There was the time when Woody Guthrie pulled a semiautomatic out of his guitar case and killed everybody. Or when Peter, Paul and Mary opened their set with a menage a trois in perfect three-part harmony. And you don’t even want to know what Pete Seeger was clamping with his capo.
In truth, folk festivals can be pretty tame, friendly affairs. But that’s not to say Philly’s hasn’t seen its share of memorable oddball moments. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Philly Folk Fest—which this year welcomes such luminaries as Arlo Guthrie, the Levon Helm Band and Tom Rush, as well as a stellar younger generation including the David Wax Museum, Trombone Shorty and Gregory Alan Isakov—we asked founder and longtime host Gene Shay for his sweetest Schwenksville memories.
Folk Fancy: “It’s Saturday night at the Old Pool Farm, and a white, shiny stretch limo pulls down the hill, with three men on each side walking along with it. Inside is Judy Collins, dressed to the nines, ready to go onstage. When Judy gets out, she’s beautifully dressed, wearing high heels, hair perfectly coiffed. Janis Ian, wearing a pair of cutoff jeans, yells out, ‘Judy, it’s a folk festival!’”
Arresting Humor: “At one festival in the 1980s, the stage crew got my assistant to tell me to tell a joke onstage. As soon as I told the joke, two state police officers grabbed me, handcuffed me, read me my Miranda rights, and said, ‘We’re arresting Gene Shay for impersonating a comedian.’”
Will It Float?: “I was hanging out backstage with Phil Ochs and Dave Van Ronk. Somebody had sent Judy Collins a basket of fruit, and it hadn’t been opened. Van Ronk and Ochs are discussing whether it would float in a swimming pool. So they launch it into the deep end. The basket sinks and all the fruit comes up to the top. Judy never did get to see that basket.”
Smothered and Covered: “Tommy Smothers was playing at the nearby Valley Forge Music Fair. John Hartford went over to visit his friends the Smothers Brothers, and he convinced Tommy Smothers to show up. He showed up unannounced and did a routine with his yo-yo while Hartford played. The crowd went nuts for that.”
Just Like Gene Shay’s Blues: “Bob Dylan came to the festival, but nobody knew it. He came with David Bromberg and stayed backstage. He had a shmatta on his head. They asked me if I could do crowd control if they could get him to do a guest song or two. He decided not to do that, but a woman named Bessie Jones from the Georgia Sea Island Singers gets up onstage and says, ‘So I was just talking to Bobby Dylan backstage a minute or two ago ... ’ And the whole crowd lets out an audible gasp.”
Philadelphia Folk Festival, Aug. 19-21. $28.50-$124. Old Pool Farm, 1323 Salford Station Rd., Schwenksville. 800.556.FOLK. folkfest.org
PW's Music Issue 2014