Philadelphia Folk Festival: Building the Future by Learning from the Past

The words above were spoken by Dom Flemons describing his musical approach during his Sunday afternoon set at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, but could just as easily serve as the mantra for the festival itself. Having just wrapped up its 58th year, the longest continuously running festival in the country offers a diverse lineup of folk music from around the world with a more familiar bigger name or two, typically associated with the sixties folk revival (Graham Nash, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Taj Mahal have appeared in recent years). This year’s veteran was David Crosby, whose festival-closing set easily met all expectations, and elsewhere the festival showcased an exciting present and future for folk music with an emphasis on younger and genre-expanding acts.

Eager to start the day on an energetic note, early-rising campers flocked to The Lee Boys morning set. The Lee Boys, a family band of three brothers plus their nephews, delivered their brand of ‘sacred steel’ funky gospel music centered around the impressive pedal steel playing of Roosevelt Collier, closing with a barn-burning take on ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.’ I next wandered for a taste of the truly exhilarating sounds of Kim So Ra’s traditional Korean percussion before settling in at the Tank Stage for an afternoon of songwriting showcases. ‘Women Who Love Music’ spotlighted four international songwriters, two from Canada and two from England, brought together on a small stage in the fields of rural Pennsylvania. Mariel Buckley in particular awed and appears poised for a breakthrough, with stunning lyrics confidently delivered in a smokey voice. “Driving in the Dark” off her latest album of the same name, already feels like a classic road song and echoes Springsteen with lines like ‘Eyes on the highway, windshield full of cracks, if i look in the rearview, I’m never going back.’

Another songwriters round immediately followed, with Matt the Electrician, Steve Poltz, Peter Mulvey and Dave Gunning delivering a setlist dictated by spinning a wheel for themes. As a fellow rabid baseball fan, Poltz thrilled me with the lyrical references in his breezy and brilliant ‘Silver Lining,’ with Matt the Electrician joining in on gentle harmonies. The ‘Songs I Wish I’d Written’ segment found Poltz delighting the crowd with a cover of TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’, Dave Gunning leading a reverb-drenched spooky ‘Long Black Veil’ and Matt the Electrician’s breathtaking version of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune,’ where he perfectly captured the lonely tenderness of the song. As the set wrapped up, a serendipitous stroke of good fortune led me to Tami Neilson belting out an explosive cover of ‘It’s a Man’s World’ in one of the day’s definite highlights, captured on video here.

Across the main stage field, Don Flemons and Andy Hedges set up for my personal favorite set of the day, intertwining songs with stories to present an invaluable lesson on the history of folk and cowboy music . Flemons, who has studied black contributions to traditional string band music, and Hedges, who, in addition to his musical career, hosts a Cowboy Crossroads Podcast exploring the music and poetry of cowboys, possess not only encyclopedic, authoritative knowledge on the genre but a palpably deep enthusiasm and appreciation forged from years of discovery. Though an hour would have to do, I could have spent the entire weekend listening in awe to their tales of Henry Ragtime Texas Thomas, Jack Thorpe, Lesley Riddle and others long too buried by history.

Fortunately the lesson continued later in the afternoon when Dom Flemons took over the main stage for a solo performance. Armed with his usual collection of traditional instruments – trading off between his acoustic guitar and various banjos, harmonicas, quills and rhythm bones, Flemons’ musical dexterity flashed even more brightly without Hedge’s steady picking accompaniment. His lightning fingerpicking was particularly impressive on a medley combining three Piedmont-style tunes, Elizabeth Cotton’s ‘Freight Train’, Etta Baker’s ‘Railroad Bill’ and the Carter Family’s ‘Cannonball Blues.’ In one of the day’s most heartwarming moments, Flemons explained how the melody for ‘Cannonball Blues’ (and additional Carter Family classics) was written by AP Carter’s black friend and collaborator, Lesley Riddle. Through collaboration, Riddle ended up shaping the sounds of country music as much as anyone, but without any formal credits or even appreciation until Mike Seeger tracked him down and coaxed him out of retirement in the 1960’s, with Riddle even appearing at the Newport Folk Festival.

Despite clouds and rain appearing during Flemon’s set for a relief from the day’s intense heat, Amanda Shires followed on the main stage wearing butterfly-decorated sunglasses and drew the sunshine back within moments of getting started. With Shires herself switching between fiddle and guitar and accompanied by two guitarists and keyboard wizard Peter Levin, along with bass and drums, the woman fighting for females on country radio with The Highwomen supergroup has embraced full on rock ‘n’ roll in her own career. After a year plus of consistent touring since her musically diverse and ambitious Into The Sunset, Shires’ band is tighter, louder and more confident than ever.

Following the high energy of Amanda Shires, Margo Price and her band took the stage to the rollicking thumping rhythm of ‘Four Years of Chances’, as Margo’s acoustic strumming locked in with her rhythm section, propelling the song to an impressive tempo. She would use a similar trick on ‘Nowhere Fast,’ where the whole band flexed their musical chops, with Margo and the rhythm section slowing things down to a Grateful Dead-like groovy jam before revving things back up to the country rock races. Her set also included a pair of brilliantly delivered covers, Dylan’s ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ and ‘Move Over’ in tribute to Janis Joplin on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. The former found her voice at its most tender and gentle, while ‘Move Over’ found her storming around the stage barefoot with a Janis-inspired howl, as she displayed plenty of diversity in her singing ability.

After a slight delay, David Crosby & Friends took the stage to close out the weekend, mixing classics from his sixties heyday along with recent original material. Having endured years of serious health issues and drug addictions, Crosby continues to not only survive but thrive, hitting a recent creative renaissance with four new albums over the past five years and a steadying musical vision. Crosby introduced his band as a ‘bunch of jazzers’ before promising a unique version on ‘Guinnevere’, which they delivered flawlessly, perfectly supporting Crosby’s spellbinding vocals with delicate harmonies and accompaniment, with bassist Mai Leisz leading the way. The band possess plenty of instrumental versatility and muscle, lending a jazzy air to the newer songs and infusing the familiar ones with improvisation and a sharper edge. While ‘Deja Vu’ wandered into some repetitive noodling, ‘Wooden Ships’ and ‘Eight Miles High’ featured scorching play from lead guitarist Jeff Pevar and keyboardist Michelle Willis with Crosby’s rhythm guitar bridging things together.

To close the night, Crosby invited Margo Price and Amanda Shires to join in on ‘Ohio’, howling ‘I want to know why!’ at full power over the harmonies of Price and Shires to raucous audience response. Exactly fifty years after Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young made their live debut in a rain-soaked field in the middle of nowhere, here was Crosby again, granted in a much more scenic and organized locale, but singing with the same passion in the pouring rain once more to a crowd desperate to build a world closer to the weekend paradise they had just experienced. Consistently delivering one of the most diverse and interesting festival lineups year after year, it’s clear that both musically and socio-politically, Philadelphia Folk Festival promises to keep building a better future by learning from the past, showcasing plenty of great music along the way.

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