Philly Folk Fest Preview: Host & Emcee Christine Lavin Discusses Her Storied Career, Upcoming Festival

25 albums. An award-winning memoir. An invitation and introduction by Neil deGrasse Tyson to perform at his Comedians and Astronomers event at the Beacon Theater in NYC. These are but a few milestones secured by folk songwriter Christine Lavin.

With a presence that spans New York State from Rochester, to Saratoga Springs, and a lengthy Big Apple tenure, Lavin is as embedded in her regional community as she is in the national folk community.

Last year, her alma mater SUNY Brockport gave her an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts, despite the fact that she changed her major six times and got a D in Astronomy back in 1973. And despite that D, Neil deGrasse Tyson still invited her to perform at his 2015 event, where he introduced her to sing her song about the history of Pluto, called “Planet X.”

Her autobiographical book, Cold Pizza For Breakfast, won the 43rd annual Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. The cover photo was snapped by Bob Yahn at the Philly Folk Fest in 1986.

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Lavin was also an entourage car driver for the first week of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975. She got to witness three of the shows in the first week from the now iconic Dylan era, stating “I’ll never forget it.” And in April 2019, she was inducted into the Rochester New York Music Hall Of Fame along with Al Jardine of The Beach Boys.

And on August 18th – 21st, she will be emceeing and performing at the 60th Annual Philadelphia Folk Fest.

We got the chance to chat with Lavin to learn more about her experience at the Philly Folk Fest, her wildly unique history, and much, much more.

Where to begin! You’ve amassed an incredibly unique and accomplished career thus far. Do you remember at what point you knew you were going to dedicate yourself to folk music and the arts? 

Yes, I do. It was in the fall of 1976. I called my old college friend, Vicky, to thank her for encouraging me back during that first semester in Brockport in the Spring of 1970. I hadn’t spoken to Vicky in a few years, we’d lost touch, but I had moved into my first apartment all by myself in NYC. I was taking guitar lessons with Dave Van Ronk, going to open mics, working during the day as a wandering minstrel in a Mexican Restaurant on weekends, and I wanted her to know that I was doing it all with the goal to make my living as a musician.

Vicky’s mom answered the phone, and when I asked for Vicky, she took a deep breath, sighed, and told me Vicky was dead and had committed suicide. I couldn’t believe it. Vicky was one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen. It was unthinkable that she was no longer here.

I told her mom how sorry I was, and awkwardly hung up. I didn’t know what to say. I put on the cassette by Jackson Browne, Saturate Before Using, and played “Song For Adam” over and over again, and lit a candle for Vicky. I thought I was calling her to share that I was finally doing what she said I should, to thank her, and instead I was grieving for her. It’s too heartbreaking to even think about, still. 

To date, it looks like you have 25 albums out. How quickly do you think you could rattle them all off? Are there any of the bunch that mean the most to you, and if so, why?

I couldn’t rattle them off – I don’t even have copies of some of them. I think any singer/songwriter will think their most recent one is the best one, though only time will tell on that score. I think my best is the one called, The Best Of CL. Before I put that together, I went online and Googled, “what are my most popular songs”, but I abandoned that list and put the songs on the album that when I’m gone will be the ones I hope people will listen to. Nobody goes into folk music to get rich or popular, it’s because you have something to say. My songs are certainly not pop, and folk has become a “catch-all” where oddballs like me can find a home. I’m very grateful.

So you had the once in a lifetime experience of being invited and fondly introduced by Neil deGrasse Tyson at an event of his in NYC. Can you discuss in a nutshell how that came to be and what that was like?

I got a call from Neil deGrasse Tyson at 2 o’clock in the afternoon asking me if I could be part of his show that night at the Beacon Theater, and sing my song about Pluto called “Planet X.” This was in 2015 when the famed “Pluto FlyBy” was going to happen with the New Horizons spacecraft flying as close to Pluto as would ever happen. So in honor of that, I had been playing “Planet X,” which is a very long song and has a lot of detail. I wrote it in 1996, based on an article in USA Today. It took me a long time to memorize – luckily I had been doing it in my concerts in 2015 so I could consider singing it live that night.

