Best of the Fest:
Memories from a Lifetime of Philadelphia Folk Festivals!
As remembered by Christopher Kent
Imagine this: You’ve spent another year working at your job, meeting your obligations, taking care of mundane everyday chores. Suddenly, you find yourself transported to a summer hillside on a farm far from the city where thousands of people are camping in tents of every size and color. Everyone’s smiling; some are playing music, some are just relaxing in lawn chairs, some are acting silly and laughing loudly. You’re caught up in a four-day extravaganza of good cheer, music and partying. Periodically you walk across the small ravine at the foot of the hillside to another hillside amphitheater where professional musicians and bands are putting on shows on multiple stages, starting in the early afternoon and extending into the wee hours under the stars. Music of all types, from singer-songwriters to jazz, pop and world music.
Best of all, you share this idyllic alternate reality with good friends and family. You don’t get much sleep, but you have a great time—and you don’t think about that other life of yours for four whole days!
That, my friends, is the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the longest continuously running outdoor music festival in America.
In fact, the name is a little misleading. For one thing, what started as a forum for folk music in the early 1960s has evolved into a showcase for almost every conceivable type of music. And although it’s a music festival that presents many awesome acts, it’s fun for a dozen other reasons as well. Some of the fun comes from just being with your friends (old and new); some of the fun comes from the beauty of the natural surroundings and the (sometimes) amazing weather; some of the fun comes from the novelty of living outdoors for a few days; some of the fun comes from being free to act silly (and enjoy other people doing the same); and some of the fun comes from making music yourself—and jamming with other musicians.
I’ve attended the festival every August for decades, accumulating many fond memories. With the festival on hold for the first time ever in 2020 (thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic), it seems like the perfect time to share some of my fondest memories of this marvelous event. If you’ve never been to the Festival, I hope this will whet your appetite to give it a try. And if you’re a regular attendee, I hope this will bring back fond memories of your own!
Seeing extraordinary musicians (and occasionally dancers)!
It goes without saying that the featured music is a huge part of the Festival. Every year a long list of professional musicians and bands entertain over the course of four days on multiple stages. It’s impossible to see every act, but one thing is certain; every year you’ll hear a couple of acts that will blow you away. (Part of the fun is waiting to see who it will be each year.)
Musicians come in many varieties, bringing many different skills to the stage. Some excel as all-around performers; some as virtuoso players or singers; some as dazzling songwriters; some as comedians; some as passionate inspirationalists; and some as a combination of these.
A few favorite memories from the past 50 Festivals (more or less):
— Arlo Guthrie telling outrageous stories and performing his iconic song Alice’s Restaurant;
— David Bromberg and his band performing his raucous, hilarious song Sharon, about a carnival sideshow act starring a mysterious woman who casts a spell on her all-male audience every night (“Sharon…what do you do to these men? The same rowdy crowd that was here last night is back again!”)
— Being introduced to virtuoso players like Tommy Emmanuel (perhaps the world’s greatest living acoustic guitar player); Trombone Shorty with his awesome band; Jake Shimabukuro, who makes the ukulele sound like an orchestra; Bryan Bowers, who proves that an autoharp can be a show-stopping instrument; and Richard Thompson, blowing everyone away with his guitar chops and songwriting skills.
— Watching the late John Hartford, then more recently Natalie MacMaster, dance while fiddling and singing. It’s a bit harder than patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time!
— Listening to the Burns Sisters sing about losing their father, which brought me to tears.
— Laughing out loud at brilliantly funny performers like Louden Wainwright III, Tom Paxton, and especially Mike Cross and Christine Lavin (the latter sometimes concluding her very funny sets with a display of baton twirling!)
— The aforementioned Bryan Bowers singing about surviving a year in prison for being caught smoking pot, a song so moving that several thousand people jumped to their feet and gave him a long standing ovation.
— Kathy Mattea bringing the audience to tears with the song Where’ve You Been, one of the most moving songs ever written.
