Philly Folk Festival Season

Each summer Google directs dozens of visitors looking for information on the history of the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival. This year’s festival runs from August 20 through the 21st and the hits to my site are already picking up. Why is Google sending folks to my Web site? Because in the 1990s I covered folk music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and in advance of the 1992 festival I wrote a Sunday feature on the festival’s history and the folks behind it: The Philadelphia Folksong Society. I was finishing up my coursework at Penn at the time and I just happened to be enrolled in the now-defunct doctoral program in Folklore and Folklife. I also happened to be gearing up for the required FOLK 606: History of Folklore Studies class taught by the inimitable Dan Ben-Amos and I decided to use some of the reporting I did for the Inquirer article for one of my class papers. Since my time at Penn coincided with my early years writing about music I got to use interviews with folks like BB King and others as source material for term papers. Now that was cool.

For the Folk Festival story (and subsequent paper) I interviewed legendary Philly radio personality Gene Shay and many of the festival’s founders. I also interviewed Irish musician (and fellow Penn folklorist) Mick Moloney as well as George Britton (who died recently). Britton was a fun interview. Near the end of our interview he sang the chorus of a tune he wrote about the festival. He called the song, “Barefoot, Bearded and Bedraggled”:

I’m barefoot, bearded and bedraggled
Stoned and drunk as I can be
I’m the counterculture and I’m all folked up
This here’s my cry of liberty.

Maybe I’ll save some of the Googlers some trouble this year by providing the link to a scanned copy of my 1992 Philadelphia Inquirer article and the paper I wrote for Dan’s class:

Folkies, Folklorists and the Fourth Estate:
A History of the Philadelphia Folksong Society and Academic Folklore in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

by David S. Rotenstein


Nineteen sixty-two was a pivotal year for folklore scholarship in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the academic year 1962-1963, the University of Pennsylvania approved a new Ph.D. program in folklore through the fledgling Department of Folklore and Folklife (Zumwalt 1988:7). Since the nineteenth century folklore societies composed of an eclectic combination of scholars and lay persons have contributed considerably to the development of folklore as a discipline. The contributions range from providing an outlet for publications and scholarly debate (see Ben-Amos 1973:121; McNeil 1980) to funding archives and research.  The same year that academic folklore came of age in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Folksong Society threw its first annual folk festival. The modest proceeds from the first Philadelphia Folk Festival were donated to the University of Pennsylvania folklore program as two $200 scholarships. This set the stage the start of three decades of philanthropy from which the University of Pennsylvania folklore program would receive approximately $80,000 (Robert Siegel, personal communication) to purchase recording equipment, maintain an archive and fund the graduate educations of aspiring folklorists.

The relationship between the Philadelphia Folksong Society and the University of Pennsylvania Department of Folklore and Folklife is an important key to the development of one of the most significant centers of academic folklore to develop in the United States (see Zumwalt 1988). This paper was developed from a 1992 story assignment for the Philadelphia Inquirer. My assignment was to write a profile of  the Philadelphia Folksong Society and to tell the story of the organization best identified by its annual folk festival; the article was published Sunday, August 23, 1992.

Built from the words of the Philadelphia Folksong Society’s founders and members, this narrative is an oral history of their organization, an examination of the tangible contributions to folklore scholarship by lay persons and a foray into the fray between the investigative and reporting techniques of journalism and the academe. Because the society is an amateur organization, there is little of a documentary trail to follow in search of historical data. There are few published or manuscript sources detailing the Philadelphia Folksong Society beyond popular press accounts written for local newspapers (see Walton 1981); Bruce Jackson observed the same phenomenon among folksong revival organizations in general (Jackson 1993:80). This paper is perched in a precarious position between journalism and folklore. But it represents, I hope, a confluence between the superficially disparate reporting objectives of ethnography and the press, taking a few liberties with Clifford Geertz’s lead that ethnography is the transformation of a passing social event(s) into a lasting written account (Geertz 1973:19).

I used the tools and techniques of journalism and folkloristics to research and write this paper.  Documentary data were collected from the Philadelphia Inquirer clipping library and the files of the Philadelphia Folksong Society.  Telephone interviews were conducted with Philadelphia Folk Festival performers and with Philadelphia Folk Song Society founders during August 1992.  The interviews were recorded and transcripts were prepared.  My questions to the performers and to the Folk Song Society officials were designed to elicit historical contextual information about the society’s extra-festival activities, i.e., the articulation between the Philadelphia Folk Song Society and the Penn academic community and the Philadelphia community at large.

Lines in the Sand: Folkies, Folklorists and Journalists

Texts wrought for newspapers may be likened to discourse found within the novel (see Bakhtin 1981). Benedict Anderson suggests that newspapers are “an extreme form of the book . . . ‘one day best-sellers’ ”(Anderson 1991:34-35). Despite the ephemeral nature of the newspaper, it still serves as a “cultural product,” a means of communicating events through written accounts (Anderson 1991:33). But can the newspaper function as a mode of historical discourse, especially discourse involving an academic discipline? Because of the general academic exclusion of amateurs by professional folklorists in the history of their discipline in the United States, at the moment journalism may provide the only key into a significant part of our development as a profession devoted to archiving the byproducts of tradition and communicating it to students.

