Next weekend marks the return of the much-loved Philadelphia Folk Festival, the oldest continuously run outdoor music fest in the country. Encompassing scores of performers that span genres like folk, bluegrass, rock, Celtic, blues, and zydeco music, the 58-year-old tradition draws up to 30,000 attendees annually.
But the all-day party in Upper Salford Township is more than just a concert: It’s a tangle of campers, hammocks, workshops, craft tents, food vendors, and activities — wrapped together with warm, fuzzy feelings and an endlessly laid-back vibe. Just look at its sunny logo: the face of a smiling banjo.
Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned veteran, here’s a guide to all you should know about the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
Philadelphia DJ Gene Shay and University of Pennsylvania folklorist Kenneth Goldstein organized the first Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1962, aided by arts nonprofit and longtime sponsor the Philadelphia Folksong Society. Initially held on a small farm in Paoli, the festival’s first years featured performers like Mississippi John Hurt, the Greenbriar Boys, and Judy Collins, as well as banjo contests, square dancing, and ballad sessions (a cow wandered into one). Fun fact: Pete Seeger performed at the first Philly Folk Festival and enjoyed it so much he donated his fee to provide seed money for a second year.
In its third year, the fest drew 18,000 attendees; it became a favorite of “the beard 'n' sandal set.” To accommodate the crowd, in 1967, the fest moved to the 80-acre Old Pool Farm in Upper Salford Township, near Schwenksville, about 35 miles outside the city, where it’s still held today.
At varying points, Folk Fest audiences delighted in performances from the likes of Joan Baez, Jim Croce, Joni Mitchell, John Denver, Arlo Guthrie (a frequent visitor), David Bromberg, and even a surprise appearance by Bob Dylan, though he didn’t actually perform. Blues and gospel performers like Bessie Jones and Taj Mahal played, too. Sets could be short — sometimes just 25 to 40 minutes — leading the Folk Fest to become what festival director Lisa Schwartz calls a “Folk Ed Sullivan Show.”
As decades elapsed and an influx of new genres (punk, hip-hop, grunge, electronica, etc.) proliferated on Napster, folk music began to feel a bit dated — and with it, so did the festival. “[It] suffered from a well-deserved reputation for being stuck in the past,” wrote Inquirer music critic Dan DeLuca.
Around 2008, fest organizers began booking acts that would draw younger crowds — folk-rock favorites like Iron & Wine and the Decemberists, and popular singer-songwriters like Sharon Van Etten. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco headlined in 2010. Today, Schwartz, who took the helm in 2018, tries to appeal to both longtime festival devotees and curious newcomers.
“I try to find the synchronicities between the performers and the audience. Otherwise, we’re talking to ourselves,” Schwartz said.
Perhaps it’s the festival crowd, a mix of Doc Martens-wearing young bohemians, aging hippies, and everything in between. “We have four generations of both volunteers and ticket buyers,” Schwartz said. “I don’t know of another festival in North America that can say that.” (According to the festival’s records, more than 70 percent attendees are over age 45 and live in Pennsylvania; nearly 20 percent are between 18 and 35.)
Or maybe it’s the sprawling grounds of Old Pool Farm, a working hay/alfalfa farm, and the free-flowing movement of the lawn-chair-toting crowd from one stage to the next. In the shady Dulcimer Grove, where many kid-centric activities are staged, people often set up hammocks. Sometimes, if you walk away for a while, you come back and someone’s in your hammock, said longtime fest attendee and volunteer Bert Olson. “You might let them hang out there for a while or ask for it back.”
Very laid-back and friendly. You can wander between the various stages to catch different acts and explore the juried crafters, specialty vendors, curated food vendors, contra dancing, and all kinds of Folk Fest merchandise. There are also face painters, aerialists, giant puppets, and a thriving camping scene.
“It’s our 40-acre living room,” Schwartz says of the sprawling campgrounds that draw thousands of concertgoers and volunteers. With creature comforts like free WiFi, round-the-clock food, an ATM, a shower truck, and a general store, camping here is roughing it with some major perks.
For Olson, a South Philadelphian who has camped and volunteered with his wife and kids at the fest for nearly 20 years, it is a summer highlight: “Camping is a real community; you make new friends every year, and make friends for life with the people you see year after year.” There are designated areas for heavy camping (pop-ups and trailers), light camping (tents), and even those desiring a mellower area (“Quiet Camping”). The different campsites have distinct “personalities,” Olson said, and equally distinct names: SpamHogs, Donutville, Repeat Offenders, and Thunderdome are just a few. Festival campers are also treated to their own welcome concert Thursday night in advance of Friday’s public opening.
The big names this year are David Crosby, singer-songwriter Margo Price, alt-country faves The Mavericks, New Orleans’ famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Texan Amanda Shires, country singer Kathy Mattea, and Joan Osborne, whose set will feature songs by Bob Dylan. Others worth checking include British country singer Yola, Bucks County’s own Langhorne Slim and the Lost at Last Band, and Louisiana accordion squeezer Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band. There are dozens of local performers — in fact, the Front Porch Stage will showcase Philly-area acts.
Throughout the weekend, there are ongoing workshops (included in the purchase price of a ticket), offered as a way of “making the artists more accessible to the audience,” Schwartz said. These are not lessons but rather small, intimate performances. This year, for the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, there is a Saturday workshop highlighting songs from the album, led by identical twin duo of Katelyn (vocals/guitar) and Laurie Shook (vocals/banjo), along with several other acts.