— Janis Ian—known for her powerful ballads—proving she can be a powerhouse on stage with her guitar playing and killer song A Good Day to Die;
— Michael Cooney co-hosting with the amazing Gene Shay for many years, turning us on to wonderful songs like Hamlet (an awesome condensed three-minute version of the Shakespeare play) and hysterical tunes from Lou and Peter Berryman like The F-word Song (A Chat with Your Mother);
— John Flynn singing moving original songs for grownups and funny originals for kids like A Manatee Sneezed on Me; and a personal favorite:
— Tommy Emmanuel joining Janis Ian on stage to add his unbelievable guitar playing and musicianship to her classic song At Seventeen.
Clogging groups—dancers who dance in sync with each other with their arms straight down at their sides—would occasionally be part of the lineup. This type of dancing is all about legwork and teamwork, and it can be awesome to watch. In particular, I recall watching the Green Grass Cloggers perform while I was in an altered state one year; they seemed like a giant dancing caterpillar controlled by a single mind! (Don’t try this at home!)
The list of great performers I got to see over the years is far too long to list here, but it includes John Prine, Jim Croce, Don McLean, Steve Goodman, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Judy Collins and countless others.
One technological note: In the early years, the amplifiers that were available were barely up to the task of broadcasting sound across a large hillside. Every year, the audience would end up chanting “TURN IT UP! TURN IT UP!” The sound people would try their best (sometimes leading to ear-piercing feedback!). Over time, of course, the technology improved. Now, listeners on the hillside often have the opposite problem: The sound sometimes gets so loud that I’ve seen people leave the hillside because they couldn’t stand the pounding bass!
Hanging out with good friends and family!
When I first started attending the festival I either went alone or with a friend. But over the years I got to know many of the folks who came to the festival every year, and even better, more friends and acquaintances of mine (and eventually, my wife) became interested in joining me. In recent years, a core group of 10 or 12 friends and family members have come every year to camp together, joined by other friends who show up when their lives allow. We tell stories around the fire, exchange fun presents (for example light toys, food, the occasional CD) and catch up on each other’s lives since the previous Festival. Sunday mornings we make a pancake breakfast that we all share. It’s a wonderful thing, especially when you’re in such a magical setting. And of course, it’s a great opportunity to spend time with younger family members (for example, nieces and nephews) we don’t get to see the rest of the year.
One reason it’s so much fun is that everyone gets to let down their hair and be silly. One year, as we were assembled around the campfire, a friend asked me to recite the classic tale of how I met my wife (you can read that story on this website! It’s called The Song That Changed Everything.) As I told the story, she proceeded to do “an interpretive dance,” resulting in gales of laughter!
We also sing songs around the campfire—many of them funny songs! (Big surprise!) A perennial favorite is The Wee Wee Song, written by Peter Alsop and often performed by the late Utah Philips (“It’s only a wee wee, so what’s the big deal? It’s only a wee wee, so what’s all the fuss? It’s only a wee wee and everyone’s got one; there’s much better things to discuss!”)
The festival is so popular, and draws so many people every year, that it’s also inevitable that you’ll occasionally run into old friends who have fallen out of touch. I’ve encountered long-lost relatives, old lovers, friends from the distant past and school chums. One of the first young ladies I ever dated turned up on the hillside one year. It was a sweet memory, although we’d gone our separate ways. We just said hi and smiled!
Dancing to terrific bands!
With more than 100 musical acts most years, some are bound to be great fun to dance to. (Irish and Scottish bands are often big winners in this department.) Often, everyone on the hillside jumps to their feet and boogies—hence my song Moonbeam Boogie!
In the early days, when the festival attracted fewer people, and mostly a younger audience, a good dance band sometimes evoked another response: People in the audience would form human chains by holding hands and then race across the hillside like a human snake, between (and something over) people’s blankets. It was wild and chaotic, and yes, great fun! In recent years, the audience has grown and the hillside is packed with people, making it impossible to pull that off. (Plus all of those gung-ho young people ain’t so young anymore!)