Folklore, from its very definition, is popular (see Thoms 1846). With the rise of scholarship devoted to the study of  “urban legends” (see Brunvand 1981), newspapers have been recognized as an important vector for folktales and legends: the stuff of folklore. But newspapers may also be seen as educational devices where scholars “teach” (albeit superficially) segments of the population who otherwise might not have access to university classrooms or academic journals.

Simon Frith is a noted British ethnomusicologist. He is also a music journalist:

My two careers were rarely good for each other: rock (music) writing is not considered suitable for inclusion in an academic curriculum vitae; and “sociology” is a term of abuse among rock writers. However, I didn’t lose the convictions that linked my two worlds: rock is a crucial cultural practice and sociological analysis is needed to make sense of it. [Frith 1981:4]

Robert Darnton explains that newspapers are a discursive feedback system where there is always communication occurring between writer and audience (Darnton 1975:176). The process of newspaper writing, Darnton suggests, is part of an overall pattern of “inherited techniques of storytelling” (Darnton 1975:192). Press interviews and ethnography share many common bonds. Because of the ways each creates a collage of representations, both might be termed postmodernist discursive exercises  One point of articulation, despite different time frames, involves fieldwork.

In the fieldwork process, there are varying levels of participation, e.g., multiple roles created by various performance contexts. There are informants, interviewers, and perhaps multiple audiences: the audience for a particular performance that is the subject of study and the audience of the ethnographic text that is the result of the study. Dennis Tedlock cites work done by Allan Burns among the Maya in which Burns identified three roles in this process: narrator, audience, and “respondent” who “the person who requested the story or has the most pointed interest in it: the collector cannot hide behind the microphone . . .”  (Tedlock 1977:516).

Tedlock is pointing toward a blurred margin of performance. He addresses the problematic nature of identifying termini within a particular performative event:

Just as the critical act in oral poetry begins where a performance begins, rather than waiting until it is over, so the critical act in oral poetics begins… there is always the possibility of further performance . . .  [and] the possibility of a further playing of the tape. [Tedlock 1977:516]

Where a performance begins and where it ends are indeed difficult questions.

Richard Bauman noted that acts of performance are “situated behavior, situated within and rendered meaningful with reference to relevant contexts” (1977:27). Bauman specifically explores “cultural performances,” which he cites as “scheduled events, restricted in setting, clearly bounded, and widely public, involving the most highly formalized performance forms and accomplished performers of the community” (Bauman 1977:28).  The press interview/report may be seen as a form of cultural performance that achieves contextualization, stretching the boundaries of the performative event. According to Bauman and Briggs, “contextualization has been shown to extend far beyond the boundaries of the fieldwork setting itself, insofar as the tape recorder introduces subsequent audiences into consideration” (1990:71).

Technology, via microfilm, computer databases and the Internet, has enabled the newspaper to become a more permanent research tool. By enabling the potential impact of a news story to extend far beyond its publication date and introducing potentially new audiences to the information carried within, newspapers become less of a fictive imagined community (see Anderson 1991:33). They become part of a larger communicative community accessible by telephone, home computer, or in a library. Newspapers are no longer bound by the newsprint typed on impermanent paper.

Much of the written history of folklore in the United States has excluded contributions by amateurs. Though Zumwalt focused on the bifurcation of the American Folklore Society along anthropological and literary lines, she merely hinted at the division between nascent professionals and established amateurs in folklore (Zumwalt 1988:43).  Although recent scholarship by Regina Bendix takes enormous strides in exploring the academic versus amateur schism (Bendix 1997), much of the pattern of excluding the multiple contributions by amateur folklorists established by anthropologists such as Franz Boas struggling to professionalize folkloristic studies remains intact (Zumwalt 1988:80).  Unlike their British counterparts, many American folklorists pursued an elitist academic agenda (Bendix 1997:119-153).

Simon Bronner notes that there was a fundamental difference between the British and American Folklore Societies:

Folklorists working in anthropological museums, especially, flocked to the American Folklore Society. Serious about the study of folklore but lacking university status, the Society sought to convey a professional image… This development marks an essential difference between the progression of the American and English Folklore Societies. [Bronner 1990:48]

Folklore as a discipline, unlike other academic fields, is conducive to active participation by lay persons because of the “complex social relationships between students of folklore and their subjects” (Ben-Amos 1973:119). Citing both negative and positive effects of popularization, Ben-Amos suggests that “folklore, perhaps to a greater extent than any other social science and humanistic discipline, is interrelated with non-academic trends of thought and action” (Ben-Amos 1973:120).

Folk music, as it became defined during the 1950s, was an imagined community “bound by its attitude to music-making itself” (Frith 1980:163). The folk music movement, adds Frith, was “defined in terms of taste and sensitivity, rather than in terms of politics and ideology” (Frith 1980:164). The Philadelphia Folksong Society, like its revivalist counterparts in New York and other urban areas in the United States embodied a constructed ideal of folklore and folk music.

