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Smiling Banjo: A Half Century of Love and Music at the Philadelphia Folk Festival

By Eric L. Ring, Jayne Toohey and John T. Lupton

Schiffer Publishing Ltd. 2018, 255 pages, $50 hardcover

Reviewed by Fred Frawley, August 2018

Find it on Amazon

Music Festivals come and go. Most feed a need and fill a particular niche. But there are some that endure, despite the vagaries of the music business and challenges to the working musician.

The Philadelphia Folk Festival has endured for a half-century. The PFF has reflected then-current cultural sensibilities and grown with the times.

Eric L. Ring, Jayne Toohey and John T. Lupton have authored a remarkably rich and beautiful compilation of stories reminiscences and photos about the first 50 years of PFF. People who have attended the festivals over the years will revel in this book. Those who have not have a treat in store.

"Smiling Banjo: A Half Century of Love and Music at the Philadelphia Folk Festival" is a startling, and finely composed work. The authors have selected hundreds of photos of artists and patrons at the Philadelphia Folk Festival over the years to accompany their text. It's a work that draws the reader in. Musical insights and curiosities abound.

"Smiling Banjo" records the artist lineup for each of the festivals. That, alone, should stir memories. From the familiar (Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys in 1971 among other years) to the obscure (Breakfast Special in 1973, Marshall Dodge in 1979) to the odd (The Gebirgstrachten Verein Almrausch Tyrolean Dance Band in 1964). The artist lineup will send the reader down an Internet-enabled rabbit-hole or two.

In addition to festival lineups, "Smiling Banjos" features vignettes highlighting particular artists who have appeared over the years. Take Richie Havens, who appeared in 1969 on the same weekend as Woodstock. Some of the scheduled artists were delayed en route from Max Yasgur's farm, so "what had been scheduled to be a normal set of 45 minutes or so turned into a 3-hour showcase for Havens, as the producers implored him to keep playing because there was no one available to follow him."

Or Natalie McMaster. Fred Kaiser, Chair of the Programming Committee couldn't book her because she had no phone at college, so he called her mother in Nova Scotia, who assured Kaiser that McMaster would call back. She did and performed at five PFF festivals.

Many of the artists share their own memories of their time at PFF. Janis Ian, who has appeared at 10 festivals, recalled that "Philly is a folk festival that most of us keep coming back to because it's home in a lot of ways." Ian's vignette is accompanied by a photo of her going toe-to-toe on guitar with Tommy Emmanuel in 2014, nearly 40 years after her first PFF appearance in 1968.

For long-time PFF attendees, the history of the festival which opens this book will be hard to put down. For others, it's an object lesson in persistence and dedication to the craft and artistry of music.

There's no telling where the contributions of the authors Ring, Toohey and Lupton begin and end in this book. No matter. What they have created and designed is a beautiful book, full of fun and memories and joy for the music.

Editor's note: John T. Lupton is a writer for Country Standard Time.

The book is available for purchase: https://bit.ly/2OU86YT