by Nathan Lerner
Now in its 53rd year, the Philadelphia Folk Festival will kick off Thursday, Aug. 14, and extend through the weekend. Once again, the annual musical extravaganza will take place on the Old Poole Farm outside Schwenksville in Montgomery County. The diverse musical line-up includes Old Crow Medicine Show, Jason Isbell (of the Drive-By Truckers), Loudon Wainwright III, Tempest, Natalie MacMaster and Caribefunk.
Photographer, Howard Pitkow, will be on hand to record the event for posterity. In addition, the 58-year old Wyndmoor resident will be there in his capacity as a board member of the Philadelphia Folksong Society, which sponsors the event.
Pitkow was born and raised in Erdenheim, Springfield Township. He attended Springfield High School for 10th grade, then transferred and graduated from Alternative East High School. “Growing up I wanted to be on the radio. While in high school, I started an in-house radio program. It was heard in the lunchroom, study hall and outside during the lunch hour.
“I went to Montco Community College but did not finish. I was working at a VW dealership while I was going to school. My love of cars and ability to fix broken things with my hands won out over school. I worked for several different VW dealerships, learning along the way.
“I went to work for an independent VW repair shop, which I eventually managed. Several years later, I opened Wagenwerx. The years that I spent running someone else’s business paid off because I quickly learned what worked and what didn’t.”
In recent years, Pitkow has maintained a dual career track. “For 45 hours a week I operate Wagenwerx, ‘Your Volkswagen Service Alternative.’ I run a specialty shop in Wyndmoor that services mostly VW and Audi vehicles. When I’m not doing that, I work as a freelance photographer.” His client list includes WHYY, the City of Philadelphia, The Academy of Natural Sciences, Main Line Art Center, the Philadelphia Folksong Society and dozens of musicians throughout the tri-state area.
“I was 35 years old when I started photographing musicians as a hobby. About four years ago, I received a call to photograph local jazz pianist, Orrin Evans, and his 18-piece Captain Black Big Band. They were recording a live CD at Chris’ Jazz Cafe on Sansom Street. Orrin liked my photos so much that he asked me to return for the second night of recording at the Jazz Gallery in New York. Those photos, my first experience photographing a jazz show, jump-started a whole new career.”
Pitkow started attending the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1965, when he was only nine, “My mother took me each summer. This all followed seeing Pete Seeger perform at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. That was the show that started my love of folk music. I started playing the 5-string banjo shortly after that. I’ve attended roughly 40 Philly Folk Festivals. It’s unlikely that I will miss any more festivals unless I move or die.
“In 2011 I was given access to photograph behind the scenes. This is what is most rewarding to me. For many of the volunteers and campers, the festival is like a second family. Year after year, they come back to be with friends and enjoy the longest running festival of its kind in North America.”
Pitkow is passionate, not only about the festival, but the land that it is held on. He is part of what started out as a five-person team that has cooked up a campaign called Leave Nothing But Footprints…Every Time. “We are hoping that this will make an impact and ease the transition from a music festival site back to a working farm … Most people would find it surprising that it takes dozens of dedicated people about a month and a half to build this annual three-day festival and then tear it down again.”
Nathan Lerner welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.