It’s also a treat to watch other people dance—especially when they’re really talented. On more than one occasion I watched a young dancer stand by herself in the rain and put on a performance that was breathtaking, worthy of a TV-show dance competition. Two dear friends of ours who are expert ballroom dancers once danced in front of the crowd to cheers, until the volunteers in charge of keeping the paths clear made them move along!
One night it started to rain during the evening concert. I was a little weary of the weather that day, so, a little depressed, I retreated to the top of the hillside where the food tents are located and bought some ice cream on a stick. As I stood under the eave of the food pavilion, out of the rain and eating my ice cream, a group of young women began to do a glorious dance in the rain right in front of me. Eventually it dawned on me: Why the heck am I feeling sorry for myself?? I’m eating ice cream, listening to terrific music and watching a bunch of young women dancing their hearts out! Now that’s entertainment!
One of the great joys of camping at the festival is that people in the campground have permission to be as silly and entertaining as they wish. The different groups that camp together usually have amusing names for their group campsite (for example, Bandanna Republic, and Azzole Country), as well as crazy décor, ranging from swinging saloon doors to stuffed animal heads to amazing architecture made out of PVC piping.
Favorite memories in this category include:
— a young man dressed in a tuxedo and white gloves from the waist up, shorts and sandals from the waist down, carrying a silver tray with hors d’ouvres, which he offered to people walking through the campground;
— a huge “sculpture” made of dozens of wrecked lawn chairs piled in a heap;
— endless rolls of bubblewrap laid out across the main camp road for people to walk and/or dance on, with loud nonstop popping;
— people wearing crazy, colorful outfits, sometimes complete with battery-powered lights after dark; and
— my school chum Bill Houston creating giant faces—and most notably, a giant banjo at the 50th festival—made of light sticks.
I even watched a couple get married in the campground one night, with much partying and cheering from the assembled crowd!
Of course, being a silly person myself, I’ve contributed to this phenomenon. In the early days of my festival attendance, campers walked down the hill from the campground to swim in the little lake at the foot of Clemer’s Mill Road and eat at the chicken barbecue that took place by the water—put on by the local fire department to raise money, if memory serves. (In later years that land was bought by someone new and access was restricted.) Across from the lake at the bottom of the road, the gray Victorian house on the corner was owned by a woman who sold vintage hats on her front lawn. People enjoyed trying them on and checking out the result in a large mirror she provided.
One year I purchased a huge Mexican sombrero and started wearing it during the daytime concerts (except when sitting on the hillside in front of someone!) Being 6’5”, it was a striking image! Over the years I fell into a routine of dancing in the sombrero in front of
the crowd every Saturday afternoon, wearing a colorful T-shirt. I routinely got compliments, thumbs up, big grins and hugs from complete strangers. Eventually a photographer for one of the local papers captured a photo of me in action, and the next year it showed up on the cover of their Sunday magazine!
I knew I’d established a festival tradition when one year a middle-aged man came up to me with a big grin. He said he hadn’t been able to attend the festival for several years, so he was thrilled to see I was still doing my dance!
Singing in the campground!
While it’s a treat to hear the folks who entertain for a living on the big stages, there’s no question that another treat is hearing some of the musicians who aren’t on the official program singing in the campground during the day or at night after the main concert ends. You’ll hear live music at many of the tent-group hangouts—or in recent years, on the official Front Porch Stage in the campground, which replaced the big campfire that served this purpose in the early days. The talent level varies, but I’ve heard some amazing songwriters and performers in the campground. I’ve joined in as well, sometimes with surprising results.
One year, after I wrote my popular song Piece of the Puzzle, I played it numerous times in the campground. To my surprise, the next year I was approached by a DJ from Miami who was attending the festival. A fellow musician had told him how much he liked Piece of the Puzzle, and the DJ came up from Florida to hear it! (I’m sure he enjoyed partying all weekend as an extra benefit!) I played it for him in person, and he told me that if I sent him a recording of it, he’d play it on the air. In the weeks after the festival I made a basic recording of the song, and he did indeed play it, more than once. (Eventually I recorded a fully produced version, which has been played on several radio stations on both coasts.)
