Days of Future Come to Pass: Regenerating Folk Music Generations
Anticipating the next fifty years of The Philadelphia Folksong Society
By Roger Deitz
Columnist, Sing Out! magazine
With all due respect to Sigmund Freud who knew next to nothing about 5-string banjo technique and who defensively quipped, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” I am going to begin by observing that sometimes a program book is more than just a program book. Those I own from The Philadelphia Folk Festival suggest that a folk festival as well may be more than it seems, and its collective legacy transcends each single annual weekend of musical enjoyment. There is something unique that The Philadelphia Folksong Society has given us through 50 years and 46 festivals that prove valuable beyond the tuneful obvious. That is – as we share our music with each other, as we participate, we help keep alive its many forms and invariably pass the music along to future generations to enjoy and possess as the years go by. This no matter what our particular musical likes or dislikes, because presenting diverse music to so many listeners not only causes us to broaden our vistas, it enables the various musical genres to endure.
Of course, some wisdom comes with perspective…I never could have seen this when first dazzled by the great many performances I encountered during one given Philadelphia Folk Festival weekend nearly forty years ago. It’s like discovering that there is a difference between falling in love, and knowing why you’re in love. Or like tasting your first and thirtieth strawberry smoothie. As I pore over my collection of Philadelphia Folk Festival program books, I note that performers may come and go, but over time this event still presents a wide range of music and draws an audience with diverse tastes and common ground. There is always some connection between the past, contemporary performers and the world outside the main gate. The sounds of today echo into the future with new participants discovering and growing the music. Just as you and I have done. All of which reflects how our community is sustained. This is the folk process in action. Like picking and singing on the front porch with a few of your closest neighbors, except that the C.F. Martin Stage makes for a rather impressive front porch, and we sure have a large, neighborly gathering place on the Old Pool Farm in Schwenksville.
This is an event of rather grand magnitude that gathers us all together into one family of listeners. The Festival and Society volunteers that keep this party going in such professional fashion must be thanked for creating an event that so successfully celebrates the music, the musicians and the attendees. Songs can be heard from campers as well as from the artists on stage. There are always surprises to stumble upon. It is safe to say that many of us have our own reasons for being here. We have our own favorites, but the event pulls us together. And once we are together we grow as devotees, grow with the music we hear, just as some of us have grown up year to year at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
During the years I attended or performed at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, I used, then carried home program books from each weekend of music. Beginning my collection in the late 1960s, I remember sitting with my friends on a blanket awash in that vast sea of attendees. Flipping through the pages, we would quip, “Who is that on stage? I’ll check out the program book.” “Wait until you hear this next group! The book says they’re from Scotland.” “What workshops are you going to tomorrow? I don’t know, it’s hard to choose, what does the schedule say?” Through the years these program books were a guide and a document of my experiences here at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the venue which compelled me to learn more about folk music. They are telling souvenirs. I’ve been using these booklets ever since I started writing about folk music, and now again that I was asked to write this piece.
It was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival where I, like so many other enthusiasts, was first bitten by the folk bug. One good bite and you’re forever bitten, or is that forever smitten? My earliest recollections include scenes similar to today…encountering fellow attendees of all ages, watching parents with children in tow, families or groups of friends reclining on a blanket or making their way to this or that stage for one or another program. Occasionally in the rain, much more often under the warm August sun or cool summer evenings. More purple or pink streaked hair lately, and some novel anatomical sites for jewelry piercings. Lots of food venders and crafters. Always there are so many smiling people.
At one of my early festivals, I came upon a modest, seemingly ancient, old gentleman named Paul Cadwell. He was casually sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of the field effortlessly turning his banjo into a resplendent orchestra full of plunk and spunk. He was playing ragtime and patriotic anthems rapidly note for note. “You should have heard him when he was younger!” someone whispered to me. “What? Are you kidding? He played better than that?” It just was not possible to perform such music on the banjo…or was it? At the same festival there was this charismatic young fellow named Michael Cooney playing his banjo, rendering nifty songs such as “Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase,” weaving light-hearted this-and-thats into charming entertainment. The truth is that Paul was himself a young man when he originally took up the “classic” style of banjo, his instrument and method as antique as his studies at Princeton. On the other hand, in recent years Michael was now sporting a graying beard. Time marches on, or is it the fifth string drones on?
