You may know that the Philadelphia Folk Festival is around the corner—running August 15th-18th. But what you may not know is that you can get a taste of the history and tradition of a festival that spans generations through the “At Fest” documentary, produced and directed by James Wallace and Jen Wallace, executive producer, which features the music of Hogmaw, Hoots & Hellmouth, The Philadelphia Jug Band and more. There is also a screening of “At Fest” on Wednesday, August 7th, 7pm at the Trocodero Theater in Philadelphia. I remember seeing James “Who” at last year’s Who Hill family camp out where I first learned of this project. I recently talked to James to find out how the movie came about and what’s in store for us diehard folk fans in the Tri State Area and beyond.
Your first Philly Folk Fest was in 2008—how did you end up there?
I started dating my wife, Jennifer, in 2006 and she had been going to the Philly Folk Fest almost every year. Every time she would talk about it, I couldn’t quite grasp what was so special about it—she would say it was more than camping and more than just a concert, but I just couldn’t picture more than that. My only experience with camping was military survival training.
But when I finally went, I fell in love with it—it reminded me of the nine years I had spent in Hawaii. The only way I can describe the feeling of Folk Fest is that it embodies the Aloha Spirit of Hawaii—open minded and friendly.
What other fests/concerts and music were you into before the Philly Folk Fest? Are you looking beyond the folk scene for other projects?
My musical taste runs the gamut from jazz, blues, hip hop, to classical. I guess my concert-going had a folk influence—Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, Blues Traveler, Counting Crows—though I never really thought of it as “folk” music.
As far as other projects, I’m not just focused on making musical documentaries, though my current focus is on this project. I thought it was interesting that the Oscar for Best Documentary went to “Searching for Sugar Man” which was somewhat of a folk mystery with an amazing soundtrack.
Do you have a sense of how the folk scene has evolved?
Yeah, I definitely feel caught up in a type of folk renaissance and while my film “At Fest” is not retrospective, the story lines, people, and bands we feature tell a generational story.
As far as evolution, music is eternal. We keep getting older but the music remains—whether it’s the traditional songs in the public domain or new songs in line with the folk tradition—but the industry surrounding the music has changed the most.
Can you talk about some of the details of production and direction, such as timeline, cost, and people involved?
From start to finish it took about three years. My wife, Jennifer, is executive producer, Tommy Salerno is the assistant director, and Iris Rodrigo did the editing. We also have Gene Shay, the “Father of Folk” and founder of Philly Folk Fest who serves as a sort of narrator.
And then there are the story lines—Hogmaw the band, Ryann Lynch of Hogmaw and her family, the volunteers and nonprofit base that put on the festival, as well as a camper and friend, Shea Hagy. Their stories really illustrate how the folk festival is more than an event—it spans nearly four generations and it evokes deep visceral feelings.
As far as money goes, it was mostly self-funded though we had many small contributions. I think the largest single donation we received was about $1,000 and the smallest was $1 from a close friend who gave what they could even though they were flat broke. I still get emotional when I think about all the support we received from friends who believed in this project. We also used crowdfunding campaigns with kickstarter, indiegogo, and pledgemusic. In total, I’d say it cost a couple hundred thousand to make the film. We’re also giving a percentage of the proceeds to Folk Alliance International.
What is it about the band Hogmaw that inspired you to feature them in this film?
There are a few reasons: part of the challenge with making a documentary on music is that if you don’t have money to pay for music under copyright, you can’t feature that music being played and jammed at festivals. And folk isn’t just about who everybody knows—Hogmaw’s story is interesting because they were one of the winners of a Battle of the Bands contest. Their music is a unique blend of improvisational bluegrass which they’ve labeled “Thundergrass”. And you may or may not know that both Colin and Matt have backgrounds in playing heavy metal, which drives a lot of their high-powered, high-energy jams. It’s technically challenging as well. Also, Ryann’s family has been coming to the folk festival for decades. The story of Hogmaw aligns with the film’s theme of love, music, and family.
I’ve been into Hogmaw for a while and even reviewed their album Wake but I wasn’t aware of the heavy metal influence. I also know we have a mutual friend, Ernie Tokay, who produced Hogmaw’s album. How did you meet Ernie?
Oh yeah, we are connected by the same circle of friends. When Hogmaw was working on their album, Ernie would call me from the studio and we facebooked back and forth about video projects. Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops was also hanging out at the Little Spiders Have Big Dreams Studio with Ernie and Hogmaw. The Chocolate Drops are one of the acts at this year’s Philly Folk Festival.
Was there anything you weren’t expecting to happen that did while making the film?
Well, I don’t want to give too much away but there was a moment during the 2011 festival when a huge storm blew threw—it was almost like a tornado—and there were tents and other debris blown about. We have footage of the aftermath and how the festival community pulled together and got through the damage.
Any final thoughts or things you’d like to add?
I just want to acknowledge and thank the 2,500 volunteers, the 8,000 campers, the bands, and approximately 40,000 festival goers that span the weekend of Folk Fest. It’s a Philly story that has universal appeal. There’s a line in the film that really emphasizes what the festival is all about: This isn’t just about the festival, it’s about what we choose to connect with in our lives—community, deep connections, and commitment.
This documentary isn’t about a particular social or political issue. It’s about LOVE, MUSIC, and FAMILY.