The Swarthmore Folk Festival

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Before Worthstock, the LSE, or even Olde Club, there was the Swarthmore Folk Festival. From the mid-forties to the mid-seventies, Swarthmore became the center of the folk music world for one spring weekend each year.

The roots of the Swarthmore Folk Festival lie, perhaps not surprisingly, in the efforts of students to fulfill their PE credits. It was the brainchild of Alice Gates, the instructor in folk and square dance in the Women’s Athletic Department. She encouraged students in her folk dance class to organize an intercollegiate festival as part of their PE requirement. The project received funding from the Cooper Foundation, and Swarthmore’s first Folk Festival was held in May 1945, featuring rising star Richard Dyer-Bennet.

Photo courtesy Friends Historical Library

The Folk Festival quickly attracted a number of famous names in the American folk revival movement. In 1946, Lead Belly played in Bond and Parrish Commons (now Admissions). In 1949, Woody Guthrie played in Clothier, and allegedly exclaimed, “I ain’t never played in a church before!” Guthrie’s fee was a scant $42.50. Pete Seeger headlined in 1953.

The crowds were the most incredible aspect of the festival; you simply couldn’t invite talent like Pete Seeger to campus and expect people to stay away. An intercollegiate affair, the 1955 festival attracted 2725 attendees – three times the size of the student body. But as the festival overtaxed college facilities and crowded the campus with strange faces, the administration got worried.

Thus, in light of the incredible scale of the 1955 festival, the administration decided that the Folk Festival would be discontinued in 1956. President Smith and the Athletics department cited the number of outsiders on campus as the primary reason for the festival’s discontinuation.

In a number of letters to the editor in the Phoenix, students made the case that the administration was afraid of flocks of “immoral” counterculture visitors on campus. Word has it that President Smith’s puritanical views on blue jeans may also have influenced the decision. Many patrons of the Folk Festival wore blue jeans — both men and women!

In 1957, the festival resumed under two conditions: it would be a) smaller, and b) closed to outsiders. John Jacob Niles, “The Dean of American Balladeers,” performed, and a Phoenix editorial noted, “The hordes of bathless, bearded and barefoot undesirables which were expected to over-run the campus…never materialized.”

The festival continued into the sixties, though in subdued form. In 1962, the festival was organized under the following guidelines: “1. The event was not to be given external publicity. 2. It could not be called a festival, with its implications of a participatory party, but must be treated as a cultural event. 3. Tickets to all concerts would be distributed in advance to students and their guests, with no sales being made at the door.”

Still, in 1958 the festival attracted an impressive headliner in Odetta. In 1964, the festival featured Phil Ochs, performing before he signed a recording contract.

At the same 1964 festival, renowned blues guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins arrived at Swarthmore a week early. He decided to stay on campus for the week, and spent his days jamming on a cot in the ML 3rd lounge, much to the delight of the students. At the festival, he recorded his Swarthmore Concert live album.

In 1966, the Folk Festival became a Rock Festival, going electric less than a year after Bob Dylan. Swarthmore continued to draw folk acts — Joni Mitchell played in 1967 – but the festival moved toward rock as students’ interests shifted.

That same year, freshman Paul Williams ’69 started Crawdaddy!, the first magazine of rock and roll criticism in the country, out of his dorm room. Crawdaddy! has gone in and out of publication for the last half-century, moving from a two-bit dorm-room fanzine to the first magazine to profile Bruce Springsteen to a financial bust. Its current incarnation is a rock criticism website.

I spoke with Bennett Lorber ’64 about Swarthmore’s move toward rock music. It happened during his senior year, and held striking implications for Swarthmore’s social scene. “When people started playing electric guitars, it changed the culture of the campus. Before that, when the weather was nice, it was common to see people gathering in groups on what’s now called Parrish Beach playing guitars, mandolins, and banjos…When people had to go back to their rooms to plug in guitars, it sort of completely changed life on the campus. It was pretty dramatic.”

Lorber recalled a similar change from his senior year: “Something else that happened was marijuana. It was very secretive – people would go back to their rooms, stuff towels under the doors, and go into the closet to smoke.”

Photo courtesy Friends Historical Library

The folk/rock festival died out in the mid-70s. The folk scene at Swarthmore, though, was never simply relegated to the festival. As Lorber remembers it, folk music was a major part of campus life. “There was a handful of people who were really good musicians who were visible and around all the time. There was a big folk music scene – very vibrant and wonderful.”

Lorber recalls playing guitar in a jug band his senior year, and admiring the success of a student band called The Crum Creek Valley Boys and Girl. Michael Meeropol ’64 (fun fact: Meeropol was the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) was an accomplished musician who, as a student, played concerts in New York with Pete Seeger to raise money for Kentucky miners.

In 1997, an Alumni Bulletin article about the folk festival spurred an extensive listserv discussion online, the records of which are kept in the Friends Library. Some alums started reminiscing about songs about Swarthmore, and what stood out to me most was the shared dissatisfaction with our school song: “Hail, all hail Swarthmore!”

I’ve hated our alma mater since singing it at First Collection, and it’s nice to hear that the sentiment is common. One alum rightly described it as “1910-style warmed-over Cornell.”

“Hail, all hail Swarthmore” was originally Cornell’s school song, taken by Swat because, among other reasons, the syllables of “Swarthmore” could easily replace “Cornell.” And if that isn’t reason enough for the school not to have a sentimental connection with the tune, the melody is originally from “Annie Lisle,” a ballad about a young woman dying of tuberculosis.

But in this listserv discussion, one alum remembers a talking blues about Swat that ended with:
“…and I hate this place as much as you
But there’s one think I can’t abide
And that’s people knocking Swarthmore from the outside.”

This seems far more in touch with the spirit of Swarthmore than the stuffy “Staunch and gray thou stand’st before us.” So: does anyone want to write a better alma mater, perhaps in the grand Swarthmore tradition of folk music?

The Phoenix