Published on The Deli Philadelphia – Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011
– by Annamarya Scaccia
“Folk music is a major part of my life, and I’m hooked. I love everything that keeps happening, and I’d love to keep other people informed and interested as much as I can.”
That antiphon is from Fred Knittel, a 22-year-old undergrad in Drexel University’s music industry program. The Asbury Park native is true to his words – for the last three years, he’s hosted the alt-folk radio program, Folkadelphia, which was first home to Drexel’s WKDU station, and, since June, finds a place every Tuesday evening on Y-Rock on XPN. He also owns Be Frank Records – a pun on both the idiom of honesty and Benjamin Franklin’s agnomen – with friend Matt Klein, and just pressed its first limited edition 7-inch vinyl, 2010’s Everyone Will Take You In by local folk luminary, Birdie Busch. And now, as part of his senior project before he graduates in March, the former WXPN summer intern will showcase the nouveau riche of folk music with the Folkadelphia Concert Series, taking place at Johnny Brenda’s every Sunday afternoon throughout February.
Presented by the Philadelphia Folksong Society and WXPN, every installment of the Folkadelphia Concert Series will feature live performances and artists discussions with local folk lightning rods The Spinning Leaves, Hezekiah Jones,Lewis & Clarke, Meg Baird, and Maine-based outfit, Arborea (The Spinning Leaves & Hezekiah Jones will play Folkadelphia’s inaugural show tomorrow). We had a chance to catch up with Knittel to talk about the series, how folk music is received in Philadelphia, and why there’s a resistance to modern folk.
The Deli: Is your Folkadelphia Conert Series going to be an extension of your Y-Rock radio show?
Fred Knittel: Yes, it’s definitely an extension of my radio show. Y-Rock, I feel, is like the cooler, hipper, younger version of XPN. It does a lot of cool indie stuff, upcoming things, and breaking bands. I feel the reason Folkadelphia fits in there [is because] it’s not just the old timey folk music. I try and showcase newer, developing folk musicians. I use folk music as a really loose reference point. It’s not [The Folk Show with] Gene Shay XPN, for instance, who does focus a lot on the stalwarts of folk music. Not to say I don’t go there, but I tend to have a more modern reference point for folk music. So I took that love of the splintered genre of folk music and said, “Hey, there’s so much great folk music out there right now and people kind of feel that folk music is that old genre, not this cool new thing that’s still budding with activity…I can display this here in Philly.” Philly has a great folk scene and that was my jump-off point – trying to educate people about modern folk music. And I feel that’s kind of what I try to do with my radio show.
TD: It seems, sometimes, that the folk scene, while strong in Philadelphia, is overshadowed. Why is that? What can be done to shift the balance?
FK: I’m not sure exactly what to do. I think things like this, the more people who are aware and participating, the better. I feel like, within Philadelphia, there are different kinds of folk music scenes, like the freak-folk scene, and then The Spinning Leaves and all those people out there. They do the Folk Parade, with Papertrees and Hezekiah Jones, and all those kind of guys. I think just get the music out there to the people. The key is to see them all live and hear their stories. They all have something really great to say. They just need vehicles to do that and I guess that’s kind of why I have my folk show and the series. The more that people do these kinds of things, the better. The Deli is helpful, for sure.
TD: In terms of different folk scenes, the bands you’ve picked for the Folkadelphia Concert Series seem to be conceptually more in line with the folk of yore, rather than blending it with other elements, like noise or psych. Is that an agreeable assessment?
FK: I think so. I think I know what you’re saying. A big reason I picked out these specific bands for the series is because they bridge the gap between the old school, traditional [and modern]. They’re not like a band who said, “Hey, let’s get a little folksy sound in there with acoustic guitars,” and they don’t really know anything about it. These artists, they might not play in the vein of Woody Guthrie or Delta Blues. They don’t maybe play that kind of music, but they’re definitely influenced by it. They can speak intelligently about the kind of music they play and where they’re coming from. All of these artists that I play and showcase, especially in the series, are kind of bridging that gap. It’s important to hold on to the history of the old storytelling, the playing.
TD: Each show in the Folkadelphia Concert Series will have live band performances and intimate discussions with the artists. How will that setup work?
FK: It may vary a bit with each show. I’ve really been trying to see what the artists want to do, but I think the way most of them will work will be some kind of set of music then the guest moderator will come out and talk with the artists for a chunk of the time. My conception of this was kind of in the vein of a live radio session/interview. The artists will come and play some songs, talk to the DJ about the new record and things like that, and then maybe play a couple of more songs. Then I said, “Wait, maybe that’ll be a cool thing to do with an audience.” It kind of evolved from there. I’d love to talk about what folk music means to them, where they come from, what influences them, but I know a lot of it will probably be what they are working on. I know a lot of them are working on new albums. In fact, I think every artist that I have will be putting something out in 2011, so I’m sure they’ll talk about new songs. They’ll probably play some of the new songs. The interviewers I have are all very key in the, I guess you can say, folk music scene here in Philly – Biff Kennedy [has] done radio promotions for years and he manages Birdie Busch and Hoots & Hellmouth. He’s a great guy. He’s very passionate about folk music. Levi Landis is, of course, [Executive Director of] the Folksong Society and Philadelphia Folk Festival, and then Gene Shay, so they’re gonna bring their own conceptions of folk music, and try and squeeze it out of these artists, I guess.
