Women lead at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the country’s longest-running outdoor music fest

Now in its 57th year, the massive four-day party features a woman-dominated lineup.

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Courtesy of the Philadelphia Folksong Society
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Your Philly area trivia for the day: We’ve been hosting our own Woodstock since before Woodstock itself.

The hippy-happy event called the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which has gone down every summer since 1961, returns for a fifty-seventh year this weekend. Attendees are pitching tents, covering themselves head-to-toe in tie-dye and preparing to sway to the strum of bluegrass banjos and acoustic guitars for three days.

But the fest doesn’t just draw the stereotypical “white dude with dreadlocks, grooving along in the field stoned out of his goddamn mind,” said Justin Nordell, executive director of the Philadelphia Folksong Society.

“I mean, there is a guy that does that,” Nordell noted. “His name is Steve, and we love him. But he’s only one in thousands of people that join us every year in Schwenksville.”

So who else comes to the massive four-day event, which this year features more than half women performers?

Between 30 and 50 thousand people who, above all else, per Nordell, really listen to the lyrics in songs.

“If you’re the type of person that actually pays attention to the words — the story — of a song,” he explained, “then folk is for you.”

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Lisa Schaffer Photography

More than just Bob Dylan

Subgenres of folk that will be offered at the festival include alternative folk, Americana, traditional, blues, indie, bluegrass, old-time and Cajun.

“When people think of folk music, they only think about Bob Dylan. It’s so much more than that,” Nordell said. “Even pop music can be considered folk, and rap and hip-hop can definitely be considered folk. It’s what is being told in the song that makes or breaks it in the genre.”

Other than being the longest continuously run outdoor music festival in North America, the PFF has the distinction of being the first outdoor music festival in the United States to take the Keychange Pledge.

Keychange, led by the PRS Foundation and supported by the Creative Europe program of the European Union, is an international campaign which invests in emerging female talent by encouraging music festivals to sign up to a 50/50 gender balance pledge by 2022.

Nordell said the Philadelphia Folksong Society sort of bent the pledge’s rules for this year’s festival — by going over the 50/50 margin. The lineup is made up of 55 percent women acts, and all of the headliners (Patty Griffin, Valerie June and Wynonna Judd), are women.

“The Philadelphia Folk Festival is all about coming together and appreciating music and one another,” Nordell said. “It is open to anyone of any particular race, creed, beliefs or what have you.”

A love-filled family affair

The fest is also very family-friendly. The fair grounds will host puppeteers, jugglers, aerialists, storytellers, hands-on-crafts and even kid-oriented folk music at a for-kids stage area known as Dulcimer Grove.

Organizers planned for kids because many folk enthusiasts bring their children, who may someday grow up to be folk fans themselves and come to the festival for the rest of their lives.

Nordell, now 32, knows that personally: he’s been at the PFF every year since he was four months old.

“My mom met my dad at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. And then she met her three other husbands there,” he said, laughing. “So I guess you could say there’s a lot of…peace and love.”

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Courtesy of the Philadelphia Folksong Society

That’s something the PFF and Woodstock do have in common: a sense of community.

“Camping at the festival is sort of the way to do it. I mean, you can just come for the day or whatever, but to really get the vibe…stay overnight,” Nordell advised.

You may need to bring your own RV or tent, but you won’t need to bring your own food or beverages. There will be local vendors on site. (But dogs stay at home.)

Here’s something that Woodstock definitely didn’t have: Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber, The Newsroom, etc.) is performing. Per Nordell, Daniels is apparently just as good at writing protest songs as he is monologuing on screen.

Daniels is one of the 111 artists, performing on eight stages throughout the weekend-long affair to get hyped about. Each year, the fan favorite every year is the “Thursday Night Camper’s Only” show, which features acts such as Gina Chavez, Talisk and Toronzo Cannon.

Though the festival is its biggest event, the Philadelphia Folksong Society also has a Philadelphia Folk School, which has offered music education courses since the 70s, and a music co-op. Both are located at 6156 Ridge Ave. The PFS also offers musical programming and workshops throughout the year, and hosts other festivals including Fall Fling, Spring Thing, Cabin Fever Festival and the Heartwood Festival.

Working as the executive director for the PFS means that Nordell has met loads of up-and-coming local acts. He dropped hints to watch four up-and-coming bands: Bethlehem and Sad Patrick, Black Horse Motel, The Dukes of Destiny and Rare Spirits.

The Philadelphia Folk Festival runs from Aug. 16 to 19 at Old Pool Farm in Upper Salford Township (1323 Salford Station Rd).

How to get there from the city? Per Nordell, the easiest way is to take a train to Landsdale and Uber or Lyft to the field.