The Folk Festival initially came to life in 1962 at the Wilson Farm in Paoli. Four years later the Folk Fest set down roots at the Old Pool Farm near Schwenksville in Montgomery County.
One of America's most revered musical pilgrimages, it's a three-day smorgasbord of traditional and contemporary music, dance, dazzling crafts, tie-dyed fanatics, face-painted teenagers, grinning kids and bleary-eyed campers.
"I compare it to 'Brigadoon,' the mysterious Scottish village that comes to life for one day," said Shay, godfather of Philly folk music and festival co-founder. "It all magically comes back. There are the stages, the campgrounds, the crafts, the friends you've made and the generations of families that reunite."
The Grand Entrance Foyer, sort of an outdoor lobby, welcomes festival-goers. The crowds wind their way down past the backside of the main stage to the Dulcimer Grove, a shaded, creek-chiseled ravine that serves as both the geographic and spiritual heart of the three-day event. Here you'll find puppeteers, storytellers, hands-on crafts, kid-oriented musicians and jugglers who toss every imaginable thing from bowling pins to chairs.
A steep hill leads up a natural amphitheater to a platoon of food vendors where you can grab everything from burgers, hot dogs, fresh cut fries, funnel cakes to falafel, smoothies, veggie burgers and Asian foods.
Maintaining its balancing act between tradition and innovation is a tricky proposition.
"There has always been a fairly good balance, said Shay, who lives in Wynnewood. "This year we've increased the number of performers. There are a lot of tastes we need to satisfy. If the accent isn't on blues, Cajun or Celtic this year, we'll look to book them next year."
The attractions this year include headliners Jackson Browne and David Lindley, Hot Tuna, Raul Malo, Shemekia Copeland, Rodney Crowell, Amos Lee (a former Folk Fest volunteer), James Hunter, The Roches plus 40 other folk, blues, old-timey, bluegrass, world and roots artists who will be providing more than 55 hours of music.
"Jackson's never been here, we're friends so I look at it as him honoring my 45th year," said Shay. "These days Jackson thinks of himself as more in the folkie crowd than rock. I think reflects his social consciousness.
"Folk music, from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen, has always been aligned with social protest. It's the voice of the people, not the politicians or big corporations."
Off to the right and up a smaller hill lies the Camp Stage that's flanked by an incredible tent city with mini "villages" where roughly 10,000 folks stake out their residence. Once the evening concerts end the campground jamming erupts. Some of the evening performers have been spotted joining in at their impromptu campfire stage jams. Still, most of the music played is based on an easy chord sequences, allowing a greenhorn to easily sit in. The spontaneous sessions rolls on way past sunrise.
"The campers from the sixties have grown up; they've got careers, kids and want things a little quieter," said Shay. "They need more sleep, so we instituted quiet areas. If you're playing a banjo at four in the morning, you're going to get tossed out."
A series of workshops on Saturday and Sunday, presented on three small stages, bring together several performers to share their views of such themes as blues, ballads, pipes and whistles, harmony, and sacred harp singing.
The Folk Fest's dividends are felt year round in the music community. Revenues enable Philadelphia Folk Song to sponsor educational programs, offer entertainment, provide community programs, and support other organizations to keep folk music alive in the throughout the Philadelphia region.