A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors


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The Folk Life

A Festival Sandwich: Knowlton and Philadelphia – Intro.

Once upon a time some friends and like-minded spouses who loved folk music dearly decided to put on a show. So they organized the Philadelphia Folk Song Society.
A couple of year later they decided to put on a bigger show. So they started the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Fast forward ten or twelve years, where Jamie and I come in.

I was teaching Chaucer and other English classes at La Salle College, in Philadelphia, and Jamie was working in the Museum Shop office at the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts. Some of my students in an English lit class, where we’d used Steeleye Span to illustrate how you could jazz up the old ballads, asked me if I’d like to go to the Irish Centre, the Commodore Barry Club, in Mt Airy, which was down the street from where we were living. So one Friday night, that’s what we did, and we met this wee leprechaun of a fiddling maestro, Eugene O’Donnell, and thro him his partner in concertizing traditional Irish music, Mick Moloney, fresh off the boat from Ireland to pursue a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, under the late Kenny Goldstein, chair of Penn’s Dept of Folklore & Folklife.

One thing led to another, and I offered a colloquium seminar for Kenny’s grad students in folklore, on the Parry-Lord theory of formulaic composition of anonymous medieval poems – Beowulf, the tail-rhyme romances – as I’d studied under Albert Lord at Harvard, as an undergraduate, and done oral-formulaic analyses of these tail-rhyme romances at Harvard and then at Berkeley. Mick had a fine time, and he and Kenny both asked me a lot of nicely-aimed questions. A good time was had by all.

So one night at the Irish Centre, Stretch Pyott, the industrial electrician who’d been responsible for getting the Philadelphia Folk Festival site wired for TV – a from-the-site broadcast on Philadelphia’s PBS-TV station – sauntered up to me and said, “So McLaughlin – when are you going to come work for me?” Stretch was also responsible for the Community Relations committee for the Festival – it later amused him when I got an Upper Salford selectman to help me park the cars - and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Kenny hadn’t decided to break me in on how the folk process really worked, apart from the theory. How The Boys of the Lough played backstage, how Aly Bain jammed for Western Swing, how Eugene O’Donnell played with Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band. Magical sessions at the hotels after the festivals.

And that was really it. Thro Kenny or Stretch or whoever, I got introduced to the group of old friends responsible for getting Philly off the ground in the first place, from Gene Shay to Howard Yanks and his wife, to Esther Halperin and her husband – she ran one of the early coffeehouses in Philadelphia, The Second Fret – and to Kenny’s now-widow Rochelle and her large family of folklorists, scholars and musicians.

Eugene O'Donnell
Mick Moloney
Cathal O'Connell and Aly Bain
Kenny Goldstein and Dave Van Ronk
Gene Shay

What can I say? Every year since then, going to Philly is like going over the river and thro the woods to grandma’s house, if grandma knew how to throw a three-day party that’s a four-stage carnival with a campground attached that’s its own world entirely, Santa Claus playing Frisbee, kids hollering, “Hey Santa, where’s my pony…?”

So this one’s for Howard Yanks, Esther Halperin, Kenny Goldstein, and all the rest of that extended family of Philadelphia folkies. Once one of them takes you in, you’re adopted. It’s such a privilege. This is our thank-you to Kenny and his friends, without whom we’d still be wandering the hills looking for the end-of-Summer Brigadoon you can never find without those signs that pop up mysteriously every year around a week or so before Labor Day.

So around 1982, Jamie and I moved up to the Poconos, to a teaching job up next to the Delaware Water Gap, and we made a whole group of other friends up here. Among them have been Rich and Eleanor Clarkson. Eleanor is an artist, a sculptor and painter, and Rick works for parks and recreation, just across the river in Jersey. And wouldn’t you know it, about a decade ago, Rick and Eleanor started talking with some of their friends over there about starting up their own festival, in the town park in Knowlton, NJ. One of the interesting things they did was, from the beginning, to book some of the musicians who would also be appearing at Philly, opposite which they scheduled their much-smaller, more intimate, free community celebration (well, okay, seven bucks for parking, which goes to the local fire company).

Can you believe Tuvan Throat Singers from Tibet, groaning away in your town park? Well, Rick and Eleanor could certainly imagine it, and were very pleasantly surprised when it got standing ovations at Knowlton. How about Shooglenifty, the Scottish fusion band, which takes old Scots tunes where they’ve never been before? Well, they not only played for Philly, they wowed the crowd over at Knowlton too. How about the Alison Brown jazz-grass quartet, not only at Philly but also at Knowlton? You’re beginning to get the idea.

You have to understand, of course, that The Delaware Water Gap area has a long-standing tradition of top quality entertainment, ever since Enrico Caruso sang and Fred Astaire danced at the Castle Inn, in the village of Delaware Water Gap, on the Pennsylvania side of the river. Phil Woods, the Grammy-winning saxophone player, was one of the co-founders of the “local” jazz festival, the Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts, some twenty years ago, featuring “local” musicians who, when they’re not playing in Japan or Europe, are commuting from the area to NYC for session work. It’s a big jazz area, with the kind of expert ears you can expect from such an audience, and it’s also beginning to get very interesting in terms of bluegrass and other acoustic, thanks to the Pocono Folk and Bluegrass Society, and now the recently-established Pocono Mtns Folk Song Society.

So that’s what’s always been a bit of a dither for us, personally. Philly’s our grandma, and we always – almost always – celebrate our wedding anniversary (31 years and counting) down at Philly. And yet – there’s this lovely wee festival, right across the river from the house, and we’ve been hearing great things about it for the past ten years or so.

Well, that’s it. This year, we decided to do a festival sandwich. Knowlton on Friday night – Philly on Saturday – Knowlton, to rest and relax for the upcoming week, on Sunday. How about that? And this is how it tasted:
(End Part One; Go To Part Two)