Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 18
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: July 1980 Volume 18 Number 3, Pages 83–88
When the Philadelphia Folk Festival Was Held in Paoli
"The Homestead," the fifteen-acre farm of C. Colket Wilson, Jr., on the south side of Swedesford Road in Paoli, was not only the scene of the first annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, but of the next three festivals as well.
It was a setting that "lent itself naturally to the aura of American folklore and songs." "The music was enhanced by the natural setting of the Festival," Gene Shay, a member of the Festival committee, observed after the first Festival, adding that "The Wilson farm, with its spacious grassy valleys, clean running brooks, shaded hillsides and rustic barns, supplied the perfect background for all of the musical activity."
The sponsors of these folk festivals was the Philadelphia Folksong Society, a non-profit organization started in 1958 "to generate and further the growing enthusiasm in our American folk heritage." The original objective of the festival was "to be a show piece for a broad spectrum of American folk music" and "to bring some of the more obscure American musicians to city audiences." Proceeds from the festivals were used to start a folklore library and to help finance a graduate fellowship in regional folklore at the University of Pennsylvania.
Its first festival was held in Paoli on the Saturday and Sunday after Labor Day in 1962. On both days, morning workshops and seminars on various aspects of folk music were held, with a banjo contest on Saturday afternoon and on Sunday afternoon a "hootenany" or informal folksing, in which everyone was welcome to "participate in swapping songs, learning new ones, or just listening."
In the main concert, on Saturday evening, there was indeed the "broad spectrum" of folk music that was the Festival's objective. The program included songs by Pete Seeger, well known as a collector of folk music as well as a singer and versatile banjo player; his brother Mike, one of the most knowledgeable and able performers of traditional southern mountain music and also a versatile instrumentalist; Bonnie Dobson, a Canadian-born guitar player and singer of traditional folk ballads; Reverend Gary Davis, a blind, long-time gospel singer; and Obray Ramsey, an old-time fiddler from the edge of the Great Smokies in western North Carolina. Others on the program included Jack Elliott, with his cowpuncher songs; the Greenbrier Boys; Paul Caldwell, nearly 80 years old, who had been playing the banjo since the turn of the century; and gospel singers Mabel Washington and Professor Clarence Johnson.
It was estimated that more than 2500 people attended the various workshops and the concert, highlights of which, incidentally, were recorded and later released on Prestige Records.
"From the beginning," Gene Shay commented, "there was a spirit of cooperation that extended to every facet of the music-filled weekend — Pete Seeger, his wife Toshi, and 20 or 30 young people removing scraps of paper and crumpled cigarette wrappers from a grassy valley — another group folding and stacking wooden chairs — 10 teenagers arriving a day early to offer their assistance... Everyone was eager to lend a hand, eager to be a part of something he believed in." He also noted that it was "a family affair from the first plink of the banjo to the last echo of song... It was this family feeling which kept the Festival so exciting to the thousands who attended."
By the second festival, held on the first weekend in September in 1963, interest in folk music had increased considerably and it had become, particularly on college campuses, an integral part of the country's popular music. Recognizing this, the scope of the Philadelphia Folk Festival was broadened and it became a three-day event. As was pointed out in the Festival program booklet for that year, "On your blanket stretched on the hillside, or in the shadow of the remains of an old 18th century stone barn, you will hear many new sounds unfamiliar to most except the ardent folk music enthusiast. Traditional performers, some on in years, will sing out the songs which are indeed an important part of our inheritance. Many city performers as well, perhaps more skilled in the art of presentation, will present instrumental and vocal interpretations of material from all over the world, some in dialects other than our own. He feel that most of this music you will enjoy, some you may find very interesting but not your cup of tea, and indeed a small percentage you may even dislike."
"However, we hope you'll be entertained and somewhat enlightened by these attempts to present a variety of material representative of our musical history."
The Friday night program included square dancing; a concert, attended by an estimated 3000 people, which featured singers and performers from the Philadelphia area, including Raun MacKinnon, a local singer from Berwyn; and movie clips from the collections of Pete Seeger and others.