I still see young performers and attendees toting banjos around and buying lots of festival T-shirts. I wore a medium T-shirt when I started coming here. A large T-shirt for the 25th anniversary with my name listed on it was a proud possession and more recently, for some unexplained reason, I have been buying extra-large size shirts. But, my own musical “growth” aside, the festival still offers lots of shirts of all sizes, including a healthy number of cute little ones for the cute little ones. And they say size doesn’t matter. Well, size does matter. It is heartwarming to watch the youngsters engaged, listening at the various musical stages or participating in programs in Dulcimer Grove. And I’m not just juggling words about. Catch my point here?
When I showcased in 1988, I did so along with those young up-and-comers Shawn Colvin, Cliff Eberhardt and Bill Miller. What ever happened to them? That next year, I was emceeing from the main stage and looking out at the very spot where I had, with my friends, viewed the proceedings years earlier. And here’s just a little more irony for the irony board. (There must be a Festival Irony Board, perhaps reporting to Programming or Hospitality?) It’s time to quote myself. In 1994 my editor, Sing Out Corporation Executive Director Mark Moss gave me the assignment to write a Sing Out! feature story titled “Generation F” about “a few younger artists (age 25 or under) who are carrying forth various traditions.” It was a study of where we might be heading, as younger folks were having their way with the music.
Among those included in the article were a good sampling of players with a range of focus from Shetland, Cape Breton and Cajun fiddling to American old-time traditional, blues, traditional Irish, bhangra, and singer-songwriter. The list included Catriona MacDonald, Natalie MacMaster, Eleanor and Leela Grace, Seamus Egan, Peter Schwarz, Sue Foley, Manni Rebel, Jason Eklund, Moxy Fruvous and Ani DiFranco. Ani was 23 years old when I interviewed her for the article. She as the others, spoke with mature insight about their place in the scheme of things. DiFranco was born September of 1970…after I started attending The Philadelphia Folk Festival. That would make her close to 37 now, the age I was when first tagged to emcee and play the PFF main stage. What ever happened to me? We know what happened to Ani. Now let’s have an impromptu program book storytelling workshop. From Sing Out! Vol. 38 No. 4, 1994. I wrote,
“What does it mean to be part of a tradition, a link in the chain? What is the significance of carrying a tradition from the past through the present, only to lay it at the doorstep of the next generation? This is the legacy of Generation ‘F.’
“I can begin to address these questions by citing an example from my experience. Aside from history books and a few letters and photographs, my grandmother was my only link to my family’s past. She came to America at the turn of the century from St. Petersburg, Russia, which was, according to her recollection, loads of laughs even before the Soviets joined in the fun. With a few hastily packed bags, young Clara took with her a new husband and a handful of ways and traditions unique to her and her people. Although some clerk forever altered her (my) Russian family name on an official document at a desk on Ellis Island, and although America relentlessly worked to reshape her, her four sons and ten grandchildren, there was still a conscious effort on all our parts to bring forward the essence, the spirit, and the lessons of that which went before us.
“I offer as the most basic example, the taking of tea, which we would drink as we talked about czarist Russia. To others, a cup of tea was merely a bag and some boiled water. Not to grandmother. There was more to it. Old Grandma brewed her tea from leaves, and drank her tea from a glass, sipping it through a cube of sugar. A samovar was required to really do the job right. To her, tea was a prop, a catalyst to conversation, as it was for countless Eastern European and Russian Jews sitting in tea shops, family rooms, and cafeterias throughout the world, throughout generations. In the new country the tea was Lipton, the sugar Domino, the glass Libbys, but the link to yesterday was certain. The tea was not completely brewed without the final ingredients of conversation and debate.