But I got a D in Astronomy in college and I knew in the audience that night would be over a thousand A++ Astronomy students in the house, and my confidence got shakier and shakier. So I brought the lyrics with me, and talked Neil into letting me give the lyrics to someone in the front row so in case I got lost they could help me. He was fine with that, and he even looked in the audience for a volunteer to hold the lyrics – he told them how scared I was doing it in front of them. 

But his audience was so kind – a volunteer in the front row raised their hand and read along as I sang. About halfway through, I knew that just having that person there with the words meant I wouldn’t get lost – and I didn’t! But I was SCARED. And the audience could tell.  

When I got to the end of the song – and thank God I finished strong – the audience gave me the biggest roar I have ever gotten in my entire career. I’m not kidding. I asked Neil if the show was taped (it was) and he sent me the recording and gave permission to include it on the album I was working on at the time called Spaghettification.

And there is a lesson here. I thought about how many calls Neil made before he called me at 2:00 PM – for a show just six hours away. If I hadn’t picked up the phone, he probably would have gone to the next person on his list. To be a performer is to be ready when a once-in-a-lifetime call comes in.

Was there a wild after party full of know-it-all astronomers?

I don’t know – there was a reception, but I had to leave. It was a Monday night and I was planning on going to the open mic at Birdland at 9:30 that night, and I had told the host, Jim Caruso (of “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party”) that I was committed, so after the show I walked to Birdland to sign up for the open mic. I never thought it was weird going from playing in front of over a thousand people to lining up to play in front of a hundred at an open mic. When you’re a singer/songwriter you need to play as much as you can –  and you value the audience you’ve got. So I missed the reception! 

So the Philadelphia Folk Fest. How long have you been emceeing or perhaps attending the event, and what makes it such a special gathering?

I’ve been performing at it since 1986. It’s the Granddaddy of all the American Folk Festivals– the one that’s been going continuously. Even during the pandemic, it went online and kept powering through. The audience is the best American folk audience you’ll ever find in one place. This festival has been educating its audience year after year by going out there – really traveling – and sometimes booking artists no one has ever seen on our shores before. You’ll make so many discoveries, and because everybody brings CDs with them, you can take the CDs home and really dive deep into their body of work. The Philly Folk Festival is quite adventurous, and you’ll always find something great you had never known about before. 

Emceeing is a double-edged sword. I get to hang out with some legendary performers and I get to ask them about their lives so that I can give them a memorable introduction. But a couple years back, David Crosby was the closing artist on Sunday night. He had a killer kick-ass band and he was so in the pocket, having the greatest time playing and singing with them and then insisting that each player step forward and take solos here and there. It was so much fun to watch, especially after each solo when David himself would let the audience know he wanted more applause for his band members. It was a musical love fest – and it ran overtime. He was the closing act, and the festival has a long-standing agreement that the show has to be over by a certain time. There would be no encore, even though the crowd was standing and stomping and screaming for one.  

As the emcee, I was sent out to tell the audience that the show was over and they had to go home. Ever have 10,000 people boo you all at once? I had to take it. I stood there and apologized as the boos grew louder and stronger. Hey, I wanted David to take an encore, too. But it wasn’t meant to be. 

What kinds of fun things can attendees expect from this year’s festival?

Well, I’m going to be wandering around when I’m not emceeing, teaching impromptu “Downton Abbey Style Fancy Napkin Folding.”  Thanksgiving is coming up, and even if you’re a guest, not cooking, you can make the dinner table look fancy with the new skill you’ll learn. I have 8 napkins that are natural linen, have “60th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival 2022” embroidered in light blue/green, and at the end of the festival there’s a drawing and everybody who learned fancy napkin folding has a chance to win the napkins and take them home.

There’s all kinds of craft vendors, food vendors, families camping, and of course stages all over the grounds with so many different kinds of music. You won’t know what to do first- the choices are endless. At least for the people who come here in person.

