Seeger’s spirit resonates at the Folk Fest

A woman in the beer garden said to me Saturday – “I sense a presence.” It may have been the Yard’s Cheap Thrills Pils talking. Or, it is the spirit of Pete Seeger that is omnipresent throughout the 53rd annual Philadelphia Folk Festival.

Singer-songwriter John Flynn hosted the Songs of Pete Seeger showcase at the Craft Stage on Saturday, Aug. 16 with Janis Ian, Roger Deitz, John Francis, Michael Braunfield, Josh White Jr., Dave Fry and SONiA.

“There’s no such thing as a wrong note as long as you’re singing,” Pete Seeger said. The quote is high above the festival behind the welcome sign at the top of the hill. Flynn and others talked about how Seeger believed songs have existed, and are experienced and shared not just through listening, but through singing.

Seeger once began a set at a small folk festival by saying to the audience of about 10 people, “OK – here’s your part,” according to Francis. The musicians encouraged the audience to sing loud and even dance to Seeger’s classic. The sound of a couple hundred people singing, “Cook’s in the kitchen, cock-a-doodley-doo,” will at least get a small smile out of the biggest curmudgeon. One of the best songs we couldn’t sing along to was “The English Language,” by White Jr.

The evening concerts on the Martin Guitar Main Stage included the duo of JohnnySwim, The Gibson Brothers, The Lone Bellow, The Slide Brothers and Janis Ian.

Ian spoke about coming back to the folk festival as a 21-year-old after beginning her career as a teenager and the warmth and love she felt from the audience. She thanked the Philadelphia Folksong Society and all the attendees for their support and welcoming her back again this year.

When Natalie MacMaster danced out on stage playing the fiddle, the crowd went crazy. The Canadian musician was dancing jigs in tap shoes and with the entire hill rooting her on. She blazed through an energizing set that brought everyone to their feet.

When Gene Shey announced Tommy Emmanuel as the best six-string guitar player in the world, I was on guard. Emmanuel’s talent is beyond translation. It was like that scene in “I’m Not There,” where the character personifying Bob Dylan opens up his guitar case at the Newport Folk Festival and pulls out a gun and blows everyone away.

Emmanuel didn’t sing all of his songs and he didn’t need anything but his guitar. Between the Australian’s expressive notes and the faces he was making at the crowd, we knew the message he was conveying. It was never more clear than after he brought his daughter Angelina on stage and played a song he wrote for her. He also brought out singer Rick Price, who was hanging out near us in the crowd during the Seeger showcase, for two songs including “Taking it to the Streets.”

You may remember seeing the Grammy-award winning Rebirth Brass Band in the opening scene of the HBO series “Treme.” Since 1983, the band has been playing music rooted in New Orleans brass jazz. Although the improvisations seemed to have been lost on most of the crowd, as the band did not get nearly the same reaction that MacMaster and Emmanuel got, but they were on point. The riffs these guys went off on were incredible – from the tuba to the trumpet over to the slide trombones – these guys maybe just made it look too easy.

Steve Poltz had me from the start. As soon as he said his favorite baseball player of all time was John Kruk and he mentioned him in his song, I immediately liked the guy. Ordering pizzas to the dugout in the middle of the game, playing with a beer gut and a mullet – this guy is legendary.

Poltz took the crowd on a journey that began with him rooting for Kruk as a San Diego Padres fan and told the story of his life. “I wanted to write a song specifically for the folk festival,” Poltz said. “So I wrote this song called ‘Folk Singer.'” The song was not just about him, but about anyone who drives from gig to gig playing music, “listening to a podcast, maybe RadioLab.”

His songs were light hearted but also touched on serious notes – talking about his good friend who died of cancer and about his dog getting hit by a car. His songs are so funny and surprising that like a comedian’s bits, I don’t want to give too much away. But, he did let me experience my first at the folk festival. He wrote the song, “I Want All My Friends to be Happy,” because he wanted to kick cancer’s ass for taking his friend. So, he led the crowd in telling cancer to, “Fuck off.”

Seeger would have been proud.