The radical tradition of American folk music was primarily the creation of a group of metropolitan, left-wing Bohemians: their account of ‘the people’ was as rooted in myth and their own circumstances as was that of their more respectable, bourgeois, folk predecessors. Nevertheless, it was within the folk movement that musicians kept alive a popular music that was defined, politically and musically, in opposition to commercial pop. [Frith 1980:162]

The constructed community of folk music became so crystallized by the middle 1960s that the popular press coined a name for them: Folkies. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a folkie is “a folk musician or folk-singer; a devotee of folk music” and the first printed use of the label “folkie” occurred in the January 12, 1966 New York Times in an article advancing a concert series (OED 1143).

Despite questions of authenticity and motive, the people involved in the folk music movement in the United States — notably the Philadelphia Folksong Society — succeeded in establishing archives of folk music and folklore and providing a fiduciary function for academic folklore scholars. Nowhere else is this more evident than the thirty-year relationship between the University of Pennsylvania Department of Folklore and Folklife and the Philadelphia Folksong Society.

From Backrooms to Backstage: The Philadelphia Folksong Society and the Philadelphia Folk Festival

From the outset, folklore scholars at the University of Pennsylvania used the Philadelphia Folk Festival as a pedagogical outreach tool. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article,

The (Philadelphia Folk) festival attracted such top singers as Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Mike and Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and Theodore Bikel.

In addition scholars such as Dr. (MacEdward) Leach conducted seminars about the origins of folk music. “To find true music like this you would have to journey to the Ozarks,” Dr. Leach said. [Goulden 1965]

The early intimate relationship between the Penn folklore department and the Folksong Society was best demonstrated when the society faced losing its nascent annual festival. Local zoning boards and irate neighbors sought to end the event; they were tired of the throngs of people flocking to the first festival site on the estate of C. Colket Wilson in Paoli, Pennsylvania, west of Philadelphia.

. . .  Tredyffrin Township zoning authorities ruled that the Philadelphia Folk Song Society may no longer hold its annual festival on Wilson’s 15-acre farm in Paoli . . . .

Wilson, head of the Pennsylvania Ballet Co. –  which also performs on a stage and amphitheater in the meadow of his farm – pointed out that the proceeds from the festival were used to found the Department of Folk Lore at Penn.

“Now, because of a few disgruntled people in the area,” Wilson continued, “all of the young people who are trying to preserve the American heritage of folk music and folk lore are made to suffer.” [Philadelphia Daily News, Feb. 3, 1965]

Though the dispute was ultimately settled and the festival clearly continued – today, the Philadelphia Folk Festival features national, international and local musicians, storytelling events and musical demonstrations and workshops as well as food and crafts vendors and is held annually over three days the final weekend of August  – one of the loudest cries to arise from the fray in defense of the festival and its sponsors was “Any profits have gone to the University of Pennsylvania for a folklore archive and graduate fellowships in folklore” (Philadelphia Inquirer Nov. 29, 1964). According to a colleague’s letter in the possession of Prof. Dan Ben-Amos at Penn, funding is a critical component of any emerging discipline (photocopy of letter signed “Mark,” April 2, 1973). Without question, the Philadelphia Folksong Society has had a direct impact on academic folklore in Philadelphia. Indirectly, by virtue of the students who have benefitted from scholarships, access to a staffed archive, and field equipment and gone on to academic positions elsewhere, the Philadelphia Folksong Society has made a contribution to the field of folklore as a whole.

Robert (Bob) Siegel, a retired Social Security fraud investigator who was instrumental in starting the Philadelphia Folk Festival, was a charter member of the society. His involvement began after attending the group’s second formal meeting in 1957.  Siegel recalled a dearth of Philadelphia folk music venues during the late 1950s-early 1960s folksong revival:

In the early sixties — in the fifties, there’s was only a few places to play folk music. It was not a major thing and the people who played seemed to get together with one another and then finally decided that they could do some things beyond, like bringing in performers from outside the city – traditional performers – and they got together as a folksong society – they founded an organization. [Bob Siegel, personal communication]

David Baskin, another charter member whose day job was in the automotive wholesale business, also recalled the difficulty of not having a consistent outlet for traditional music in Philadelphia.  “I used to go down to the Gilded Cage and play guitar on Sunday afternoons,” recalled Baskin. “So that was pretty much the center for folk music at the time. I studied guitar, played guitar with George Britton. He was one of the founders of the society” (Baskin, personal communication).

Bob Siegel echoed Baskin’s acknowledgment of folksinger George Britton’s role in founding the Philadelphia Folk Song Society. “Primarily it was George Britton and Joe Aronson. George says it was his idea and he gathered the others, so I think that’s good enough. George is the distinguished elder statesman of folk music in Philadelphia. He is in his seventies now” (Siegel, personal communication).