You can also watch online, from the comfort of your own living room, on a big screen TV that you young people know how to hook up to your laptop. Drink a cold brew, luxuriate in air conditioning and watch so many performers (and then re-watch them the following week).  So it’s both live AND online. Go to the website and prepare yourself now so that you can map out a plan of what you want to see.

Has the festival always been in the same location? What makes that particular community special?

Oh man, I’m a New Yorker. I don’t drive. I’m always knitting or reading when I travel, and I only look up when we arrive. The first time I ever played the Philly Folk Festival, I flew in on the final day from my sister Jody’s wedding. I thought the festival was in the city of Philadelphia. I thought there would be signs on the streets with a big arrow pointing – PHILADELPHIA FOLK FESTIVAL THIS WAY – I didn’t know it was on a farm miles north of the city. I finally found a cabdriver who knew where the festival was and he said he’d take me.

Little did I know Gene Shay was onstage and had just announced that I was supposed to be on that stage, but I was a no-show, so they were going with the next performer, when my yellow taxi comes bounding over the hill, the driver slams on the brakes with gravel flying, and I jump out of the cab with my guitar and run toward the stage. But then I had to turn around and pay the driver (I had zero sleep – was totally discombobulated) – but then ran to the stage and have no memory of what I did, but I guess I played. It was 1986 – someone from the festival will know if it’s the same place where it is now.  

Because people come year after year after year – it’s like being the entertainment at a family reunion. We’ve all been through a lot, with the pandemic and four years of the worst president imaginable. It will be such a relief to reconnect with people who value truth and to the environment. And napkin folding.

Are there any select artists you’re most looking forward to seeing?

Yes – Happy Traum. The guy keeps getting better and better and better. How does he do it? He’s a guitar god. And Tom Rush, the living legend. John Flynn, who is the quintessential activist/folksinger doing good every moment of his life. Mara Levine, who sings like an angel. Livingston Taylor who puts on a show like no other. But there are so many artists I don’t know. And what a great place to be introduced to their music. 

As mentioned, you’ve achieved an awful lot. What are a few pinnacle moments that really mean the most to you?

Backstage at Philly in the 1990s when I organized a “Lightning Bug Brigade” to do lightning bug impressions onstage in the dark with glow-in-the-dark light sticks.  

When you can talk some of your musical heroes into doing something ridiculously silly on the big stage, it’s a career highlight, that’s for sure. 

I talked these guys into being my “Lightning Bug Brigade” on the main stage. These are some brave songwriters: Hans Theessink, David Roth, Megon McDonough, Cliff Eberhardt, Fred Kollar, John Gorka, Kari Estrin, Sally Fingerett, Chris Smither, Eve Silber, Cathy Fink, and Marcy Marxer. Photo © Thom Wolke 

What advice might you have for eager folk singer-songwriters of today who might want to carve out a path similar to yours?

#1 ENUNCIATE! Too many young folksingers swallow their words. Us old folks don’t hear as well as we used to. You are in the communication business – you are musical storytellers. If we can’t understand what you’re saying, we lose interest. If you are used to getting a laugh or some kind of reaction, but you notice those laughs/reactions aren’t coming, it’s because we can’t hear you. Stay on the mic. Pay attention. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

And if you are really serious about this as a career, be willing to relocate to a town that has a serious folk music community. If you immerse yourself in the venue, you’ll soak up so much music, meet so many smart musicians who are willing to help you along. Team up with other performers. Maybe you can’t fill a room by yourself, but two of you can. Hey, you might even find love. 

What else might you have in store for the rest of the year? 

I’m working on a new album, and two compilations – one of spring songs and one of summer songs, that eventually will be a four-seasonal boxed set with “On A Winter’s Night” and “When October Goes” – with apologies to Frankie Valli and Vivaldi. And there’s talk of a theater in NYC doing a reading of a musical based on my songs, but I was told not to talk about it yet or suffer the wrath of some sort of ‘theater curse.’ So I can’t talk about that.

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