Deep in the sprawling Pennsylvania countryside where “Keep Off The Lawn” signs are in opposition with neighboring roadside tables displaying free cantaloupe and tomatoes resides a yearly retreat that beckons musicians and music lovers from all over the world.
This happening is the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
While not taking place in the thick of the bustling city streets of Philly, this Folk Fest takes place about thirty miles north in Upper Salford Township on Old Pool Farm. I reckon Upper Salford Township Folk Festival just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Put on by the Philadelphia Folksong Society, (PFS) the festival celebrated its 60th Anniversary this year, and is noted as the longest running outdoor North American music festival. It was the first time the festival had been back on the grounds since 2019.
One of the key takeaways from the festival was its breadth of diverse artists and cultures.
Performing artists made their way to the beloved festival from Korea (AGD7), Scotland (Talisk), Finland (Frigg), and other countries, let alone the artists who traveled from various corners of the U.S. Stylistically the music was a magnificent melting pot of bluegrass, blues, rock and roll, hip hop, folk (obviously), R&B, funk, and theatrical shamanic folk pop. Yes, you read that right. (See: AGD7)
Genre very much didn’t matter, and Executive Director Justin Nordell, who did much of the emceeing, had an impassioned after-performance speech with the bottom line stating folk is all encompassing. Folk is you and me and everybody and our stories.
The diversity of sound and culture included acts like 90s hip hop pioneers Arrested Development, the aforementioned Korean shamanic folk pop troupe AGD7, Tex-Mex country and rockabilly outfit Los Texmaniacs, old timey Mid-Century folk songsmith Dom Flemons, blues rockers The Lee Boys, and the list went on. Whoever curated and selected these artists did a quality job in keeping things inclusive and dynamic.
We wanted to learn more about the PFS who put on this festival, so we talked to Education and Membership Manager Molly Hebert-Wilson, who operates the folk music school, books the teachers, and runs the sessions, both online and in-person. This operation runs year round, and the school teaches a variety of instruments to both adults and children.
Members of the PFS are actively contributing to the existence and perpetuation of folk music in the Greater Philly Area. They also offer an Odyssey Program, which brings musicians from around the world to local Philadelphia schools. “It really makes a huge difference,” Hebert-Wilson said. “When the program was started in the 70s, it was a novelty, but now it’s a necessity with music programs being cut in school. That brings music education into our schools for thousands of local children, and we’re super proud of that. We really love our community here.”
Members also get discounts to most events and programs they offer, and they get one free concert in the PFS venue per month. As far as the festival itself goes, Hebert-Wilson is a workhorse and does “whatever she’s asked to do.”
The festival grounds were simple enough to navigate, as it wasn’t overloaded with too much going on. Space was ample, and you didn’t need to sardine yourself to get a good seat or standing zone to watch the performances from a reasonable distance.
Friday night proved Beatlemania had not in fact bitten the dust, Mr. Joe Strummer.
As dusk settled in and pink streaks arched through the sky above, Dustbowl Revival hammered through a soulful roots rock set, delivering a most welcomed cover of Abbey Road’s “Oh! Darling.” And shortly thereafter, American Acoustic – which consisted of The Punch Brothers, Watchhouse, and Sarah Jarosz – took to the stage in a revolving door of musicians coming and going throughout the set. But at one point Jarosz, Chris Thile, and a bearded cellist performed a stellar string version of Rubber Soul’s “Drive My Car.”
Saturday brought out the big guns, with Tom Rush, The Lee Boys, ADG7, Arrested Development, and Michael Franti all taking care of business on the main stage, or the Martin Stage. What was fascinating was how such profoundly different artists with different scopes of life could deliver on the same stage, and produce the same result- a happy, excited, and engaged crowd. From old-timer folk music, to blues rock, to hip hop, it all translated a similar overall feeling of joy and togetherness.
While the Saturday sun scorched everybody good, Sunday was little less brutal with some cloud coverage. The final day of the fest was highlighted with acts by Livingston Taylor, Aoife O’ Donovan, Bettye LaVette, Hiss Golden Messenger, and The War and Treaty. While the “big” names get most of the attention, the dozens who performed on the smaller stages were all there to throw down too. You couldn’t go wrong no matter where you decided to post up on the Old Pool Farm with its numerous stages. Extracurriculars included a Martin guitar raffle, and perhaps most unique, a Downton Abbey fancy napkin folding competition that was spearheaded by performer and additional emcee Christine Lavin.
Prior to the closing act, The War and Treaty, emcee Nordell presented a tender video homage celebrating various patrons and supporters in recent years, some of which had passed away, including decades-long emcee and PFF pioneer Gene Shay. As the rain finally fell and The War and Treaty delivered their earth-quaking soul, funk, and country music, the 60th Annual Philadelphia Folk Fest would soon come to a close. From our vantage point, the festival proved successful, and was a great indication of the future of Folk Fests to come.
You can donate to the Philadelphia Folksong Society to help ensure their “60 More Years” campaign proves to be a reality.
Photos by Lisa Schaffer