Various artists’ Philadelphia Folk Festival: 40th Anniversary

cover art, Philadelphia Folk Festival 40th AnniversaryI have never been to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, although it has been in existence since 1962! I do, however, have a poster advertising the 1970 Festival hanging on my wall right behind my desk. It is one of those hand-drawn jobs that were all the rage back then. No pictures, but a long list of performers ranging from the Buddy Guy Blues Band to John Hartford, Oscar Brand to the Irish Rovers, Utah Phillips, Livingston Taylor, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Doc Watson, John Denver, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Fairport Convention, and Jeff [sic] and Maria Muldaur. And that’s not half of the names! Three days in August in 1970! Whew! That summer, I saw some of the same people at the Mariposa Folk Festival, where I obtained this poster. This CD set presents artists from this list, and more, who have appeared at the Festival. It is a true celebratory tribute to 40 remarkable years of fun, music and fellowship.

The first disc begins with festival regular Bruce Martin, who starts each festival by piping down from the hill. Then Fairport Convention, with Richard Thompson, and Daves Pegg, Swarbrick and Mattacks, and Simon Nicol play “Walk A While” from their 1970 appearance. Dave van Ronk gets the crowd singing with his loose version of “Green, Green Rocky Road” and the Rev. Gary Davis (from the first Festival in 1962) plays “If I Had My Way.” These archival recordings offer good sonics, they are mainly a guitar and voice, but they capture the excitement of the live performance and feature a responsive crowd cheering at all the right moments. Doc and Merle Watson give a spectacular flatpicking workshop on “Open Up Them Pearly Gates” (from ’66) and Bonnie Raitt plays an authentic acoustic blues, sounding very “Mississippi” Fred McDowellish!

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott provides a humorous break with his “Talkin’ Fishin’ Blues.” At Mariposa in 1970, I spent most of the day following Ramblin’ Jack from workshop to workshop, and he is one of the most charming performers I’ve ever seen. This recording captures his essence. Tom Paxton sings a tribute to “Mississippi” John Hurt, in Hurt’s own style and is followed by an earlier recording of Hurt himself, backed by John (Lovin’ Spoonful) Sebastian on harmonica. One of the best parts of a Folk Festival is this intermingling of generations of performers, and this set offers lots of such unions. It also offers the broad variety that one finds at the Philly Fest. De Dannan plays an “Irish Dance Medley,” Pete Seeger sings “Here’s to Cheshire, Here’s to Cheese” and Bonnie Dobson presents Ewan MacColl’s classic “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for perhaps the first time in the United States, in a 1962 recording. Then there’s a couple of train songs – Tom Rush doing Bukka White’s “Panama Limited,” and Steve Goodman accompanied by a stageful of friends playing “City of New Orleans.” Disc one ends with a long jam by David Bromberg and guests, including Maria Muldaur, Peter Eklund, Larry Packer and others on “Sharon”; and a “Farewell Toast” by Mike Cross. All in all, a cracking good introduction to the Philly Folk Festival. But there’s more!!

Disc two features more of the same – humor, good pickin’, good singin’ and just in general whoopdedoo! Mad Pudding, Chris Smither, John Hartford, Odetta, Janis Ian, John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III, Nanci Griffith and others appear one at a time to perform songs both familiar and obscure. Christine Lavin brings up a bunch of men to sing backup on “Sensitive New Age Guys” to the delight of all. Beausoleil plays “Le Jig Francais” and Harmonia performs “Ciorcirlia” to add some diversity to the mix.

Disc three continues the treasure by offering Great Big Sea, Eric Bibb, Oscar Lopez, Taj Mahal and Stacey Earle. The musicians span styles, and generations; they cross borders and oceans to appear on the old Pool Farm outside of Philadelphia. They play the blues, folk, celtic, Cajun, there’s even a tune by Alturas from the Andes mountains. Richard Thompson drops by, in his only Festival appearance (not counting 1970’s Fairport gig) to play “Beeswing,” and rather beautifully I might add. The richness of talent overflows to disc four, which concludes the set with Patty Larkin, Arlo Guthrie, Steve Forbert and from 1965, Phil Ochs! Steve Goodman and the gang close it all out, with an off-the-wall version of “Good Night Irene.” The perfect end to an almost perfect set.

But wait! There’s even more! Disc four is an enhanced CD that also presents a series of short videos that can be watched on your computer. There is a brief history of the festival done by a local TV station, greetings from Utah Phillips, and features on the Philly Folksong Society and camping at the Festival. After a couple of hours with this set, you’ll feel like you’re a regular at the Festival. Or you’ll feel like you have to get to the next one!

This box set is an extraordinary little box of treasures. Even the booklet is well-designed, filled with mementos and curios, and tons of information about the performers and the festival. Happy Anniversary Folks! And many, many more!

(Sliced Bread Records, 2001)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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