by Kelly McLaughlin

Throughout generations the radio has entertained us with different programming formats and musical styles or genres ranging from classical, swing, big band, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, bluegrass and folk to New Age sounds. Of all these, folk music with its soft ballads and lively dance reels has long captivated my attention most of all. Ever since the birth of commercial radio, folk music has always been available to radio audiences. This unique style of easy-going music that always tells a story offers the listener sounds for relaxation or thoughtful reflection.

Gene Shay, long-time local radio personality who is often referred to as “The Grandfather of Philadelphia Folk Music,” organized the Philadelphia Folk Festival, now the longest-running such festival in the country, 50 years ago.

When I was a young girl, my mother introduced me to folk music on her car radio. Upon hearing only a vocalist singing with soft acoustic guitar music in the background, I would ask mom to change the station because I did not wish to listen to these quiet, unplugged sounds for the duration of the trip.

I missed my loud, electric rhythms and beats. My mom simply replied, “Just listen to the music and the words.” I have been listening to the music and words ever since. I couldn’t seem to get enough of this folk music, but little did I know that there was so much more available to me around Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia station, WXPN, that my mom had on the car radio that day soon became my favorite. Mixing folk with World (international) and alternative music, news and entertainment programming, WXPN was always so interesting to me. I became an avid listener of “Kids Corner,” a family program that introduced children to family-friendly folk artists.

Later I also became a fan of “Sleepy Hollow,” the World Café Live! and “Mountain Stage” — all programs that introduced the public to legendary or up-and-coming folk artists. In my opinion, folk is a musical melting pot of sounds, ballads, oral histories and mixed musical genres.

In a recent interview, Michael Cloeren, director of the West Mt. Airy-based Philadelphia Folk Song Society, Inc., and Levi Landis, executive director. described the origins of the Folk Song Society in 1957. The Society (later the umbrella organization covering the Philadelphia Folk Festival and other musical concert venues) was established through the generosity of friends enthusiastic about folk music and wanting to share this enthusiasm with others.

Principal founders were Kenny Goldstein, chair and board member of the folklore department at the University of Pennsylvania, and George Brittain, an instructor of guitar in the university’s music department. From the beginning, the Philadelphia Folk Song Society was widely recognized as a source of both education and entertainment.

In 1962 Gene Shay played another integral role with the society by organizing its now-famous Schwenksville venue for the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which celebrated its 50th annual extravaganza last August. (Born Ivan Shaner, Shay, now 76, is a long-time radio personality who is often referred to as “The Grandfather of Philadelphia Folk Music.”) Today, in addition to sponsoring the longest running folk festival in the country, the society offers numerous opportunities for budding artists to perform. One such opportunity comes from the Music Co-op, and the society is linked with several recording studios such as Morning Star Studios, where artists can record albums.

According to Landis, “The folk festival offers a huge opportunity to play on stage. As well as jamming with the artists, individuals, if chosen, can play in front of the audience along with other artists, having their musical abilities heard perhaps for the first time. These budding musicians may be asked to help teach music at local schools and to perform at either the Fall or Spring Flings held by the Folk Song Society.”

Cloeren added, “There is nothing better than seeing people enjoying what we do. When artists such as Levon Helm and Arlo Guthrie perform on stage, and we see the audience’s positive reaction to the music, it is worth all the blood, sweat and tears that we poured into it.”

Other individuals instrumental in the continued production of events are: Lisa Schwartz, president of the Philadelphia Folk Song Society; Jesse Lundy and Rich Kardon of Point Entertainment, responsible for programming the Philadelphia Folk Festival since 2008; and Andy Braunfeld, chairman of the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

There are also several workshops every year for both musicians and non-musicians. For example, in October a harmonica class took place for both beginners and advanced individuals. This year, under the name “Water the Roots,” there will be nine consecutive monthly concerts of diverse styles such as Klezmer, which blends Middle Eastern music with clarinet and bagpipes (“This music reminds you of being at a Jewish wedding,” Landis exclaimed.), as well as rock and roll, blues, bluegrass, Celtic and folk music. This musical series illustrates how folk music over the years has dipped its feet into the pool of several different genres.

The Philadelphia Folk Song Society, Inc., is headquartered at 7113 Emlen St. For more information, visit or call 215-247-1300.

Kelly McLaughlin, 29, of Erdenheim, a graduate of Springfield Township High School and Chestnut Hill College, is currently a freelance writer.