“Today, as my beard grows grayer, I rarely use a samovar, but the mystical elements of tea and dialogue, the slowly sipped flavor of the old country, the joy of arguing a fine philosophical point, of debating and reflecting, these elements are all there in my adaptation, my assimilation of a tradition.
“I surmise from a number of tea conversations that some of my colleagues think of traditional music as a snapshot or sound bite of the past, a fossil to be dated with carbon 14. A particular song must be played only as played the night before O’Carolan died or, what I have more often found to be the case, played the way some harpist or fiddler played it back in 1953 when the collector’s ears first encountered the piece.
“The reality of the passing of any tradition is that each participant imbues the precious cargo with their own personal stamp. Today, even an old tune ‘played in the tradition of the time’ with period instruments and in the manner of the past is influenced by artists whose ears and techniques and minds have been exposed, shaped, and formed by modern styles and suggestions. This is not a bad thing. After all, we are neither apes, parrots, nor recording machines, but people. A tradition’s relevance is the bearing of what went before on what is today, and what will be tomorrow.
“No doubt, such was the case for the fiddler who played a particular air heard in 1953, or for her teacher in 1918, or for the fellow from County Clare who taught the teacher back in 1878, or for his mother who learned that song from her aged uncle around the time of the Great Potato Famine of 1845.
“Even with a musical form as seemingly rigid as classical music, elements such as pitch, instrumentation, tempo, and articulation have evolved over the years since the times of Beethoven and Mozart. In Brahms’ ‘Fourth Symphony,’ a wealth of innovation was deemed not traditional by some because of its progressive changes. Igor Stravinsky, defending its place in the tradition observed, ‘True tradition is not witness to a self-contained past. It is a living force that inspires and teaches the present. A tradition is taken up in order to make something new. In this way tradition ensures creative continuity.’” I concur and conclude,
“Traditional music is a dynamic, living, developing art form. Each generation leaves its mark. Always, we hope, there are young people who take what they discover and keep the tradition in play for others. Inevitably they add some personal touch and create something new: an infusion of music brewed and steeped today, with the distinct flavor of the past.”
So, that was 1994. Still fits the situation to a “tea, or T?” I was writing about that year’s young performers. This year at the festival you will listen to some younger folks on the main stage such as The Mammals, Queby Sisters, Back of the Moon, Pine Leaf Boys, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Green Cards and Lovell Sisters. Many more young people will play on other stages, sit in the audience or work in other capacities at this festival, all shoulder to shoulder with more elder youngsters. The tradition continues. And by just being here, you help ensure the tradition continues. You are part of a tradition and the tradition just by attending or volunteering or picking or singing or dancing or listening. You are part of that perpetual (ageless?) family of listeners, perhaps meeting some of your festival friends each year. If you are attending for the first time, good luck to you, there is so much here for you to experience this weekend, and if you make the most of it, enough to carry with you for the rest of your days. I admire your adventure.
Some of the greatest discoveries come from the least obvious places. One of my best banjo lessons came from a husky old fellow in the parking lot, he was sitting on the tailgate of his pickup truck, frailing a few tunes as folks passed by heading for the PFF main gate. I stopped to watch and listen, until he asked, “Is there something I can do for you? Do you play?” He saw I had my banjo slung over my shoulder. I jumped at the chance to sit next to him and within a half an hour, he had my brain and fingers doing what they should. What a great teacher this fellow. He was a stranger I never saw again, but his lessons stayed with me. Throughout the years, so many others were there to listen, offer support and friendship.
Just as if he had known me for years, (he hadn’t – almost no one here at the PFF did in the mid-1970s) Bruce (Utah) Phillips visited with me for hours and we played a bunch of songs – one on one – an afternoon way back when. Bruce and I met each other by way of John Pedersen, a young banjo player I knew from Albany. For a time John was a member of – one more for the irony board – Fennigs All-Star String Band, a group at this year’s Philadelphia Folk Festival. Bruce and I walked and talked about this and that around the grounds, then later, I got to compare the sound of him playing on a seat next to me, to his work on the main stage where he was an emcee that weekend. It was impressive to watch a guy, who took the time to chew the fat with me, perform those same songs for the greater crowd. He was now larger than life. I wondered why a performer from the main stage took time to sit with some scruffy kid in the campgrounds.
