Reconnecting with the past and looking to the future, Philadelphia Folksong Society casts a wide net year-round

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Philadelphia Folk Festival | photo by Lisa Schaffer | SkylerBug.com
Philadelphia Folk Festival | photo by Lisa Schaffer | SkylerBug.com

Most organizations would sell their souls at the crossroads for even half the success the Philadelphia Folksong Society has achieved in the more than six decades since they were first founded. Not only is the Philadelphia Folk Festival the country’s longest continuously held outdoor music festival, but the Folksong Society is deeply ingrained in the cultural framework of the city. The organization’s archives, which have been continuously updated over the years, were recently found to house a fifth of all of Philadelphia’s musical history, an astonishing amount.

​So you might think that after all this that they might be resting on their proverbial laurels. But like so much of the music performed at the many concerts they host, the Folksong Society has remained dynamic and continued to grow. This is even more true since the organization moved into their new home on Ridge Avenue in Roxborough earlier this year.

​According to Executive Director of the Folksong Society Justin Nordell, “The Philadelphia Folksong Society’s mission is to preserve the past, promote the present, and secure the future of folk music, and this just allows us to do it that much better. The festival is an incredible undertaking and such a wondrous event and a great place for us to grow and enhance our community. However it’s really only four days a year. So us being able to engage the other 361 days is really paramount to our success in achieving that mission.”

​Outside of the regular concerts they hold, the organization also runs music classes and workshops and serves as the hub for the Philadelphia Music Co-op, a professional development initiative for musicians in the region. As Nordell put it, “We’re not talking ‘this is how you play the chord,’ we’re talking about ‘this is how you do your taxes,’ ‘this is how you route yourself through the Northeast,’ ‘this is why your webpage sucks,’ ‘this is why you’ll never get booked at this venue again.’ These kinds of things that artists need to know and rather than learning it on-the-go we’re trying to connect them in a cooperative style so they can learn from each other and learn from us.”

Philadelphia Folk Festival | photo by Lisa Schaffer | SkylerBug.com

​That dovetails quite nicely with the work he and others have been doing as part of the City of Philadelphia Music Industry Task Force — which, like the Folksong Society, has as its mission the past, present, and future of music making in our city. Since his appointment by Mayor Jim Kenney in March of last year he has been part of a number of initiatives including working on a set ‘fair pay’ for musicians performing at official civic events and dialoging with the Streets Department and the police to try and create what he referred to as “performer parking” around venues. Something like that would make it so bands, “aren’t forced to spend a large portion of their earnings on parking in Philadelphia,” he explained.

​The aforementioned archives also factor into both the organization’s new space and their involvement with this task force. Not only is the Folksong Society taking the steps towards putting up physical and digital archives – every Folk Fest going back to the first one in 1962 has been extensively documented and recorded – but Nordell told The Key that there is a push by the city to “preserve the past of Philadelphia’s music heritage” in a way that is “really catalogued and accessible to the public.”

​Nordell himself is an example of that past, present, and future: he has been going to Folk Fest for as long as he’s been alive and was named executive director in 2015. According to him, “My parents met at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and so if it wasn’t for the festival, I literally would not be here.” Now it’s his task to help lead this organization. He can start with this weekend’s festivities.

​The headliners for the three big concerts this year are Patty Griffin, Valerie June, and Wynona Judd. Although the Folksong Society, as Nordell put it, “booked the best music that we saw and it just happened to be some incredible female artists,” this does mean that due to those performers and many others appearing on the stage at Old Pool Farm they are adhering to the Keychange Pledge, an international initiative aimed at achieving gender parity at music festivals by 2022. Philadelphia Folk Fest is the first outdoor festival in the United States to take the pledge.

​The full lineup is a mix of familiar faces – David Bromberg, Chris Smither, Trout Fishing in America – and performers who are appearing for the very first time. One of the goals of the festival, Nordell explained, is to expose folk fans to new music: “We have so many wonderful artists that they know and love but what we love the most is that, ‘You come for the Bromberg and you leave with your new favorite artists.’”

Martha Redbone Roots Project will play Folk Fest this year | photo by Ebru Yildiz | via NPR Music

​One of the musicians appearing in the Philadelphia area for the first time ever is Jay Gilday, a singer songwriter from Yellowknife, Canada, about 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Gilday, who is indigenous from the Dene Nation, will be performing as part of a concert of Native American and First Nations musicians on Saturday. Also playing will be the country and roots singer William Prince, a member of the Peguis First Nation of Manitoba, and the always fabulous Martha Red Bone Roots Project, who comes from a Cherokee, Shawnee, Choctaw, and African American background. This will be the first time this type of showcase was organized at the festival.

​West Philadelphia Orchestra, a familiar name in the region even with non-folkies, is playing a Balkan and klezmer dance party Sunday night along with Whirled Music. Nordell told The Key that klezmer is a “beloved genre in our organization” and that they’d be holding a full series of related concerts from September until December at their Ridge Avenue performance space. That scene in Philadelphia is, “… so vibrant and there were so many klezmer musicians that were part of our founding members of the Folksong Society, so it’s really nice to just have an opportunity to continue that tradition,” he said. In addition to all that, Nordell and WPO percussionist Chad Brown went to elementary school together and, “It’s so cool that we can reconnect in these new ways.” Ask anyone who’s been to Folk Fest and they’ll tell you that’s really what it’s all about.

The Philadelphia Folk Festival takes place from Thursday, August 16th through Sunday, August 19th; tickets and more information can be found at the PFS website. This will be my second year attending the Folk Festival. While last year I wrote about the camp musicians, this year I’ll be interviewing some of the thousands of volunteers who keep the festival humming along year after year. Stay tuned to The Key next week for that feature!

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