Philadelphia Folk Fest Hero: Gene Shay
For 50 years, Gene Shay’s been the Philadelphia Folk Festival’s hero
BY JONATHAN TAKIFF
Philadelphia Daily News
FOR SURE, there’ll be some very familiar faces at the 50th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, returning to the Old Pool Farm in Upper Salford Township in two weeks.
Seasoned perennials such as Arlo Guthrie, Tom Rush, Tom Paxton and David Bromberg are among the guests coming back for the big birthday party, along with some of their rarely here contemporaries (Levon Helm, Jorma Kaukonen) and young turks of note like the Wood Brothers, Justin Townes Earle, Hoots & Hellmouth, Dan Bern and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue.
But no one else can beat the perfect performing and attendance record of Gene Shay, the cool, laid-back “voice” of the festival and veteran folk DJ.
No weather crisis (yeah, there’s been a bunch), personal illness nor family calamity has ever kept Shay from his appointed rounds as the festival’s main-stage nighttime emcee, he recently said. But Shay does remember one hot summer – back in the “everybody must get stoned” Woodstock era of hippie-festival excess – when somebody slipped him something and he was literally left speechless.
“I walked out onstage, looked at the crowd, couldn’t remember why I was there and walked off,” Shay recalled with a good-natured snort.
This year, with that big, round 5-0 staring him in the face, and family and friends from far and wide coming to share the celebration, the “76 going on 77” Shay vows to stay away from already-opened wine bottles – or whatever. “Gloria [his wife of 49 years] hasn’t been to the festival in years, but she’s coming. One daughter [Rachel] and her husband [Tom] and their college-age kids [Tom Jr., Lauren] are flying in from California, along with my other, regionally-based daughter [Elana] to see Dad – or in my grandkids’ case, Bup-bup – do his festival thing.”
But please don’t ask the guy to get all mature and serious on us. Keeping it loose and friendly has always been the Shay way. And yes, telling bad jokes is ever part of his schtick – to such a degree that an ad-hoc group of “Gene Busters” has occasionally popped up in front of the festival stage “to try and bust my a–.”
“People love to taunt me,” Shay said. “Girls up front will scream out, ‘How’s your hygiene, Gene?’ And just because I tell them jokes like, ‘What do you call a suppository in Italy? Innuendo.’ Truth is, I love it when they groan.”
Champion of folk
In all seriousness, though, the Philadelphia Folk Festival owes almost everything to Shay. He’s the guy who’s been selling Philadelphia on this oft-rustic, unpretentious music since the “folk scare” (a/k/a folk revival) years of the early 1960s with his Sunday-night radio shows – first on WHAT, later on WDAS, WMMR, WBUX, WIOQ, WHYY and, in December, 20 years on WXPN.
Fresh out of military service and a gig on Armed Forces Radio in Germany, Shay (born Ivan Shaner) first landed an on-air shift at WHAT-FM as an afternoon jazz DJ. Then he took over the weekend folk slot, too, “because the guy who originated the show, Barry Magarick, had moved to Israel, and the first guy they had replace him, Joel Dorn, couldn’t wait to be rid of the gig.”
Shay has always practiced an easy, conversational, nontraditional DJ style – even allowing for precious seconds of thoughtful silence. He has a unique way of mixing the music, combining traditional and modern tracks in a way that puts listeners at ease and willing to roll with the flow. In essence, he’s the “antiboss” jock.
“Listening to Gene talk to a studio guest was like eavesdropping on a conversation at a party,” said WXPN “World Cafe” show host David Dye, who started tuning in to Shay’s “Folklore” show as a high-school student in Swarthmore.
“He virtually invented the delivery and thematic [song] set construction style that would become the standard for FM rock DJs – for me and other guys like Ed and Michael,” he said, referring to Ed Sciaky, the late DJ who started out as Shay’s studio assistant, and Michael Tearson, now heard on Sirius/XM and WMGK.
When not on the air (he’s also on the Internet Folk Alley station and Sirius/XM’s channel The Village), Shay was an advertising copy writer and ad-agency owner. (He still occasionally answers to the calling.) He’s also done a bit of talent managing, scouting and development for a record label, and concert-promoting.
Shay was the first guy to bring Bob Dylan to Philadelphia, at the 250-seat Ethical Society Auditorium on Rittenhouse Square in the early ’60s. “Nobody knew or cared about him then, except Gloria and me. Forty people showed up.”
Oh, and he was one of the founders of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, originally held on the first weekend in September at the much smaller C. Colket Wilson estate in Paoli, a pastoral setting with a permanent outdoor stage where the Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsed in the summer.
“We never imagined the festival would last this many years,” Shay mused. One secret to its longevity is that, like his radio show, the festival rolls with the currents – heavy on Celtic or Cajun music one year, blues the next, then contemporary singer/songwriters, with lots of “folk fusion” bands always welcome. At one point, there was conversation about taking the word “folk” out of the event’s title.
Another crucial success factor, Shay noted, is that only a handful of people are paid to steer the festival, performers work for less than their usual fees and most of the on-site staff are volunteers.
“At the second festival, I saw Pete Seeger walking around the grounds with a guy who turned out to be George Wein, the producer of the Newport jazz and folk festivals,” Shay recalled. “Pete, who’d played for us the year before, brought Wein down to show him how you could do a festival without a high-priced production team, and that you especially didn’t need uniformed Pinkerton security guards manning the gates and getting everyone uptight.”
The downside of all that volunteerism is that egos sometimes get out of hand in an overtly emotional, turf-controlling way. Shay remembered one fest when singer/songwriter Steve Goodman was “killing” the crowd and feeling so cute that he decided to cover the blinking-red “five minutes left” warning light with his jacket, much to the delight of the crowd.
Afterward, a couple of infuriated festival hierarchs came up and started yelling in his face just as Goodman was on the phone with his manager, Al Bunetta, relating how much fun he’d had. “Al was so upset he wouldn’t let Steve or John Prine play the festival again for eight years,” Shay said.
Celebrating the 50th
Nowadays, there’s hardly any of the old guard left in charge ‘cepting for Shay, who’s hoping “they’ll still carry me up onto the stage, if need be.”
Hey, if they did it for Elizabeth Cotten, the 90-something writer and “cotton-picking” guitar performer of “Freight Train,” why not our Gene-ius?
Rich Kardon and Jesse Lundy, “younger club- and theater-booking guys with their ears to the ground,” now do most of the talent booking for the fest with some input from Shay, who’s high this year on the likes of Mr. Earle (Steve’s kid), the young Canadian female duo Dala, the nuevo-rustic David Wax Museum and an extra-special (for the 50th festival) organizing subplot of “collaborations.” Most visibly, Messers Bromberg, Kaukonen and Helm have each been requested to put together impromptu jams with artist friends.
“The idea was to reinvent one of the treats of the early festivals, when there was a lot of pickup band action in the parking lots – jams between the scheduled performers and ticket holders who’d brought along their instruments,” Shay said. “People just loved that spontaneity.”
Hey, he should remember.
The 50th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival happens Aug. 19-21, with an early-bird concert for campers the night of the 18th at the Old Pool Farm, Upper Salford Township near Schwenksville. Friday tickets are $51, Saturday daytime events $38, evening $52, combo $75, Sunday combo $65, evening $51, 20-40 percent discounts for ages 12-16, under 12 admitted free. Camping costs extra. Details at 215-247-1300, www.pfs.org