“A Godfather of Folk”: The Folksong Society weighs in on Gene Shay’s retirement from the air

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Gene Shay | michellemontgomeryphotography.com
Gene Shay | michellemontgomeryphotography.com

“Who’s he going to hand the baton to? Who’s the next Gene?” wonders Lisa Schwartz. “Because he just knows so much. … Everybody knows him, everybody loves him, he’s got an incredible ear.”

The president of the Philadelphia Folksong Society was reminiscing about a man she described as “a well-deserved godfather of folk,” Gene Shay, who this week announced his retirement from the airwaves. Sunday, January 11th, is the first of his final four runs hosting The Folk Show on WXPN, with his final show coming on February 1st.

“I can’t imagine a Sunday night without him on the airwaves,” Schwartz says. “He’s just such a delightful human being, you kind of look forward to your visits with him. Even if we’re not in the same room, [when I tune in] I feel like I am.”

“It’s sad news, because Gene is such an institution,” says Rich Kardon of Point Entertainment, programmers of the Folk Festival. “Going back, growing up and hearing Gene on the radio, and all the way up to how he played such an integral part of what we did when The Point was open.”

Kardon says Shay introduced he and talent buyer Jesse Lundy to the Campbell family, who owned The Main Point – the original folk cafe in Bryn Mawr that his venue, The Point, was in many ways a homage to.

“At the same time,” Kardon adds, “this is great for him. It’s an opportunity for him to do stuff that he never got time to before.”

Schwartz says that, through PFS, she’s been close with Shay for four decades on both a personal level – he’s one of the first people she told when she got engaged – and a professional level – he is a past president of the PFS board, and continues to consult with her on Festival marketing. “We’re blessed to have him,” Schwartz says. “Heck, we wouldn’t have the smiley face logo if it wasn’t for Gene.”

PFS member Andy Braunfeld, also a past president of the board and current member of the Festival management team, says “We owe this festival to Gene and David Hadler. They put together the first one we had in Paoli, and it’s grown into this monster.”

Braunfeld praises the breadth and depth of folk music knowledge Shay exhibits on the air. “We’d tune in and he’s be playing music that the rest of us were unfamiliar with, as keyed-in as we were,” he says. “Everybody sent their music to Gene because of his reputation. Everybody wanted their music to be on Gene’s show.”

Within the U.S. folk music community, Braunfeld adds, having the Gene Shay stamp of approval – whether from airplay, live performances on his show or simply a quote – went a long way for musicians. “You have no idea what things like that can do for the confidence of emerging performers,” he says.

Reminiscing about his time working with Shay – which stretches even further back than Schwartz, into the mid-60s – Braunfeld cites “the monkey chant” as a memory he’ll carry with him. He describes it as an “esoteric tradition” among the Folk Festival team, a chant used as a good omen for that year’s festival. “Gene and all of the rest of us have always denied that it’s ever rained at the Festival,” Braunfeld says. “Despite what you hear, we haven’t had a drop of rain for 50-plus years.”

With his retirement from broadcasting, Schwartz says she is uncertain but optimistic of Shay’s involvement with the Folk Festival, where he traditionally acts as night time MC. “I can’t imagine that he won’t,” she says. “He and I have not discussed that he’s not going to be part of the festival, but he’s certainly somebody I would always turn to because he’s been around since the very beginning.”

Reflecting on the Folk Show, Braunfeld says “My hope is that the show continues and [WXPN] will find someone who can step in and keep it going in the same fashion it’s been.”

XPN program director Bruce Warren has said that the show will absolutely continue – it will be shortened from three hours on Sunday nights to two, and the search for a new permanent host is currently under way.

As for Shay’s final hurrah, Warren says the final four shows will include a variety of “Gene Shay’s greatest folk hits” – a playback of his favorite songs that were influential in the folk scene. It will also dig into Shay’s archives, and feature his usual round of live guests.

This Sunday, January 11th, will feature playbacks of archival performances and interviews with Tom Rush and Joni Mitchell. In addition, West Chester bluegrass combo Mason Porter will play live. The show airs at 8 p.m. on 88.5 FM in Philly or XPN.org.

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