George Britton, lived in Miquon, Pa. in 1992.  A folk musician since the 1940s, he fondly recalled Woody Guthrie and “folk music” when it was still only music.  “I was the founder of the group. I called together, it was about ‘56 or ‘57 – I guess it was the Fall of ‘56. I called together Joe Aronson and Mike Marmel and a guy by the name of Dick Gale, that I haven’t seen or heard of in years and years,” recalled Britton.   He added,

These were the three foremost folksingers in the field. The time was ripe for a folksong group . . . I wanted to do something for folk music. I thought that this would bring together and afford a platform for young singers and people who didn’t perform themselves, but who were very much interested in folk music. That it would give people a chance to meet.

I remember when I was the only professional folksinger in the area and I’d get up on a nightclub stand and start singing folk music and people would look at me as though they thought I was crazy. They had never heard of it even. [George Britton, personal communication]

Before the group congealed, it met — as Baskin noted –  in the back room of a coffeehouse called the Gilded Cage. Located in Center City Philadelphia at 21st and Rittenhouse streets, it was owned by Ed Halpern  and his wife Esther.  “I don’t know the exact place it started. It was either the Gilded Cage or Esther’s living room. They were kind of interchangeable at the time,” offered David Baskin.   Ed Halpern recalled more clearly, “Esther started with it and then I — we had the Gilded Cage coffee house and I was in business. So Esther was in it much before I was” (Ed Halpern, personal communication).  His wife, Esther, added, “Well, the organization was founded by three people: George Britton, Mike Marmel, and Joe Aronson . . . . It was started in the back room of the Gilded Cage with a bunch of people sitting around and singing. And the outgrowth of that — just meeting every week and singing together — is what started the organization” (Esther Halpern, personal communication).

The first formal meeting of the Philadelphia Folksong Society probably took place in October, 1957 at International House on the University of Pennsylvania campus.  “Giles Zimmerman, who was the director of International House at the time was a student of mine and I arranged for the group to meet at International House provided that we met free. Provided that the students were allowed to attend for nothing,” recalled George Britton.

Bob Siegel, who shared in creating the society, explained:

It was — then — the International House at the University of Pennsylvania located at 39th and Spruce. And the building still exists, except I believe that it’s occupied by WXPN [Penn’s Public Radio station] now.

We probably had 40 people there. And we had a performer, his name was Billy Fair, who was an outstanding banjo player from New York City. He had this young guy with him dressed in a motorcycle jacket — black leather jacket. It as Dave van Ronk. A very young Dave van Ronk. [Siegel, personal communication]

The fledgling Folksong Society wanted to have a forum for the music they loved most as performers and listeners. But were there other motives behind the founding of the society?  Bob Siegel scoffed at extra-musical motives and goals held by the new society’s founders.

I don’t know that their goals were all that idealistic. It was basically to have a forum to bring in performers and for people who are interested in folk music to get together and spread it around and maybe build up a little bank account and do a few concerts. In those days, there were very few around. American Youth Hostel, the local chapter, used to put on a folk music concert now and then, but basically that was about it.

It was an attempt to build up an organization that could bring in people from the outside to give a forum also for the people on the inside.

One of the objectives was to stay alive. The dues was only $2 a year for an individual, payable at 50 cents a meeting for four meetings. [Siegel, personal communication]

David Baskin, in contrast, argued for a wider role played by the young Folksong Society.  “Our charter says that we’re to promote and educate about folk music in the Delaware Valley. And I guess that’s what we really do. That is our role and I think we do it very well,” Baskin emphasized.

Between 1957 and 1962 the Folksong Society programmed occasional concerts throughout Philadelphia on top of their annual monthly concert meetings between September and June. The people who have been with the society from its birth note that little has changed in the organization. The only drastic change came in 1962 when the ragtag collective of folkies decided to throw a little music party. They called it the Philadelphia Folk Festival. It transformed the society from just another music-minded club into one of the most low-key philanthropic organizations in Philadelphia.

According to David Baskin, the Folksong Society has changed only in scale in its history:

It hasn’t changed drastically. It’s still doing its basic format which is promoting folk music and encouraging folk music. We’re just doing a little more of it than we did back then. Back then we basically had our nine monthly meetings of the folksong society and that was about what we did. We put on a few concerts and until the festival started, that was pretty much all we did.

And then in ‘62, when the festival got started, of course that was a big adjunct to our activities. And then the additional income from the festival enabled us to begin doing all of the other things that we do. [Baskin, personal communication]

Esther Halpern credits the society’s early success and a certain systemic altruism to the decision to fund local folklore and folklife endeavors.  She explained, “It’s gotten a lot more members, I would say that with the success of the festival, it gave the society the ability to be more philanthropic. I think the organization –  you have to understand, every penny we ever made, we gave away” (Esther Halpern, personal communication).

Bob Siegel remembered the Society’s first steps leading-up to the founding of the Philadelphia Folk Festival:

I was the president (of the Society) and a fellow by the name of Dave Hadler approached me, who I knew, and he was a kind of visionary in a sense and he wanted to have a folk festival. He had dealings with Martin Guitar and martin Guitar had tried to put on one unsuccessfully up in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania in 1961 and it didn’t work out and they thought maybe the folksong society could come up and do it up there for the next year.