One fond memory was made a few years back when I picked up my guitar from the Festival’s official instrument checkroom tent, where, for a small fee, you can leave your instrument so you don’t have to carry it around or leave it unprotected in your tent. It was after midnight and I was getting ready to sing on the Front Porch Stage. I hadn’t sung all day, so after I retrieved it, I stood right there by the instrument-check tent and sang the song I like to use as a warm-up: Cat Stevens’ arrangement of the old hymn Morning Has Broken. As usual, I started quietly, and then sang with more heart as my voice began to warm up. I didn’t think anyone was listening, but after I finished, a woman sitting nearby came over and told me that this would be her favorite Festival memory. (And now it’s one of mine!)
The other fun part about singing in the campground is meeting and becoming friends with other musicians. Perhaps the most memorable case in point is the enduring friendship my wife and I struck up with the members of the Philadelphia Jug Band.
One year my wife and I were wandering around the enormous campground to see what music we might have been missing. By chance, we found the Philadelphia Jug Band compound—a group of tents with a huge living-room sized canopy in the center that opened onto one of the main pathways through the campground. The open area under the canopy served as a makeshift stage. We found the group performing traditional jug band tunes for a jovial crowd of onlookers. Suddenly, my wife realized she knew the washboard player—they’d both worked at a New York City museum a few years earlier! That connection led to our becoming friends with the guys in the band, and eventually my standing in the background playing along with them on my six-string guitar.
The Jug Band was happy to share the spotlight with a regular cast of “guest artists” who would stop by, and over time I became one of them, stepping forward to entertain the crowd when the band needed a break. But perhaps one of the most fun things to emerge from our association with the Jug Band was that my wife decided that the washboard was a perfect instrument for her! (Earlier in life she
studied concert harp—you know, the big gold things played by the pros in symphony orchestras. She likes to point out that strumming on a washboard uses the same arm motions!)
Joining the Jug Band for a few tunes became one of our favorite Friday and Saturday night campground rituals every year. And because of that, we made some terrific friends, including guitarist Jim Klingler; harmonica virtuoso Bob Beach, guitarist Frank Zemlan, washboard and kazoo player (and museum director) Steve Miller, washtub bass player Dave Gauck, mandolin players Steve Bornstein and Sam Adams, and hammer dulcimer player Terry McGrath (among many others).
Enjoying (and surviving) the weather!
The festival is a multi-day outdoor event, so the weather is an inescapable part of the experience, especially if you’re camping. Over the years—like many campers—we’ve experienced an amazing variety of weather. Of course that includes many halcyon days, when the weather is picture-perfect—not too hot, low humidity, breezy and sunny. But it also has included every other type of late-summer weather you can think of:
— Heat. Ironically, while the average world temperature has been slowly climbing over the years, the hottest Folk Fests I can remember were in the 1980s. (However, in recent years my perception may have been skewed, because we’ve camped offsite in locations where we have some shade. It may be that those earlier festivals just seemed hotter because it was so hard to escape from the sun!) Even without 100-degree heat, being in the sun all afternoon on a hot day can be tough to tolerate; at one recent festival my wife had to go to the medical tent; it turned out she was on the verge of heatstroke! (Gatorade to the rescue!) One year the local fire department showed up and sprayed anyone in need of a cool-down!
— Cool nights. After a hot day, a cool night is usually a treat—as long as you’re prepared for it! The first time or two I attended the festival I had no idea how cold you can get sitting on a hillside for hours under a cloudless sky. Sixty degrees doesn’t sound very cold, and it’s not if you’re jumping around and/or you have layers to put on as the temperature drops. I recall how I shivered for hours on end when I came with nothing but the clothes on my back and sat under a starry sky until midnight. I haven’t made that mistake since!
