It was in the mid-1970s when actor Jeff Daniels learned about Martin Guitar, the instrument maker in Nazareth, Pa.
"A friend of mine in New York, another actor, had a Martin, and it was like playing a Stradivarius … and then you buy into the whole 'There's only a Martin, only a Martin' and you make the pilgrimage," said Daniels. "You go to Nazareth and it's like going to the Vatican for a Catholic or Cooperstown for a baseball fan. You have to make the pilgrimage. Once you've done that, for me, there was no turning back."
Daniels will bring his love of Martin guitars to the Philadelphia Folk Festival when his group, Jeff Daniels and the Ben Daniels Band, performs Sunday, Aug. 16. Now in its 57th year, the four-day festival (Aug. 16-19) attracts more than 36,000 people to Old Poole Farm in Upper Salford Township, 35 miles from Philadelphia. And, although there are eight official performing spaces, most attendees will gather to see national acts like Daniels, Patty Griffin, and Wynonna & the Big Noise at the Martin Guitar Stage.
But how did this seminal American guitar company come to be so intimately connected to this beloved annual festival? Thanks to one idea: You just can't lose money.
That's what the Philadelphia Folksong Society (PFS) told David Hadler and Joel Shoulson when they approached it about starting the folk fest in 1962. They were inspired by the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I. "This was the result of David and Joel … thinking, 'This is insane. Why don't we have something like this closer to home?' " said Lisa Schwartz, festival and programming director of the Philadelphia Folk Festival. "They put a little plan together."
So the two men drove up to Nazareth to ask the president of Martin Guitar for a favor.
"As I was told … Frank Herbert Martin guaranteed to cover the loss if there was a loss," Dick Boak, former director of the museum and archives at C.F. Martin & Co., said of the origins of the partnership. Martin Guitar, which wanted to sponsor a similar festival in Wind Gap, Pa., the year before, had been looking for just such an opportunity.
With the Martin promise in hand, Hadler and local folk figure Gene Shay booked Pete Seeger and his brother Mike, the Greenbriar Boys, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, blind gospel singer the Rev. Gary Davis, and fiddler Obray Ramsey at a 15-acre farm in Paoli. About 2,500 people attended.
"So the good news was we didn't lose any money. And the fascinating thing about the very first folk festival was Pete Seeger was on the bill and he wouldn't take his check. He gave it back and said, 'Here this is for next year,' " said Schwartz.
That sort of generosity gave PFS the confidence to continue holding the festival.
As the festival grew, so did the relationship with Martin. Each year, the company sponsors the mainstage and donates prizes — like a full-size Martin guitar, a travel guitar, and strings — to the Philly Folksong Society's fund-raiser. "It's a high point for many of us when Gene [Shay] announces the winners Sunday evening," said Chris Thomas, director of artist relations at Martin Guitar. In 2002, it donated money to help construct a new performance stage to mark the 40th anniversary of the festival.
"The proximity to our factory and museum, the festival's legacy on the music scene, and the dedication of the festgoers and campers keep us coming back," said Thomas. "The fest is in some ways an annual reunion for us to see some of these artists in person and witness the enjoyment they bring to their fans."
This community-oriented approach has engendered fierce loyalty from musicians since Martin's inception in 1833.
Daniels was so inspired by his love for Martin guitars he wrote "When My Fingers Find Your Strings," a song on his new album, Acoustic Sittin' Tour 2018. He described it as "a love song to a Martin guitar" when he performed it at the Martin Guitar factory in 2011.
"You're sitting on a porch and you want to tell this great instrument of your life what you feel about it," said Daniels.
Molly Tuttle, another performer on the Martin Guitar Stage this year, has a similar passion for the company.
"My first guitar I ever bought with my own money — I saved up for it when I was 12 — was a Martin," said Tuttle. "I remember always hearing how my dad [well-known San Francisco-area fiddle teacher Jack Tuttle] had Martins growing up. So that's the pinnacle of what a really good guitar is."
In her song "Friend and a Friend" from her 2017 debut album, Rise, Tuttle sings, "I got a big dream and a worn-out [Martin] D-18" about traveling with her guitar on the all-too-often bumpy road of touring.
"When I went off to Berklee College of Music, I bought a '40s Martin. It was a 1944 D-18. So that was the first-ever vintage instrument that I owned, and that was really special, too."
With one foot anchored in the past, PFS also continues to innovate the festival. No longer are the headliners primarily white and male. Artists like Valerie June, Eileen Ivers, and Christine Lavin demonstrate the programming shift the festival has taken as part of the Keychange Pledge, which encourages festivals to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022.
"I believe that we are the only longstanding music event in North America that has a festival and programming director who is a woman and will feature female headliners each and every night," said Schwartz. "We were determined to break the past talent-buying trends and move decidedly toward balance and equity and curate with a focus on more women artists, and more world music and international performers."
Martin Guitar sees the value in supporting the community, especially as it changes. "Martin decided that the investment in the festival, the artists, and the community was well worth it," said Thomas. "So glad we did."