And we talked to them and I didn’t think of it as very feasible so I kind of put it down. But David kept coming back about it and eventually, I guess the end of ‘61, or early ‘62 the Folksong Society decided to approve the idea. But there was a long way to go between the implementation of the idea because they didn’t have a site and the only money they had was money that we had recently raised from a concert which was probably in the neighborhood of $600 or $700. But we agreed to have it and Hadler had some ideas about where to have it and how to get it financed, which I didn’t consider very realistic.

By chance, through a friend of mine I met Collie Wilson, who owned the place out in Paoli and talked to him. And I went out there and talked to him about having the festival there and he said, “Great.” I took Hadler and some of his friends out there and they looked at it and they said, “Well, gee, it’s a nice place, but we like our original idea,” which happened to be doing it in Abington at Applethorpe. I told them I didn’t think that was feasible, but considering what it takes to organize the thing, I got 30 days. Either get Applethorpe lined up or you can take the Wilsons. You’ve got one or the other or drop the whole idea. So they took the Wilsons and it worked out fine. [Siegel, personal communication]

Finding themselves solvent and financially healthy, the Folksong Society made its first contribution to the new Department of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania.  “We started on practically nothing. David [Baskin] pretty much established the volunteer system that we had and we made a few bucks out of it. Gave a few dollars to the University of Pennsylvania department of folklore which had just came into being thanks to MacEdward Leach. And we gave them two $200 scholarships. One of them either was or is a professor in the department, formerly the chairman of the department a few years ago” (Siegel, personal communication.

The first academic recipient of Folksong Society funds was Henry Glassie.  According to Siegel, Glassie received a $200 scholarship from festival profits.  “The following year, in ‘63, we gave them $1,000 and in ‘64 I ran the festival and we gave them another $1,000,” said Siegel.

According to Esther Halpern the Folksong Society increased their contribution to Penn’s folklore program to $3,000 annually.  The money was (and remains) earmarked for maintaining the department’s archives.  “They hire an archivist to work and keep the archives up to date,” said Esther Halpern.  Her husband added, “We also gave Penn, many years ago, a 30-year bond, which I think is coming due about now. They got $1,000 a year to give a scholarship to someone in the folklore department at the university.”

Andy Bralow , a former deputy solicitor for the City of Philadelphia was a relative latecomer to the Folksong Society (ca. 1975); he stepped-down as president of the group in June 1992. The breadth of its philanthropic efforts are astounding, he said later that summer. The pride of the society, besides its world-renowned festival is its relationship with the University of Pennsylvania department of folklore and folklife.  Bralow explained the society’s philanthropic relationship with Penn’s folklore and folklife program:

Every year the University of Pennsylvania Department of Folklore and Folklife comes to us for a grant for an archivist to keep their archives, their library materials catalogued and accessible. We see that as part of our mission. Because to cooperate with that department is preserving folklore and folk music and so each year we have accepted that grant. [Andy Bralow, personal communication]

The ties between the Penn folklore department and the Folksong Society run deeper than money. Though the late Kenneth Goldstein wasn’t part of the initial pool of society members, he and MacEdward Leach and former Penn folklore department business manager and Philadelphia-area folk singer Theresa Pyott became integral parts of the Folksong Society as did later members of the folklore department.  Bob Siegel recalled Goldstein’s involvement and that of folklorist Roger Abrahams:

Kenny was in New York at that time [1957]. And Roger Abrahams . . . .

When I became chairman of the festival he [Abrahams] certainly did ninety-five percent of programming for the festival.

Roger Abrahams. I don’t know if Roger Abrahams remembers anything. Roger left the city and never showed any interest again. But he was very much involved and he performed at one of our early meetings. In fact somewhere in the house I have a tape of that performance.

He [Roger Abrahams] collected songs down in Virginia, down in the mountain area. One particular area around Chillhowee, Virginia. I remember one particular song that he sang; it was called “Red Clay County.” I bet he still remembers that.

He played a guitar. Roger was a very good singer. There was a whole coterie of people out in Swarthmore at the time he went there. And there was a dormitory called Merry Lion Hall and Roger was there and Ralph Rinzler also was at Swarthmore at the same time. Roger and Ralph were at the school at the time. [Siegel, personal communication]

Although the Penn folklore department was the first recipient of Folksong Society funds, during the late 1960s other organizations and individuals began reaping the rewards generated by the Philadelphia Folksong Society via the annual folk festival. The increasing flow of money into the societies coffers spurred the group to file a charter as a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation.  The group’s official name was reserved in the fall of 1963 and the charter was granted in early 1964 (Pennsylvania Department of State).  By 1980, they had established themselves as a unique arts organization. Unlike other arts groups, the Folksong Society receives no outside funding (except for a 1973 grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts).