TD: Out of the many folk acts in Philadelphia, what made you choose these particularly bands for the month-long event?
FK: Part of it was by design, and part of it was random. This whole project, my series, is my senior project for Drexel. I’m an undergraduate in the music industry program…So I started off with no money. I still have no money. I just reached to a lot of different artists. Basically the artists I reached out to be ones that I play very frequently on my show. It just so happens that most of the artists, everyone except Aborea, are from the Philadelphia area, which was a really cool thing, I thought. I tried to get pretty much area artists because I figured I play them a lot and they probably would do it for cheaper. Not to downplay their importance musically, but I didn’t have any money. Thankfully, the Folksong Society is sponsoring these events and backing me a little financially to help the artists. We barely talked about money. The artists are all really passionate about the idea and folk music, and they all want to talk about it and play it for everyone.
The Folksong Society membership is one that’s use to, especially the people that attend the Philadelphia Folk Festival, that old school thought [about] what folk music is and how it’s played out. I’ve never personally been to the Folk Festival but I’ve heard stories that [bands like] Bonnie “Prince” Billy [who played in 2010], they get booed. It just doesn’t make sense to me why that happens, but I have to realize there’s this whole conception of what folk music is, and I know the people who’ll probably attend these things that are Folksong Society members are maybe different than the ones attended the Folk Festival. But I think they still may have that same train of thought – the old school of folk music – and it would be great to say, “Hey, this is where folk music is now. It still has the roots. It’s the modern form of it.” Hopefully, people will be interested and they may learn, they may love the artists afterwards. That would be the ideal thing.
TD: But why is there this hesitation among crowds to welcome modern folk music?
FK: I give that a lot of thought, and a lot of people have different ideas. I’m not entirely sure. I think a lot of it is [that] they get kind of caught up in the culture of it. I kind of feel like, for one thing, especially with the Folk Festival – I mean, I can’t really speak to this because I’ve been. I’d love to go. I just never had the opportunity – they’ve been going, probably forever, to the Folk Festival, maybe they grew up going to it, and they just get use to the sound. In modern times, you kind of have to reinvent it a bit and people are kind of adverse to change. It’s kind of like Bob Dylan picking up an electric guitar – afraid of change.
TD: In terms of your relationship to folk music, how did you become so enamored with the genre?
FK: I have often thought about this and I would like to pinpoint an exact moment in my life where I was like, “Oh my god, whatever, Bob Dylan!” I don’t have that moment. All I can say is I think I became kind of obsessed with the stories and the rawness of it. In junior high or high school, I guess I started listening to Bob Dylan a lot. It’s the first person I could really think of that I got into, but, from there, it quickly bounced to a lot of different guys – the rawness and the realness and the fact that it could be so inspiring and bone chilling and real, without any kind of crazy guitars or effects or anything. I definitely grew up listening to a lot of punkier stuff, as I guess many youths do. This kind of juxtaposition of that with the punk music, it changed me. I feel like it speaks very near and dear to me. Then, as I started to delve more into what they were singing about, that definitely was a whole new realization, and something that I continue to be amazed about. Recently, I’ve been very into English ballads and what they sing about, and they’re pretty crazy stories – the child ballads, they’re pretty crazy, pretty gruesome a lot of them, too.
TD: I would definitely agree with that.
FK: But there’s a reason people keep playing them, that people keep reinterpreting them. I think it speaks to the timelessness of the music, the stories and the genre of folk music.
TD: Do you hope the Folkadelphia series will turn weary fans into diehard folk lovers?
FK: Absolutely. I would love for people to come, and it to play out [where] they’re interested in the music – maybe they like one part of the whole thing – [and] love the music. It would be great if in the talking part and the playing and everything, they just see that it’s a great tradition of music and the richness of it, and that the community is in place and it’s diverse and growing and evolving and that they want to be a part of it, whether they’re playing or going to shows and supporting it or just purchasing the music or downloading the music, whatever, finding out more info about the genre. Every little step counts to keeping folk music going. But it’s not like, “Keep it going.” It’s healthy. It’s lively. I would love for people to come out and be inspired and turn a new leaf or keep going down that road with folk music.
TD: What’s your favorite thing to get at the deli?
FK: Turkey sandwich, load on them pickles.