Sex, Drugs and the Philadelphia Folk Festival

Co-founder Gene Shay talks festies, Bob Dylan and folk's seemingly universal appeal.

This month is the 51st installment of the festival, and you’ve been there since the beginning. What do you remember about the first one?
Pete Seeger was the guy who agreed to come to that very first Folk Festival. It was in September in Paoli, on a private farm. We didn’t have very many people show up, but the show was wonderful. It’s been an education just to watch it grow—to see it start out with just a few hundred people and grow to thousands.

What do you have in store for this year? Can we expect a Woody Guthrie hologram?
I don’t know about a Woody Guthrie tribute, but in a few weeks I’ll be going to his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, because it would be Woody’s 100th birthday. But this year, Lucinda Williams will be there. I don’t think she’s ever been to one of our festivals, which is strange because she’s had such an important role in music, especially funky blues.

What kinds of people go to the festival?
People who really just have so much love for the music. We have blacks and whites and people from Islam and Orthodox Jewish people and a lot of Celtic and Irish people, because they love to dance.

And people who like to camp?
We have maybe 3,000 people camping out there. A lot of groups build an enclave—they take their huge tent and put their other little tents underneath it so they can make dinners together and jam together until four in the morning. A lot of those campers were there when they were kids, and now they’re the grandparents of campers still staying in the same sites, with the same flags and the same decorations.

Do a lot of sex and drugs go along with the music?
There’s a little bit of that. There’s always been a little bit of that. It’s a reflection of the human condition.

Do you think there are any kids running around who are named after the festival?
You know how many kids named Dylan have grown up in the past couple of years?

Speaking of Bob Dylan, can you pick a favorite album?
Probably Blood on the Tracks. But you know, I’ve always loved that very first album cover, where he has that little tilted cap on and he looks like he’s about 14 years old. That was the album that turned me on to knowing there were other things people could do with folk music.

And you were instrumental in bringing him to Philadelphia for the first time?
I brought him to Philly for his first show, in 1963, right on Rittenhouse Square, at a little place called the Ethical Society. He came by train with Suze Rotolo. You know Suze—she’s the one on the cover of Freewheelin’; they’re walking arm-in-arm. She was his girlfriend, and we picked ’em up at 30th Street S­tation. They only charged a dollar and a quarter for tickets to that show, because nobody knew him, really. So we didn’t get very many people. We got about 45 people in the whole place. It was disappointing. We even got yelled at a little bit because of it.

This story originally appeared in the August issue of Philadelphia magazine.