Overshadowed by its annual festival, the Folksong Society’s philanthropic and educational efforts are little known outside of the society and folk music circles.  “The folk festival is so large and so well-known that it’s kind of like the tail wagging the dog,” explained Andy Bralow.  “Nobody bothers to look beyond the folk festival for what the organization does” (Bralow, personal communication).  People who have looked beneath the festival veneer see a model for folk music societies.  Art Menius, office manager of the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance in 1992, observed that the Philadelphia Folksong Society had become the model for virtually every other organization of its type in the United States.  “There are many, many organizations that would like to be as successful as the Philadelphia Folksong Society.  They are one of the largest, oldest and most accessible folk music organizations in the country” (Art Menius, personal communication).

The society’s philanthropic growth beyond folklore and folklife at Penn was gradual.  Bob Siegel explained,

It [Philadelphia Folk Festival] was never designed to be an educational benefit. It was designed to be a folk festival to have a good time and make some money out of it.

We also initiated what we call a community service project. Basically, what we do with that is, for a relatively modest honorarium, we send performers to various institutions — nursing homes, orphanages, and other places where they have a hard time getting entertainment. And it gives a good forum for local performers who want some exposure as well.

We started giving grants to other organizations, certainly in the early ‘70s, we started doing that. We started with Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children on Roosevelt Boulevard. They get these kids who are in terrible physical shape. They get them from all over the country and outside the country. And they have very limited financing beyond the medical care they’re able to provide.

So someone approached us. Maybe it was Jackie Pack, and we started sponsoring her activity at the Shriner’s Hospital. She’s a local performer and musical therapist. We’ve been doing that a long time.

We provide a musical therapy program at Stratford Friends School. They deal with emotionally disturbed children. [Siegel, personal communication]

Philadelphia folksinger Jackie Pack recalled her first involvement with the society’s outreach program.  “I started it in 1980 at Shriner’s Hospital,” said Pack.  “And I also began one at Stratford Friends School in 1982 and another at the Home of the Merciful Savior for Crippled Children in West Philadelphia” (Jackie Pack, personal communication).

In the intervening period, additional musical therapists have followed Pack at Shriner’s Hospital.  Esther Halpern remembered one particularly poignant episode at the hospital.  “Mike Miller is the musical therapist up there [Shriner’s Hospital]. Before, it was Jackie Pack. I went up there to see what Mike was doing, as a member of the board. He had a young man there from Puerto Rico who was born with no arms. He was teaching him to play the guitar with his feet and I videotaped it. It’s unbelievable,” she explained (Esther Halpern, personal communication)

“In 1973, I initiated a program with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts called the Odyssey of American Folk Music,” offered Bob Siegel. “I conceived it as a program where we would bring in performers – very often tradition-oriented performers –  and bring them into the area and they would participate at a particular school for a week and their program would be integrated with a particular course of study” (Siegel, personal communication)

Andy Bralow noted that the society also brings folk musicians to inner-city schools.  The Society dubbed their project the “Odyssey Program.”  “[W]e spend $15,000 to $20,000 a year on a program that hires folk music performers to go to grade schools, in conjunction with a social studies program, put on a living, breathing event,” said Bralow.  “This is the way music was in Appalachia in the 1800s that you’re studying about or things like that.  Bluegrass bands to the barrio. It’s quite a cultural shock, but it’s one of those things where if we didn’t do it, who would? That’s the Odyssey Program.” (Bralow, personal communication)

Said Esther Halpern of the program, “We send performers into the schools in the Delaware Valley, not just Philadelphia, to teach –  not to entertain – but to teach through folk music.”  She recalled how well economically disadvantaged children could relate to folklorist/folksinger Mick Moloney’s songs and narratives of his native Ireland.  “We had this Irish fella came in and he sang songs about Ireland and about the potato famine and how they were oppressed. He was relating all of a sudden to some of these poor kids who are going through the same thing here” (Halpern, personal communication).

One exchange between a child and Moloney stood out in Ed Halpern’s mind.  “He had this one kid was talking street black.”  Esther Halpern added, “He said, ‘I don’t understand you.’ And he [Moloney] said, “I speak street Irish.” And pretty soon the two of them understood each other” (Esther and Ed Halpern, personal communication).

Mick Moloney, Ph.D. (University of Pennsylvania) doesn’t recall the episode of which the Halperns spoke. He did, however, spend five years with the Odyssey program, from 1974 to 1979.  “It’s a hard gig to do,” said Moloney.  “For me it meant going in as a solo performer to the inner city schools. And it’s very worthwhile, of course and what you’re doing is very humanistically valuable and I would imagine that most of the performers – myself included – who did that program really believed its merits and worth of it. And there were occasions where it was very satisfying” (Moloney, personal communication).  Moloney further explained about the program:

The Odyssey program was very successful and as time went on they went back to the same schools time and time again. So you found the same kids got exposed to folk music from different cultures. In that context, the more that classes and individual kids got exposed to a variety of cultures and it became an ongoing program, the more successful the programs were.

The kids were fascinated by, for instance, when I sang songs about Ireland, I tried to put a lot of the songs in the context of the social history and the social life of the people and the kids could relate to that very well.

