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Teach your children well: A sense of community and intergenerational appeal are key to this event’s success

August 15, 2019 Category: ColumnFeaturedMediumPurpose
I am writing this column from a camper in the middle of a field in Upper Salford Township, as I prepare for the 58th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, which will be open to the public from August 15-18.

The Sipples at the Folk Festival.

Touted as the longest continuously running outdoor music festival in North America, the Folk Festival is the primary fundraiser for the Philadelphia Folksong Society, a nonprofit arts education organization, and is operated with the help of 2,500 dedicated volunteers.

My husband and I have been volunteering for the Festival on the security committee for over 30 years. Our daughter now joins us, and during her first volunteer shift in the field, her crew chief was the son of the man who was our crew chief during our first Fest. It’s that kind of festival; an event which is billed as “family-oriented,” but that phrase has a much deeper meaning than simply offering programming that appeals to all ages.

I spoke to board member Rob Bralow while he was working with me in the radio room, the security committee’s dispatch office. He normally volunteers for another committee, but because I was a bit short-staffed in the preparatory days leading up to the Festival, several other committees sent volunteers to help out.

Toddlers playing at the Festival.

Bralow grew up in the Philadelphia Folksong Society. His father served as board president of the Society, and his mother was the head of the press committee. He let me know that although he is 36 years old, he this is his 37th Festival, because he first attended at 5 months old. At the age of 8, he helped to put together press passes for the Festival, and at age 13, he led reporters through the campground. He now camps with his wife and their two small boys — third generation Festival attendees.

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Integral to the Festival experience is the campground in Montgomery County, a 40-acre outdoor living room where attendees and performers camp side-by-side. It isn’t unusual to walk around the campground at night and come across an informal jam session with a performer you saw play on stage that afternoon. One of my favorite Fest memories is of waking up in my tent one chilly August morning to the haunting sounds of a single fiddle being played two campsites away.

Other memories include late night chats around the campfire with a wide variety of people. Fest is a place where people of vastly different political opinions can have real and meaningful conversations, something all too rare in today’s society.

I asked Sarah Jane, a 14-year-old from my campsite, why she thought this was so.“Fest is kind of its own world, and people are pretty chill here,” she said. “I learn so much from my interactions with everyone I meet, and no one is too shy to stop and say hello. In the real world, people don’t even look you in the eye when they pass you on the sidewalk. Here, they wave and smile and say ‘Happy Fest!’ and aren’t afraid to talk to you. There are no strangers here; just friends we haven’t met yet.”

Bralow agrees.

A portion of the Philadelphia Folk Festival crowd — which annually draws 35,000 people to the region. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Folksong Society)

“I learned so much as a kid growing up here about how to interact with and treat people,” he said. “David Crosby, one of this year’s headliners, performed a song with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young called ‘Teach Your Children.’ I’m here because of the people who came before me, who taught me that folk music was something to be experienced in community. I hope to instill in my kids the same love of music and community I found here as a child.”

That kind of intergenerational “passing the torch” has contributed to the longevity of this event. While most nonprofit events fizzle out after a couple of years, the Philadelphia Folk Festival continues to attract 35,000 attendees annually. With over 100 artists performing on eight stages, there is something for everyone. In addition to the music, what continues to bring me back year after year is the feeling of family and community I experience here.

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