Again, one for the irony board. Years later I was emceeing the evening concert on the main stage of the Philadelphia Folk Festival as I did for a number of festivals. I played a couple of tunes I wrote. All went well. Then it was my job to introduce Utah Phillips. When I was done playing and finished with his intro, Utah, rather than head to his microphone setup at center stage, veered over to me at the emcee spot. He was seemingly oblivious to the fact he had just been introduced to thousands of people who were waiting to hear him. They were welcoming him with applause. He appeared neither to notice nor care. Bruce stared at me remarking, “Beautiful, just beautiful,” he said, “lovely song.” I thanked him of course…then physically led him over to start his performance. It is a spooky thing to perform for a large crowd until you have done it a number of times, but Utah’s acknowledgment made me feel that all was right with the world. I got the job done to his specifications. Full circle? Well maybe, but certainly an example of continuity and a testament to the way things play out in the grand scheme of things. Utah was as supportive as he had been years earlier, long before I stepped on a festival stage, long before I ever dreamed of doing so.
From Celtic to Klezmer, we all have our favorites…blues, string band, world, ethnic, singer-songwriter, instrumental, gospel or what have you. We learn when we are young and as we grow older. We learn best when we enjoy what we are learning. Unlike trigonometry, learning about folk music is fun (sorry, for you math geeks, just searching for an example to which I can relate). But – it sure doesn’t feel like learning.
It’s about participating. Whatever our tastes or age. One doesn’t have to be a performer to participate. Camping is participating, listening is participating, volunteering is participating, singing along is participating, dancing is participating, and wearing a T-shirt sporting a political statement is participating. Just entering the main gate is participating.
You might come to listen to Arlo, Pete or Ani. You may come for the suntan or just to be part of an event. You may come to see friends or to camp, or to dance, or to introduce your family or friends to something very special. You may have a particular kind of music you like, or may be discovering a new favorite. But by fest-ing you also get to listen to stuff you would never have heard, or try a few dance steps. You might even buy a raffle ticket for a C.F. Martin Guitar, a few CDs or join the Philadelphia Folksong Society. Maybe you’ll purchase a Sing Out! magazine subscription or a silver ring for a best friend. Buy an item or not, at the end of the weekend you will always carry home something special. You are engaged…even without the ring. Yes, all festivals have their personalities, just like people. That’s as it should be. We are all trying to get it right. This one has its personality, and if you make the rounds, you will find that the others might be different in some way or another. The Philadelphia Folk Festival is special for what it has to offer. A community creating memories to last a lifetime.
I sincerely wish the Philadelphia Folksong Society a happy 50th anniversary. This is a milestone marking accomplishments great and small; good works and contributions enriching the lives of countless listeners of all ages who attuned their love of music from the efforts of the members of the Society and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Thank you for all you have done to bring music to our community, for sustaining the community, and for growing the community. A big thank you for the kindness you and your members and volunteers and artists have shown me time and again. Thanks too for this opportunity to reflect on the past and the future. Congratulations on fifty years of stirring the hearts and imaginations of your participants. May the next fifty years carry the dream along from the past to, “lay it at the doorstep of the next generation.” Ultimately, passing the romance of the music to so many others stands as one of the more enduring efforts of its kind…the Philadelphia Folk Festival. So, let’s all get with the program!
Roger Deitz is an advisory board member, columnist and regular Sing Out! contributor. During the past 35 years he has written about folk music for publications such as Frets, Acoustic Guitar, Fast Folk and Billboard. He is a familiar performer and emcee at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Roger is an educator, consultant and writer for schools, corporations and trade publications. You can learn more about him at www.rogerdeitz.com about Sing Out! at www.singout.org and The Philadelphia Folksong Society at www.pfs.org .