I made them aware of all those dimensions, not just the art form, but the history and so on. [Moloney, personal communication]

In addition to their affiliation with Penn and their various community outreach endeavors, the Philadelphia Folksong Society maintains a significant archive of folk song and the history of their relationship with the study of folklore in Philadelphia. Their office, at 7113 Emlen Street in Mt. Airy, contains an eclectic collection of objects, recordings and documents detailing the history and activities of the organization.  According to Andy Bralow, “We have a copy of almost every performance that we have produced in 35 years.”  And, he added,

I’m not sure where we are going to go with the material. There have been proposals from time to time to seek to publish it or put out tapes or records or something like that. To have some of the material more widely known.

People putting together biographies of Stan Rogers or Jim Croce or other performers who are no longer alive have come to us for our copies of performances that they did for us. Turns out these performances were exceedingly rare. There’s a small documentary film from Canada and apparently our tape of Stan Rogers performing at whatever the last folk festival was before he was killed, was the only videotape of him in performance anywhere.

Back through the posters. I don’t think there is a performer in the folk music idiom in 30 years that hasn’t been to the folk festival. As a result, somewhere there must be a tape of John Denver when he was performing with the Chad Mitchell Trio. [Bralow, personal communication]

In its overall historical and social contexts, the Philadelphia Folksong Society, may be seen as a genuine tradition: “an ongoing interpretation of the past” (Handler and Linnekin 1984:274). In its interpretation of “folk music,” the society is indeed a revival that has concomitantly changed the art form which it sought to revive (see Handler and Linnekin 1984:276). Claims of dubious authenticity levied at much of current folk music may be discounted when the concept of  “tradition” is expanded to allow for diachronic change and flexibility (see Bendix 1989:132).

Although the society she helped to found thrives, Esther Halpern finds little “folk” in the music played at its events.  From her perch overlooking at least two folk music revivals (the 1950s-1960s and the current 1990s trend towards acoustic and post-modern pop), she observed an unsettling sequence of events:

During the ‘60s folk music became very commercial with the Kingston Trio and so on. The traditionalist music was much more traditional. Somebody standing up and saying “I wrote this song” was completely unheard of. You had some writers of folk music, but they usually were anti-something: Anti-war – Tom Paxton-type performers. But today, I think that if you can go to a folk music festival and hear any traditional music, it’s really a surprise.

I think it has changed a great deal by making the music more palatable to the average person. [Esther Halpern, personal communication]

Her husband, Ed Halpern, added, “I think they used to consider folk music that was written — music like Woody Guthrie. English ballads, old blues, things like that. That was considered folk music in those days” and Esther quickly replied, “I miss folk music” (Esther and Ed Halpern, personal communication).

From the inside, folk music enthusiasts have a keen eye for the semiotic elements within their musical culture.  “I think people still hold views of folk music and folk musicians and folkies from the ’60s. I think a lot of that has gone away. And that’s what people still think about when you talk about folk music, a bunch of people in dirty jeans and shirts,” said David Baskin.  Goerge Britton, who wrote an incisive song about contemporary folkies titled “Barefoot, Bearded and Bedraggled” shares the sentiments proffered by Baskin and the Halperns.  Said Britton:

My grandfather was a country fiddler and they wouldn’t have dreamed of getting up in public in anything but the best clothes they had. It’s a far cry from the barefoot, bearded and bedraggled image that has become the vogue among the kids years later. I always hated that. Absolutely despised that fetish approach to an art form that has probably certainly among the greatest integrity of any of all the art forms. And to cheapen it in that way, I felt . . . .

To me, a folkie is a guy who makes a thing out of his interest in folk music. It’s just very sad that the least characteristic factors in the field of folk music should have been the ones that some of these kids picked up. Actually, what they were doing was expressing their rebellion. It had nothing to do with folk music. [Britton, personal communication]


Few would deny the impact that the Philadelphia Folksong Society has had on folk music and the preservation of folklore resources in Philadelphia. Through their relationship with founders of the University of Pennsylvania department of folklore and folklife to generate funds for a fledgling graduate program that now has trained two generations of academic and applied folklorists. From 1962, when Henry Glassie (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania 1968) received the first academic grant from the society to the most recent recipients of Folksong Society funds generated by what was intended to be just a little musical party.

Folklore archives are a vital tool for academic folklorists. Three decades of financial support from the Philadelphia Folksong Society have built the University of Pennsylvania folklore archives into a significant source of primary and secondary research materials (see Zumwalt 1988). The impact is evident each day students and faculty pass by the open archive door.

The roots of the Philadelphia Folksong Society lie in an established tradition of allied amateur and professional folklore and folk song societies. Over the past three decades, the Philadelphia Folksong Society has become known best by its most visible expression: the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival. But, beneath the popular veneer of the society, there exists an organization devoted to preserving a wide range of expressive culture that stretches far beyond the bounds of the academe or festival stages.

