Updated Sept 27, 2023
Philadelphia Folk Festival, 1992
by Ryan Thomson
This is one of oldest and more spectacular folk festivals in the US. When I was living in California it had the same reputation among folk musicians as the Woodstock rock and roll festival had with hippies. It was just a bit too far to travel to from California though. Years later, after I moved to the eastern US, I still didn't make it for a number of years, until 1992. Much to my surprise, I found it to be a lot more like the Woodstock festival than I had imagined. Highlights:
An incredible tent city of over 10,000 people, with mini "villages." Within these villages were 20 to 200 friends who had come to the festival together. Many of these had a central dining and meeting area surrounded by clusters of smaller sleeping tents. Many have elaborate decorations, portable electric power, full sets of living room furniture: couches, chairs, tables, rugs, etc.
The site is on a private farm, with well water coming up into clusters of faucets in the middle of the camp. At any time, day or night, streams of people can be seen making their way down marked out "streets" with hand drawn carts and wagons with water containers, fire wood, food, or small children.
One village featured a live rock band, performing with battery powered amplifiers.
Another village was decorated in psychedelic 60's art, and every one was wearing tie dye clothes. The average age at this camp appeared to be late teens, early twenties.
A mini medical center in tents, ala "Mash," with live television feeds from the main stage a quarter of a mile away.
A firewood vendor with many cords of wood for hundreds of campfires.
Bob McQuillen, the premier contra dance piano player from New Hampshire, set up camp in his large van, complete with acoustic piano, and a thirty feet high mast with the state flag of New Hampshire. We had some good tunes there!
I met a camper in the tent city who had been attending the festival for 20 years, and had never made it to the main stage to watch any performers. He preferred the party atmosphere and music in the campground.
I came across an actual wedding taking place in a grove of trees.
At the sides of the main stage were giant video monitors of the ongoing performance, similar to those used in large rock concerts. Because of the large numbers of people in the audience it was very difficult to get near the stage. I didn't spend much time at the main stage anyway because it was fun to wander through the tent city. I did go to listen to Zachary Richard, from Louisiana, who I had previously heard at Storyville in New Orleans, at the Jazz and Heritage Festival.
There was a dance stage set up on a hill side but the dancing surface was rough ground. The music (cajun, Balkan, etc) was good however, and we made the best of it.
There wasn't as much live music in the tent city as I would have liked. In fact, I was one of only about 3 or 4 fiddle players in the entire camp site that I could locate. There were some good jams at Roger Sprung’s camp however. Roger is always up for a tune! It turns out that most of the hired performers don't stay in the tent city, but at a nearby hotel, which is where I heard that the best jamming takes place.
At many campsites were portable boomboxes and stereos playing anything but folk music. Most of the live music in the camp was modern 60's-80's folk rock on acoustic guitars. There were also a number of drumming jams with congas, chanting, and dancing in circles around a fire. One of these late night sessions featured young ladies in their teens dancing topless along to a frenzied beat.
I would definitely recommend the tent city experience to any one with "back to the land," or alternative lifestyle leanings who doesn't mind getting dusty and living in a tent for several days. I found the whole thing fascinating. My only reservation from my point of view, is that there wasn't nearly the amount of jamming to traditional music as I would have liked. That's not to say that I didn't do much playing! I did, and in fact found my accordion very useful for rock and roll jams, and improvisation sessions. At one point I met up with a sax and clarinet player and played jazz.
For more information visit the festival web site.
Written by Ryan Thomson, 1993