— Prolonged drought. At least once the festival was held following a long stretch of dry weather. The result was an experience that resembled the “dust bowl” during the Great Depression. Every breeze picked up dust and dirt and pelted us with it. Eyeglasses had to be wiped clean of dust every few minutes. People wore bandanas over their nose and mouth to try and minimize the amount of dust we inhaled. The heat of the day was, in one sense, less oppressive because the humidity was close to zero. However, that same low humidity made it difficult to breathe. Everyone’s clothing—and thousands of tents—were covered in dust. The festival was as much fun as ever, but the music wasn’t the main thing most of us remembered from that year.
— Mud. On the other hand, more than once the festival followed a period of excessive rain (sometimes including rain during the event), leaving the entire festival grounds very muddy. The festival is a walking event, and when you have to walk several miles over the course of a weekend, endless mud is not your friend! In an attempt to make things manageable, the folks in charge usually put down lots of hay over the muddy spots. This does make you less likely to sink into slime, but it also creates a fairly intense smell of rotting hay when the sun beats down on it!
— Rain. Of course, an outdoor concert is a setup for being exposed to sudden weather events; some rain events are more memorable than others. A passing shower during an evening concert leads everyone to throw on a poncho or pop up a small umbrella, or pull their tarp over their heads. A downpour is another matter. Nothing compares to sitting on a tarp in the rain and realizing that a wave of water has come down the hill behind you and is washing over your tarp, soaking your sorry rear end!
Other memorable rain experiences include a time after our group had begun camping at a separate campsite away from the Festival grounds. Lynn and I would hang out in the Festival campground with friends until the wee hours and then walk a mile down the road to our own campsite. One Saturday night it commenced pouring rain as we set out to walk home about 3:00 a.m. There’s nothing quite like walking a mile exhausted and drenched!
— Storms. Some amazing storms have blown through during the Festival. Undoubtedly the worst ever was the remnants of a hurricane that passed through on Friday night the year before I started coming to the Festival, so I missed out on that. But many years we’ve seen powerful storms with high winds and rain that took down (or picked up!) tents in the camping area. I remember hiding out one afternoon in the large and sturdy dance tent, watching heavy rain whipped around by strong wind gusts as a squall passed through.
During one recent Festival, the concert was paused in the early evening because of a severe storm warning. I got up from my spot on the hillside, took my gear and walked up under the overhang of one of the food shacks, standing in front of the counter. Thinking I’d be protected from any rain, I didn’t put on the poncho I carried in my backpack.
The next thing you know, I was being bombarded by high winds and torrential rain! The overhang was totally worthless in the storm, and I was trapped in front of the food counter, rapidly getting drenched. I scrambled to keep my belongings from blowing away, while madly trying to find the poncho in my backpack—and then get the poncho on in the high winds. By the time I did, I was soaked. Finally, the kind folks in the food tent let me come back behind the counter, but by then my dignity was long gone!
Seeing great beauty!
Being out in nature surrounded by thousands of happy individuals, seeing some beautiful sights is inevitable. We’ve gotten to see spectacular sunsets; double rainbows; a total solar eclipse; and loons, ducks and beavers in the nearby Perkiomen Creek! Now that’s entertainment!
A few memorable highlights:
— Spectacular lightning. Some storms pass nearby without directly hitting the Festival. One night several years ago, a huge storm passed behind the stage during the evening concert; the sky was filled with lightning for an hour or two (conveniently located in the direction everyone was already looking)!
— Moon and stars. One of my favorite Festival experiences of all happened in the early years. The eastern United States had endured a two-week-long hot spell. When I arrived at the festival, the air was muggy—so much so that it was hard to breathe. On Friday night you could barely see a star because of the haze. Then, overnight, a cold front came through, pushing away the humidity and dust and stale air. On Saturday, the air was cool and crisp and delightful. And that night, sitting on the hillside listening to the music, the sky was extraordinary. A million stars were visible; it felt like being out in deep space with nothing between you and the universe.