Reporting – to the public as a journalist and to my colleagues in the academe as a trained folklorist – the history of the Philadelphia Folksong Society was a challenging task.  I wanted to create a narrative that would fit in both worlds.  That is important to me, both as a folklorist and as a journalist.  Within this paper, the data collection tools and the reporting voice of the journalist are intermingled, and I hope, indistinguishable from those of the folklorist.  The Philadelphia Folksong Society’s story is an important one because it shows the fluid and dynamic interaction between the amateur and the academic in folklore and folklife.  Sometimes, they are one in the same.  If left to the journalists, the folksong society’s tale would continue to be retold and reworked in the annual cycle of stories tied to the organization’s festivals (Rotenstein 1992a, 1992b).  If left to the folklorists, the society’s history may well end up a footnote to larger endeavors (see Rosenberg 1993:108).  If left to the “folkies,” well, I hope that their voices –  intentionally prominent within this paper — bridge the gap between the journalistic and the folkloristic models.

References Cited

Books and Articles

Anderson, Benedict
1991                            Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Bakhtin, Mikhail
1981                            The Dialogic Imagination, edited by Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bauman, Richard
1977                            Verbal Art as Performance. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Bauman, Richard and Charles Briggs
1978                            Poetics and Performance as Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life. Annual Review of Anthropology 19:59-88.

Ben-Amos, Dan
1973                            A History of Folklore Studies — Why Do We Need It? Journal of the Folklore Institute 10:113-134.

Bendix, Regina
1989                            Tourism and Cultural Displays: Inventing Tradition for Whom? Journal of American Folklore 102:131-146

1997                            In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies.  Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press.

Bronner, Simon
1990                            Anglo-American Connections in Folklore and Folklife. Folklore 101(2):17-36.

Brunvand, Jan
1981                            The Vanishing Hitchhiker. New York: Dutton

Darnton, Robert
1975                            Writing News and Telling Stories. Daedelus 104:175-194.

Frith, Simon
1980                            The Magic That Can Set You Free: The Ideology of Folk and the Myth of the Rock Community. Popular Music 1:159-168.

1981                            Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock ‘n’ Roll. New York: Pantheon.

Geertz, Clifford
1973                            The Interpretation of Culture. New York: Basic Books.

Goulden, Joseph
1965                            Tredyffrin Bars Folk Music Fete, Scholars Irate. Philadelphia Inquirer, February 3, 1965. Inquirer Library clipping files: Philadelphia Folksong Society.

Handler, Richard and Jocelyn Linnekin
1984                            Tradition, Genuine or Spurious. Journal of American Folklore 97:273-290.

Jackson, Bruce
1993                            The Folksong Revival.  In, Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, ed. by Neil V. Rosenberg, pp. 72-83.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

McNeil, William K
1980                            A History of American Folklore Scholarship Before 1908. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Indiana University.

Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
1989                            The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pennsylvania Department of State
n.d.      Corporate and Limited Partnership records.  Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Tedlock, Dennis
1977                            Toward an Oral Poetics. New Literary History 8:507-519.

Rosenberg, Neil
1993    “A Future Folklorist in the Record Business” [Transcript of an interview with Kenneth Goldstein] In, Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, ed. by Neil V. Rosenberg, pp. 107-122.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Rotenstein, David S.
1992a  Folksong Society Gives New Twist to an Old Festival.  Strictly Bluegrass Got Old.  So They’ve Addded Zydeco, R&B and (Gasp!) Even Rock Music. The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 6, 1992.

1992b  The Folk Festival Folks.  The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday August 23, 1992.

Thoms, William J.
1846                            Folk-Lore. Atheneum, August 22, 1846.

Walton, Mary
1981                            Look What the Folkies are up to Now. Inquirer Magazine. Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, August 23, 1981, p. 19.

Zumwalt, Rosemary Levy
1988                            American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialog of Dissent. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Informants (cited as personal communication)

Baskin, David. July 31, 1992. Philadelphia, Pa.
Bralow, Andy. July 30, 1992. Philadelphia, Pa.
Britton, George. August 8, 1992. Miquon, Pa.
Halpern, Ed and Esther. August 1, 1992, Philadelphia, Pa.
Menius, Art.  August 6, 1992.  Chapel Hill, N.C.
Moloney, Mick. August 8, 1992. Philadelphia, Pa.
Pack, Jackie. August 17, 1992. Philadelphia, Pa.
Siegel, Bob. July 23, 1992, Philadelphia, Pa.

© 2010 David S. Rotenstein

6 thoughts on “Philly Folk Festival Season

  1. Hi: During the years I was a member of the Philadelphia Folksong Society, 1961-1962, the International House, where the Society’s meetings were held, was located at 15th & Cherry Streets in Philadelphia. I believe the International House organization moved its operations to the University of Pennsylvania campus in the early 1970s.

  2. interesting article. I recall around the same time the Artist Hut and the 2nd Fret had a folk venue. I don’t recall their location.


  3. Has someone put together a list of the early PFF festivals, with dates, location and performers?
    I attended from 1966 through 1969 but have had a very difficult time finding accurate information. The web site of the PFF has almost no info available.

  4. Hello. A great site on face book about the premier folk club in the 60s was the second fret. the site on face book is called the second fret in philadelphia. the second fret was a must for established folk acts and up and coming aritsts. the second fret was home to the likes of tom rush,joni mitchell, mississippi john hurt, jim kweskin jug band, jean richie, again, the second fret in philadelphia. thanks

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