Few things in this world survive to 38 years. Primates and a few other mammals, some other species or flora and fauna, but most do not. For something to live and grow to 38 years, given all the odds against its survival, is quite an accomplishment, and no less so for the 38th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival.
From it's humble beginnings at the height of the folk revival in the early 60's, the Philadelphia Folk Festival is still produced and supported by the not-for-profit Philadelphia Folk Song Society when many other festivals have been consumed by corporate sponsorship. The Festival is still held for an entire weekend and has expanded to 6 performance stages including 2 specifically for children's and family programming. Camping on the Festival site is still my preferred method of madness and those of us who have raised our children there, the same third weekend in August for the last 20 years or so, have developed a bond, or perhaps a kinship.
The years have not been kind to my memory of performances past but a few of the highlights seem to shine through the mist. Years ago, after a brief sun shower, Ritchie Havens took the stage and after a short warm up, took off on a surreal version of 'Freedom'. As his sweat met the cooled down air, a fine steam could be seen rising up from his body giving the impression that the inspired troubador was on fire. If you remember your reaction the first time you heard his performance of that song at Woodstock, you'll begin to imagine the 'other worldliness' of seeing him do the song with equal passion, but this time on fire and smoking!
Other regulars have included Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Steve Goodman, Arlo Guthrie, Doc Watson, Beausoliel, The Roches, Saffire, Emmylou Harris, Corky Seigel, David Bromberg, Loudon Wainright and recently Tempest and Moxy Fruvous, Klezmatics, Dan Bern, Laura Love, Michelle Shocked, Keb 'Mo, and so many more that any attempt to continue would only prove embarrassing. Elizabeth Cotton would sit up on stage, wrapped in all of her majestic 90 years as she played 'Freight Train' as well as other revered classics. Pete Seeger shows up every now and again, just to tell us we're never too old to do something good and sing something important.
If you wonder why Los Lobos would play the Philadelphia Folk Festival, just ask David Hidalgo. He opened his set by telling us "this is the folk music we listen to in east L.A.", and went into a mindblowing rendition of "Rock and Roll Stew", at least that's how I remember it.
On Friday, August 27, I hope to have my tent staked, my sleeping bag unrolled, comfortable clothes and a comfortable chair nearby and a Panama hat firmly screwed down onto the top of my increasingly unprotected head. My boys have volunteered to work the Festival again this year, insuring them free admittance, free food, showers and air conditioned port-a-pots. I'll suffer along as I have for the last 21 years, creating comfort and opportunities where I can.
I'll smile or sing or shout or clap or dance or stomp along to John Prine, Chris Smither, Doc Watson, Steve Forbert, Dar Williams, Moxy Fruvous, Tempest, Balfa Toujours, Loudon Wainwright and of course, The Dry Branch Fire Squad.
Eric Clapton has never played the festival. Neither has Pete Townsend, but they could.