicht hosts a Local Philly Showcase on one of the stages for new and emerging artists, presenting a variety of musical styles. 

And on the final day of the 2018 festival, some fans were surprised to see actor Jeff Daniels – an Oscar nominee and who starred on Broadway in "To Kill a Mockingbird" – take the stage with his band.

David Rhodes, a Delaware County resident who has been attending the festival since 1984, said of Daniels' performance, “I was completely blown away. He was one of the highlights -- his humor, his musicianship.”

The son of musicians and music teachers, Rhodes said he enjoys the music but also the camaraderie there.

“It's a wonderful place for people to go and have a good rapport with campers and people you meet,” he said.

A community has developed within the festival

Fox said, “Beyond the music on stage, a key element of the Philly Folk Fest seems to be the establishment of pop-up tent villages, many with fun names and even small stages that become the site of after-hours jam sessions, re-appearing yearly. The fact these villages become communal venues where friends who do not see each other during the rest of the year come together, and that they include up to three generations of festival goers, is, I think, a reason why the Philly Folk Fest has been so long-lived as others have waned.”

Fox added that folk music brings together several generations of social activists, such as labor unionists in the 1930s and anti-Vietnam War protesters in the 1960s, while also encompassing a wide range of sub-genres. “While not all folk fests include family-friendly performances,such as puppet shows, as the Philly Folk Fest does, the very structure of these events and their inclusive definition of 'folk-life' to stretch beyond music allows multiple generations to attend and to make fond memories,” he said.

David Falcone is a college professor of psychology. He's also a singer, songwriter and guitarist, and plays at many venues throughout the Philadelphia area. While he's never been on stage performing at the festival, that doesn't mean he hasn't contributed to it musically.

“What I did do - as so many others did - was bring my guitar and roam the campground area after the scheduled performances were over and sing and play around campfires, and metal drums, and old friends, and new ones in the making,” he said.

Tearson said, “By now people, a lot of them, keep coming to PFF because that is simply something they do, a part of their life. I understand some people camp out and never get to the music!”


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