Then, I watched as the crescent moon set slowly behind the stage. A ridge with trees along the top was behind the stage, and as the moon sank down, I could see every leaf on every branch silhouetted against the bright white crescent of the moon. It was an extraordinary, gorgeous sight that I’ve never forgotten.
— Hot air balloons. These often pass over the Festival. I can only imagine what the festival must look like from the air, but the colorful, slowly drifting balloons are always a lovely sight from the ground.
— Sky lanterns. To celebrate the 50th Philly Folk Festival, the campers organized the simultaneous release of 50 sky lanterns (in which the hot air from a candle fastened below a paper bag causes the whole thing to soar up into the air). At midnight on Saturday that year, hundreds of campers gathered and put on a glorious show, as the brightly lit lanterns slowly lifted together into the sky. (Realizing the fire danger, the Festival asked campers to refrain from repeating the event in future years!)
— Light shows! One of the nicest visuals during the festival is provided by people with illuminated hula hoops after dark during the evening concerts. If you’ve never seen an illuminated hula hoop, it looks like a clear hula hoop with a string of lit up Christmas lights inside the tube. When the hoop is
spinning around someone’s waist or arms, or being thrown up into the air in the dark, the visual is pretty amazing. When multiple folks are doing this at the same time (to wonderful music), it’s glorious! And it happens reliably every year!
We’ve also contributed some after-dark visual spectacles over the years. At some point I tracked down a “light toy” I’d seen at a concert, and the next thing you know, I was accumulating a collection of different light toys, featuring spinning multicolored lights, rotating illuminated objects and flashing images. For many years we brought two boxes of them to the festival, and on after dark Saturday night at the concert we’d hand out the lights to everyone sharing our tarp on the hillside. We’d all wave them around in time to the music, creating a pretty spectacular display (if I say so myself!) We eventually let that tradition fade away, but I still have an awesome collection of light toys!
The joys and perils of camping!
Camping is always an adventure, but it’s another ballgame when you’re camping on a hillside with thousands of other people who are there to party in late summer! Living in a tent, surviving the heat, and trying to sleep in the midst of high-volume carrying-on make this particular camping trip one-of-a-kind.
My very first Festival was memorable in this respect; I’d never camped before. I’d been invited by a female acquaintance from school who didn’t want to go by herself, so I bought two sleeping bags and a tarp (no tent!) and joined her there. At the time, the Festival was only in its second year at the Schwenksville Poole Farm location; as a result, many camping rules that were enacted later didn’t exist yet—including the rule that says you can’t camp within 20 feet of the fence surrounding the campground. With no tent—just the tarp—we tied two corners of the tarp to the fence top and put rocks on the other corners, creating a lean-to that would hopefully keep any rain off. We weren’t interested in each other romantically, and the first night went fine with the two sleeping bags.
In the morning, it seemed sensible to roll up the sleeping bags and leave them under the tarp. But that night, someone had walked off with one of them! Meanwhile, my friend and I were not getting along well at all; by the time we were ready to call it a night, we weren’t speaking. But it was chilly, so we ended up sleeping back-to-back in the one remaining sleeping bag. A great first camping experience! (From that year forward, I always showed up with a tent.)
Camping at Fest is an experience unlike any other; it’s a bit like sailing in a whirlpool of craziness, music and loud laughter that continues unabated until about 5:00 a.m. Then the sun immediately comes up and the temperature inside your tent quickly reaches 110 degrees. Partaking of this experience really is fun (and a little bit unworldly), but it’s not for the faint-hearted! It’s definitely not for anyone who requires much sleep.
I also recall one year when I became totally fed up with the impossibility of sleeping. By Sunday night, even the most diehard individuals had run out of steam, and the partying stopped. I chose that moment to find a suitable spot and sang my heart out for an hour, as loudly as I could. Vengeance is a dish best served loudly…
Over time, my wife and I became acquainted with the other fun aspects of camping at Fest, such as the occasional sopping wet tent and the occasional failure of one’s camping gear (for example, deflated air beds). Eventually we did get better camping gear—not a bad idea as your body slowly ages from one year to the next! But better gear can also break down. One year we brought a collapsible bed with an accordion-like metal frame that could hold an inflatable mattress up off the ground. The very first night it fell apart while we were finally getting some rest! (Duct tape to the rescue!)
