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Three generations of Berkheimers and Sciarras set up camp Thursday at Old Pool Farm and prepared to make dinner. In the late afternoon, the 80-acre fairgrounds in Upper Salford Township were filling up fast with thousands of people eager to attend the 60th anniversary edition of the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
Members of the Berkheimer and Sciarra families have been coming to the fest since 1975. Originally from Ridley in Delaware County, for years they have been traveling from Colorado, California, Canada, and Virginia to attend with their local relatives.
The festival has taken over the Montgomery County farm just outside the city since 1962, earning it a place as one of the nation’s longest-running outdoor music fests.
Some of the performers have also spanned generations.
Singer-songwriter Tom Rush, who played Saturday afternoon, is one of the musicians known for reviving folk music in the 1960s. Now 81, he still gains new fans, who discover him on FM radio and listen to him on vinyl records issued in both mono and stereo versions.
A band called Trousdale, meanwhile, said their followers often discover them on Spotify. The Los Angeles-based trio of women in their mid-20s, who met as undergrads in the school of music at the University of Southern California, had audience members singing along as they performed Friday afternoon, making their first Philly Folk Fest appearance.
While youthful music devotees were well represented, a significant number of audience members has grown grayer. Over the years, the festival’s crowds have thinned from its heyday in the late ’60s through early ’90s, when it reportedly attracted upwards of 12,000 attendees for each of four days.
But many still come, for the chance to mix music and camaraderie, and form lasting memories.
The event showcases more than song, with string bands, acrobatic performances, food vendors, and a craft bazaar. It has sparked romance and creativity — sometimes both at the same time.
Singer Shannon Lambert-Ryan remembers meeting Fionán de Barra at the Folk Festival back in 2006. He asked her to go for a walk and suggested she record an album at his Dublin studio. Two years later, she did just that, recording “Across the Pond.” That same year the duo joined with percussionist Cheryl Prashker to found Celtic roots band RUNA, and the following year they married. Last weekend the couple arrived to play at the festival with their 4-year old in tow. His grandmother watched over him during performances.
After two years of being virtual-only, the 2022 fest was a chance to mark the passing of festival cofounder Gene Shay, who died in April 2020.
A Philadelphia folk icon, Shay’s influence extended to FM rock radio, and local DJs Ed Sciaky and David Dye both cited him as a major influence on their careers.
Current festival organizers realize their primary challenge going forward will be to engage younger generations and achieve financial stability. The success of this year’s event is a step in that direction.