The workshops on Saturday included sessions on old-time banjo styles, bluegrass banjo, guitar accompaniment, song adaptation, the mandolin, autoharp and fiddle, folk dancing, and a forum on ballads and ballad collecting. Many of the performers featured in the Saturday night concert also took part in these workshops. There was also a banjo contest on Saturday afternoon. The Sunday program started with a program of religious music from various sections of the country, including songs by a Pennsylvania Moravian choir, white and negro gospel groups, and a Mennonite children's choir, followed by a children's concert and play party and, in the late afternoon, a closing hootenany.
Not all the music came from the workshops and stage, however. With hundreds of musicians in attendance, there was music all over the place, informal improvised and impromptu "concerts" taking place in various corners about the farm and in the parking lot.
The highlight of the festival was again the Saturday night concert. Although it started promptly at half-past seven in the evening, it lasted until well after midnight and featured many of the top folk artists. With the internationally-known Theodore Bikel heading the list of performers, the program included both traditional performers — such as the legendary blues singers Mississippi John Hurt, Lonnie Johnson, and Elizabeth Cotton, and fiddler and ballad singers Hobart Smith and Almeda Riddle — and popular contemporary recording favorites — such as Jean Redpath, Hedy West, and Judy Broderick. Also featured were Mike Seeger, making a return visit, and the bluegrass band of Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, the jug band of Jim Kweskin, and others.
The audience was estimated, in the newspapers, as over 10,000, including people from virtually every state in the Union and many provinces of Canada, many of them listening while lying wrapped in blankets on the hillside of the natural amphitheater.
Much the same format was followed in the 1964 Festival, on the last weekend of August. Following the square dancing on Friday evening, however, a dance program by several local dance groups, representing different ethnic backgrounds, replaced the concert of folk music by local artists and the film clips. To the delight of the estimated 6000 in the audience, Theodore Bikel was a surprise and unannounced master of ceremonies for the concert.
The discussion topics in the workshops on Saturday included topical songs, the blues, and the ballad, the workshops again being followed by the now-customary bluegrass and frailing banjo competitions in the the afternoon. On Sunday the religious folk music concert, the child children's concert and play party, and the open song session were all also repeated.
Some 15,000 people, according to newspaper accounts, arriving by car, by bus and camper, on motorcycles and bicycles, or on foot and hitchhiking, attended the Saturday night concert, which again lasted until well past midnight. And again a wide range of folk music was presented, the performers including the Beers family, singing traditional songs and accompanying themselves on a wide variety of instruments — the fiddle, the dulcimer, the psaltery — Kilby Snow, playing the autoharp, and also more "contemporary" performers, such as Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, and Bernice Reagan, all leaders in the "new music" movement of topical and protest songs. Bill Monroe, "the father of Blue Grass music," and his Blue Grass Boys were also on the program, while other performers, returning from appearances in previous years, included Theodore Bikel, Mississippi John Hurt, Mike Seeger, Paul Caldwell, Bonnie Dobson, Hedy West, Judy Roderick, and others.
By 1965, the last year that it was held at the Wilson farm, the Festival had grown to such an extent that, to shorten the concert, two "main" concerts were presented, one on Friday night and one on Saturday night, with the dance program moved to Sunday afternoon in place of the open song session. The list of participants in the concerts was again practically a "who's who" of folk music.
The Friday night concert featured, in addition to returning Theodore Bikel, Mississippi John Hurt, the Beers family, the Greenbrier Boys, and Jean Redpath,newcomers blues singers Tom Rush and the duo of Charlotte Daniels and Pat Webb; traditional folk singer Jean Ritchie; Glenn Ohrlin, known for his traditional cowboy ballads; Irish folk singers Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman; and Tom Paxton and Buffy Sainte-Marie, exponents of the topical or protest song.
The line-up for the Saturday night concert was similarly distinguished and varied. With repeat performances from previous years by Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, and Obray Ramsey with the Tommy Hunter Carolina String Band, the program also included the veteran blues singer Skip James; the contemporary blues of the Paul Butterfield Band; traditional folk singers Jackie Washington, Dave Sears, fiddler Grant Rogers, and others; the Irish ballad singing Deirdre O'Callaghan; and, in the topical idiom, Patrick Sky and the Chad Mitchell trio, who, along with Phil Ochs, sang and commented on topics ranging from freedom songs and draft evasion to the Berkeley and Harlem riots and the United States government's Latin-American policy.
