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Diversity Keeps Fans Returning to Philadelphia Folk Festivals

The 2013 Philadelphia Folk Festival at the Old Poole Farm in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. (K. Cole/VOA)
The 2013 Philadelphia Folk Festival at the Old Poole Farm in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. (K. Cole/VOA)
When The Stray Birds kicked off their first song at the 52nd annual Philadelphia Folk Festival in mid-August, they were unknown to many of those sitting in the sun at the Old Poole Farm in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. But by the time the group finished their last performance at the festival, the young, bluegrass-picking, classically-trained trio from Lancaster, Pennsylvania had a long line of fans waiting to buy CDs and get them signed.

That’s what’s so special about a festival like this one near Philadelphia: you come in to see headliners such as The Mavericks, or the legendary Todd Rundgren and leave loving The Stray Birds.

Diverse Program Keeps Fans Returning to Philadelphia Folk Festivals
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The very first Philadelphia Folk Festival was held in 1962 and is now the oldest continuously operating folk festival in the United States. Put on then, as it is now, by the Philadelphia Folk Song Society and a staff of 30 volunteers, the first event ran two days with a lineup that included Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, The Greenbrier Boys and Pete Seeger.

Today, more than 2,000 volunteers are needed to make sure the four-day festival runs smoothly.

Philly is also quite a large music festival -- before the gates opened this year, organizers were expecting about 30,000 attendees. Since the festival is spread out over 36 hectares of farmland, it never seemed crowded.

Lisabeth Weber, a musician herself, has been to 30 of the 52 Philadelphia Folk Festivals. She's performed there twice, and attended the other times simply as a music fan. Weber says the diverse programming on all the stages - eight of them this year - keeps her coming back.

“What’s nice is, a lot of times the workshops are artists who know each other, but they don’t always get to see each other through the year because they’re constantly touring," she said. "But at a festival, they get to catch up. And sometimes, they know each other’s songs. So, at a festival, they’ll jump on harmony or they’ll play along or sit in on leads. It’s kind of one of those things where the spontaneity of it is part of the beauty of it. Because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Festival fan Tim, a onetime professional cook, has a full kitchen at his campsite. (VOA/K. Cole)
Festival fan Tim, a onetime professional cook, has a full kitchen at his campsite. (VOA/K. Cole)
Part of the fun of attending the festival is hanging out in the campground. Organizers estimate that 7,000 campers set up temporary home on the hillside for the weekend. Tim from Philadelphia, a onetime professional cook who shares a campsite with another former chef, had a full kitchen at his location.

“We have a propane grill and we have a stove with three 30,000 BTU burners," he said. "This is our paella pan, it is five-foot in diameter and we have some propane cookers to cook that on. And over there, we have a pig roasting box, called a La Caja China. It’s Puerto Rican style, the pig is inside and the charcoal goes on top and it’s like a big radiant oven. You can cook a whole pig in about four or five hours.”

Shannon Lambert-Ryan is the lead singer for the Celtic roots band Runa. She was thrilled to be playing The Philadelphia Folk Festival this year. And not just because she met her husband and bandmate Fionan de Barra at the festival a few years ago. It turns out she practically grew up on Old Poole Farm, as her parents were volunteers at the Festival every summer.

“They have a picture of me from when I was about two, naked in a guitar case at the festival. So it’s kind of come full circle," she said. "It’s incredibly special, just the fact that my Mom started volunteering here when she was 17 and coming with her Dad, and my grandparents are here this evening. It’s quite a different experience to perform here, especially on the main stage. It’s going to be a really neat 'first' to have tonight.”

British songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson first played the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1970 as a member of Fairport Convention. Since then, he’s played another four or five times as a solo artist or with his band. This year, Thompson was back with his Electric Trio and they closed out the Friday night show. No word on who’ll be headlining the 53rd edition of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, but I can tell you they’ll begin planning it in just a few weeks.