by Nathan Lerner
This year, the Philadelphia Folk Festival will celebrate its half-century milestone. Held on the Old Pool Farm near Schwenksville, the lineup for the 50th edition will include such stalwarts as Arlo Guthrie, Levon Helm, David Bromberg, Trombone Shorty, and Tom Rush. These traditional fan favorites will be augmented by local acts, including The Berrys, Hoots & Hellmouth, Burning Bridget Cleary, RUNA, Birdie Busch and Suzie Brown.
Lafayette Hill resident, Juli Vitello, will be playing a pivotal role at the festival. The 55-year old Boston native will be running the Friends of the Festival program. She has worked in this capacity as a volunteer ever since the program’s inception in 2006.“I went to the festival for over 20 years,” she explained, “and always had a great time. I met so many wonderful people. I reached an age when I wanted to give something back for all those good times.”
In addition to running the Friends of the Festival, for the past six years Vitello has been a member of the board of directors of the Philadelphia Folksong Society, the sponsoring organization of the festival. She is currently the board’s recording secretary. What exactly does the Friends of the Festival involve? For an additional fee of $195, concertgoers can obtain premium perquisites at the festival, such as a reserved parking space, seating in the hospitality tent adjoining the backstage, two gourmet picnic meals, inclusion in a commemorative group photo, chair massages, access to free showers and enhanced opportunities to interact with performers. According to Vitello, “Most people who are Friends of the Festival insist that it is worth it just for the parking.”
Vitello described the evolution of the Friends of the Festival: “In the beginning, I was my whole committee. However, as we have grown and offered more, I have picked up terrific new helpers. Each year, we try to add more. We listen to the Friends and what they would like to have.
“Most years we sell Friends tickets well into August. However, this being our 50th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, many people signed up who never did in the past. This year, for the first time we sold out.” (The fees generated by the Friends of the Festival go directly to Philadelphia Folksong Society.) “You get to know the kids of some festival-goers and about their lives and pets. Some come from as far away as Georgia and Ohio. This year, one is coming all the way from France…
“The first time I ever walked down the hill to the stage I heard Tom Paxton singing ‘Did You See John Hurt?’ It remains one of my favorite songs. One of my first friends, when I came here from Reading, was Gene Shay when he was at WMMR.” Shay has served as emcee at every festival since its origin.
Vitello’s résumé includes her accomplishments as an Emmy Award-winning television producer as well as 12 years at Electric Factory Concerts as a publicist and marketing specialist. She then decided to pursue a career in education. She had previously earned a degree with honors in Literature from Albright College in Reading. Vitello resumed her studies at Chestnut Hill College, where she earned a master’s degree in Education with a certification for middle school. She currently teaches 7th and 8th graders at the Green Woods Charter School in upper Roxborough.
Vitello waxed nostalgic when she described one specific aspect of the festival. “My favorite moment each year is at 7:30 at night, when the bagpipe player walks down the hill, playing to signal the beginning of the evening performance. You have already seen so much good music during the day, and when you hear that sound and know you have a whole night of music in front of you, you could just cry with happiness. “
Vitello’s son, Carson, graduated Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School with Honors and currently matriculates at the University of Pittsburgh. Vitello’s husband, Don, is a television director, who won two Emmys. He currently works for Fusion, a Philadelphia-based production company.
“I think the Festival has lasted 50 years,” said Vitello, “because it is a great environment in which to see music. It is a safe place to entertain your family with many activities for kids such as crafts, juggling and concerts in Dulcimer Grove. If you get into any kind of difficulty, lost tent stakes, lost children or anything else, someone will always help you out. I once saw a guy who came totally alone and was taken into a campsite with 100 folks he never met before, and he happily spent the weekend there.
“I would hate to see the day come when the festival no longer exists. Mostly, I want to help sustain the festival for my son and kids in his generation, who also love it.”
The 50th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival will take place Thursday, Aug. 18, through Sunday, Aug. 21. For more information, call 215-247-1300 or visit www.pfs.org/folk-festival.
Nathan Lerner welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.