With a policy of "no encores, please" and a twenty-minute maximum for each performer (except for Judy Collins), both programs moved at "a swift pace" and on schedule.
The morning workshops on Saturday featured sessions on the ballad, the blues, and the contemporary protest or topical song, as well as workshops on the fiddle and dulcimer, and, on Sunday, on the harmonica, banjo, and guitar. The religious concert was also again held on Sunday, followed, in spite of heavy rains, by the children's programs and the ethnic dances.
The festivals, during their four years in Paoli, were not without their detractors. A letter printed in the Wayne Suburban just before the 1965 Festival, in the form of a cartoon, for example, depicted several "beatniks", with their long hair and sweat shirts and blue jeans, heading towards the festival, with the satiric caption, "This is the culture we!re so lucky to have in our midst?"
In another letter, printed the following week, however, issue was taken with this characterization, the writer commenting, "It [the Folk Festival] was conducted on a higher plane than many Main Line parties, with no evidence of drinking or rowdiness. If you have no furs, you keep warm in a sweatshirt; if you have no car, you wear flat shoes and walk; if you can't afford a seat, you wear pants and sit on the grass. They were refreshingly free of such refinements of civilization as fake eyelashes, fake fingernails, fake hairpieces, and fake jewelry." In defense of the topical song, the writer also pointed out, "Folk music is appealing because it is melodious and expresses simple human hopes and fears... What is insidious about singing of love instead of hate, peace instead of war? Can we boast about a culture that accepts the corner bar and juke box but suspects the coffee house and poetry? I commend the tolerance of the Main Liners for admitting these social outcasts to our suburbs," the letter concluded, "and suggest we stop judging by appearance, look beneath the surface of these young people, and listen to their words."
But the fact was that the Festival had by that time "become too popular, the Folk Song Society too successful" — even discounting the various public estimates of the attendance — to be accommodated adequately at the Wilson farm, particularly for parking. Nor were there suitable provisions for camping in the immediate vicinity, needed by many of those in attendance.
In addition, there were several allegations, by neighbors opposed to the Festival and by others in the area, of improper conduct on the part of some of the people attending the Festival and of camping on private property on nearby fields, leaving behind considerable debris and trash.
As a result, following the 1964 Festival, the Tredyffrin Township Zoning Board of Adjustment sought to withdraw the permanent zoning variance it had granted to the Philadelphia Folksong Society prior to the first festival in 1962. In its decision to withdraw the variance, made in January 1965, the Zoning Board noted that as a result of the Festival the traffic in the area "was measurably increased, to the point of congestion of the township roads" and that the concerts extended past the time permitted under the township's carnival ordinance, although it was also noted that it was "apparent ... that the festival itself, within the festival grounds, was administered in an orderly fashion" and that the Board recognized "the cultural advantages of the festival." But, it concluded, the festival simply had become "too successful for it to be properly controlled within Tredyffrin Township, when the township1s facilities, both physical and personal, are taken into consideration."
The Folksong Society challenged this decision on the basis that a permanent variance, once issued, cannot be withdrawn or revoked. In March, Judge Thomas C. Gawthrop, in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas, issued an opinion supporting this contention.
But, at the same time, with the attendant adverse publicity, the additional restrictions placed on the use of the Wilson farm, and the obvious need for a nearby campsite, in the Spring of 1965 an informal agreement was reached by the spondors of the festival and the township that the 1965 Festival would be the last one held at the Wilsons' and "The Homestead." A search was immediately begun for another site.
After consideration of various other places, the fifth annual Philadelphia Folk Festival was held on a ski slope near Schwenksville. The following year it was moved to the old Pool farm, also near Schwenksville, where it has been held ever since.
It continues a tradition so auspiciously begun with the first four festivals — when the Philadelphia Folk Festival was held at the Wilson farm in Paoli.
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