On a recent afternoon, Gene Shay, the face of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, peered through the rear window of a restaurant near Rittenhouse Square and looked half a century into the past.

This, Shay explained to a visitor, had been the back room of Ed and Esther Halpern's Gilded Cage coffeehouse, legendary epicenter of the Philly folk scene. It was in this room that much of the planning for the first folk fest took place.

And it was here that the seeds of the all-volunteer "Straw Hat Brigade," the people who made the festival go, were planted, Shay said. From directing traffic to building the stage to managing the finances, the festival would rely on volunteers.

The Gilded Cage is gone, and so, too, is a key part of the "volunteers only" identity. Since 2008, the festival has had a professional executive director and a marketing mentality that will be reflected in the 49th edition, which takes place Friday through Sunday at the Old Pool Farm in Schwenksville.

In 2008, the festival's parent organization, the Philadelphia Folk Song Society, hired 28-year-old Levi Landis to be executive director. That same year, 38-year-old Jesse Lundy was brought in to book acts through Point Entertainment.

Folk Song Society board members decided that professional help would be needed in a fiercely competitive and depressed market.

"We weren't sophisticated enough and we didn't have the expertise in certain areas - promotion, graphics, computers, viral advertising - and we needed help," Shay explains.

Landis holds a master's degree in public administration from Villanova University and speaks the laconic language of folk, with a not-for-profit accent.

"For many of the constituents, there was a real concern of 'Are we gonna lose this?' " Landis said. "The financial aspect of it couldn't be denied; it was public knowledge."

Campground rumors of the festival's imminent demise recurred like summer zucchini. Landis said the situation was not nearly as desperate as some believed; he thinks the real angst was over who would become the new flag- bearers. The old guard was starting to have trouble negotiating the steep hill at Old Pool Farm.

"We convinced everybody that this is a necessary evil - and it really isn't evil at all," said Shay. "That wasn't taken kindly by some of the old-timers who've been proud for years that this was all done by volunteers."

While the festival was run by volunteers, performers do get paid (even Shay draws a fee when he's onstage).

The festival remained profitable into the early 1990s, Landis said. In recent years, seismic shifts in the music business changed festivals everywhere.

"The business today goes beyond the peace and love it once was," said Lundy. "Just because an artist has a ton of history with this event doesn't mean they're going to play ball. The agents are not as necessarily sympathetic to what this festival is as they ought to be."

Lundy speaks from a professional's point of view. He began his career at Electric Factory Concerts and New Park Entertainment before joining Richard Kardon's Point Entertainment. He said booking the festival had always been a career goal.

Out of necessity, his way of doing business is a far cry from the folk festival as it was when Paula Ballan first encountered it.

Ballan, 65, started going to the festival in its second year and would go on to help book acts from '66 to '76. Bronx-born Ballan was living in New York then and lives there still, in a fifth-floor walk-up on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

She met "the Philly crowd" after bus companies canceled chartered buses to a civil rights march in Washington. Students from Philadelphia offered to take the New Yorkers to D.C. On the way back, she fell in with the folkies and later volunteered for the festival's programming committee. Like most, she was in her 20s, played guitar, and sang.

"I had my own sound," Ballan said. "But besides my international stuff (French, Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish), I became known as a singer of bawdy songs - really bawdy songs."

Ballan came from a time when bookers and singers hung out. The division of labor had not yet hardened. Singers also had time to jam with the other acts, and this, Ballan contends, is the secret to Philly Folk's success and unique sound.

"If you brought the groups in on Friday, they could hang out on Friday and Saturday," she said. "By Sunday, the jam session that had been just great at the motel would hit the stage as something that nobody had ever heard before. You do that enough years, and eventually you create a sound."

The professionals and the volunteers agree that the core of folk music is its sense of community, but with the rise of double-click activism, ways of getting involved have changed. Computer programs have replaced recording studios, and simply singing together to fine-tune a sound is on the decline. Confessional diary entries have edged out "We Shall Overcome."

Ballan cites the story of a friend who puts together jam sessions for students at the New School in New York as an example of what's wrong.

"Things have been so disjointed by this generation that [they don't have] the ability to get together with someone and say, 'Hey, why don't we get together, take out our instruments, and play a little bit?' They're not capable of doing this. They have to pay somebody to teach them how to jam."

Shay agrees there is joy in jamming.

"Some of my favorite kinds of folk music are the kind I can enjoy by jamming with, not so much the artist, but people at home sitting around singing a folk song," he said. "Folk music is usually community-based. It is written for the people."

Landis and Lundy are now charged with increasing attendance while maintaining the folk character, not an easy task with the current proliferation of me-centered diary music.

Still, the two see hope. Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy will make a rare solo appearance as the festival headliner.

"Tweedy, as a solo act in this situation - it's going to make [the audience] more focused on the words and not the soundscapes that the band is making," said Lundy.

Festival stalwarts such as Taj Mahal will be back, as will Richard Thompson, Ben Arnold, Chris Smither, and Mike Cross. Cross is expected to close the Saturday night lineup.

Lundy says that Tweedy and Bonnie Prince Billy, another performer with indie cred, represent the A-team for the festival's new direction. Also forging a new path will be A.A. Bondy, Horse Feathers, Erin McKeown, Annie and the Beekeepers, and the Spinning Leaves.

Landis and Lundy are also mining the city for talent, not unlike their folk festival forebears. They note that West Philadelphia is ripe with the kind of music scene that flourished around Rittenhouse Square back in the '60s.

"If you look at West Philly, which is of course its own planet over there, that is the hotbed of socially active activity, filled with socially conscious lefties and minorities that are probably doing more over there than anybody else is," said Lundy. "A lot of the music that comes out of West Philly, like the West Philadelphia Orchestra, is a true melding of folk music and hipster stuff."

"West Philadelphia is the spot to be if you like folk music," agreed Landis.

Yet, Landis remains concerned about whether the folk festival can build a loyal audience from his finicky generation, which becomes suspicious of singers who get too popular and drops them.

"That kind of thing will make it impossible to have another Bob Dylan," he said. "Our generation won't allow anyone to speak for us. We won't allow ideas to become community ideas."

The director hopes to counteract that tendency through music - played in real time and in a real space.

Watch interviews with old and new folk fest workers at www.philly.com/seeFolk


Contact staff writer Tom Stoelker at 215-854-2937.