One adventure we like to share happened after my wife started coming to the festival. We were living in New York, so we had to take the train back to the city on Sunday afternoon so we could get up and go to work Monday morning. Because it poured rain much of Sunday, we had no choice but to fold up the soaking wet tent, throw it into its carry bag and head for the train.
In the fancy Amtrak Metroliner, we placed the large, heavy, wet tent sack into the overhead bin and settled in for the hour and a half ride. Almost immediately, drops of water began dripping from the overhead rack onto us and nearby passengers. Feigning ignorance, we spent the trip surreptitiously using Kleenex tissues to try and soak up the drops before they could fall onto our neighboring passengers, all the while saying “Gee! Where could this water be coming from? I just can’t imagine!”
It should come as no surprise that as we aged (it happens), we eventually grew weary of not being able to sleep for four days. So, in recent years, we’ve opted to camp nearby rather than in the official campground. That at least raises the possibility of getting some rest, and mitigates some issues like a complete lack of shade at the festival campground. But we always get tickets to the campground anyway, so we can sing and party and enjoy the madness—and then go down the road a ways and get some sleep!
Any time you have an annual event that attracts thousands of people, unexpected things will sometimes happen. For example:
— The first year I attended, dozens of members of the Warlocks motorcycle gang decided to check out the festival. I’m guessing that they didn’t buy tickets; they just showed up en masseon Saturday afternoon and came into the concert area. (Who’s going to argue with a large group of determined bikers?) I’m sure many regular attendees were nervous that trouble would ensue, but as a New Yorker, I took it upon myself to help make sure everything stayed calm and cheerful. I went out of my way to treat them like everybody else, with a smile. And everything went well. They stayed a while, checked out the arts & crafts booths, listened to some of the music and then disappeared as quickly as they had appeared.
— If you do something with friends and acquaintances every year for decades, you’ll eventually lose a few of them. One died during the festival while driving nearby in the wee hours of the morning. Others simply never returned, and we eventually found out that they’d passed during the year.
— Perhaps one of the strangest moments happened when the festival was suddenly put on lockdown one afternoon; no one was allowed in or out. It turned out that a camper had passed away in her tent, and the police had to make sure she’d died of natural causes.
— The official campground is on a hillside, with so-called heavy camping—pop-ups, trucks, RVs and the like—at the top of the hill on a flat area. One year, a truck came unmoored and started down the hill, taking several tents down before stopping. Luckily, everyone was attending a concert, so the tents were empty.
— With food tents at the top of the hill facing the main stage, it was probably inevitable that something would eventually go wrong. And one year it did; a propane tank caught fire during an afternoon concert. Everyone on the hillside was ushered to the bottom of the hill, while the fire department showed up and drove away with the burning tank. (Luckily, no one was injured—including the brave firemen!)
An unforgettable pleasure!
Attending the Festival every August for so many years has been a wonderful part of my life. It’s one of these recurring, marvelous experiences that’s always fun, exhausting, beautiful, memorable and irreplaceable.
One year when my wife and I had moved from New York to the Philadelphia area, and were living about a hour from the festival in my childhood home, my wife couldn’t join me at the festival because a family member was very ill. So I attended the festival alone. It wasn’t the same, although I spent plenty of time with friends. One of the things I remember most about that festival was driving home that Monday morning. I was so exhausted that I had to keep jabbing myself to stay awake at the wheel. Luckily, I made it home in one piece.
In a way, that sums up the Folk Festival experience: It’s so much fun that it leaves you drained but smiling, full of wonderful memories and looking forward to the next year’s festival.
I wouldn’t miss it!