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There is a great sectarian struggle going on between two groups who care very much about the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
One side cries out for more traditional music.
The other wants to dilute the tradition percentage with something maybe sorta, kinda ... hip?
Attendance has been lagging in recent years. Could a change in booking philosophy bring the hordes back to the hillside in Upper Salford?
Jesse Lundy, former talent buyer for the Point, has been charged with pointing the Folk Fest in a new direction this year. He's committed to keeping the event alive and preserving its spirit, if not its original concept. The Festival, after all, was co-founded by Gene Shay in 1962. He says by booking acts like Kimya Dawson (whose mass appeal peaked last year with the Juno soundtrack), the Felice Brothers and Hezekiah Jones, "we feel like we've taken steps toward highlighting where folk music is headed."
Lisa Nordell Schwartz, president of the Folksong Society and the festival's press rep, knows there are some trad-oriented doubters who hold their noses at some of the more blatantly pop acts. OK, she says, it's no longer a festival strictly ruled by their tastes, "but what about J.D. Crowe and the New South? Jean Ritchie?" She has a point; for Appalachian music, this year's artists are hard to beat
In addition to the new mix of music, there are also concessions to creature comforts. Portable showers are rolling in to the campgrounds. The dance tent will host not only dances but longer mini concerts in — get ready for it — shade. Note also that Schwartz says there will be longer sets in general from performers, including Janis Ian giving her reading/performance of her new autobiography, Society's Child.
One local group that should appeal to both sides of the fray is the Tin Bird Choir, all acoustic and all contemporary. Their interesting choice of name has nothing to do with Mexican ornaments. Rather it is, in the tradition of Donna the Buffalo (né Dawn of the Buffalo), a mishearing. In this case the title of Wendell Berry's collection of poems, A Timbered Choir, caught their ear.
Explains Eric Hurlock, who co-founded the group with wife Heather: "We agree with and have respect for his ideas, particularly about sustainable agriculture. Where I'm standing right now I have a view of rolling hills and cornfields." The Hurlocks live on the south side of the Schuylkill, on the edge of Chester County in Coventryville, a deliberate choice, after years in Boston, to return to their roots.
We're speaking on the phone just past dawn. Hurlock needs to be off to his day job. "I'm a refugee from office work. With a degree in English, I did a few years in publishing, notably Experience mag." Back in Chester County, he's apprenticing with his uncle. "Now I'm an electrician/poet."
Hurlock is the songwriter for the group and a big John Prine fan. "I grew up listening to the Beatles. I'm way into the blues, both Chicago and Delta. I'm a big Dylan fan." He sums it up: "I like well-written songs." How can the traditionalists argue with that?
Tin Bird Choir performs at the Folk Fest on Sunday. tinbirdchoir.net. Check out Mary Armstrong's day- by-day highlights of this year's Philadelphia Folk Festival.