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The Latest Wave of Philly Folk Music.

September 4, 2011

Text by Jillian Mallon. Top images by G.W. Miller III. Bottom photo by Lisa Schaffer.

Raph Cutrufello sports jeans and a navy blue T-shirt that is torn at the seams above his left shoulder blade. He blends into the scenery of the part-convenience store, part-diner where he is eating his breakfast.

“You see on that shelf right there? That lampshade?” he asks after ordering his whitefish sandwich. “My mom has one. I think there’s one in my house.”

Cutrufello’s calm and homey style does more than just echo the style of the diner. It also has a place in his music. He is the founding member of Philadelphia-based contemporary folk act Hezekiah Jones.

The band was first picked up in 2006 by Yer Bird Records after the label discovered recordings that Cutrufello (top image) had put online under the name of his pet snail Hezekiah, claiming that these were songs that the snail wanted to bring from his home in Indonesia to the United States.

Those first songs – and many of the others that followed – were different than what Cutrufello used to play. As an adolescent his musical focus was jazz piano and instrumental songs. However, when he first picked up an acoustic guitar and began writing lyrics, the gentle folk sound of Hezekiah Jones came to be.

“I never had any real fascination with folk music,” Cutrufello says. “It was just, you know, I started playing the guitar and the guitar just kind of sounds like folk music.”

He is not alone. Within the past few years, Philadelphia has seen a swelling of a number of musicians who, like Cutrufello, have gravitated toward playing, writing and listening to folk music.

“I love it,” says Cutrufello of the folk-revival trend. “I think it’s really great. It’s not only just musicians who are from Philly who are great in the kind of burgeoning folk scene going on. There are a lot of people moving here.”

A large number of the folk acts in Philly have brought their music from other cities – from as close as West Chester and Lancaster and as far off as Georgia and Indiana. Arrah Fisher brought her folk pop project Arrah and the Ferns to Philadelphia from Muncie, Indiana. Hilary White brought her self-proclaimed “swamp folk” project Lion Versus to Philadelphia from its birthplace in Savannah, Georgia.

“Writing for me is different here than in Savannah,” says White. “It’s the difference between Spanish moss on a giant oak and a pair of sneakers hanging on the telephone wire. It’s all beautiful and inspiring, just in different ways.”

White says that there are some specific things that make Philadelphia a suitable home for creating and bringing new music.

“The best part of the Philly music scene is the willingness for expansion,” she says. “There are more opportunities to play where people will take notice. You have to work hard at the music you want to do but Philly lets you experiment.”

Good Old War has been able to experiment in Philadelphia and now they have become a popular touring act. Formed in part by former members of the progressive rock band Days Away, Good Old War traded in the full rock feel for acoustic guitars, accordions and three-part harmonies. After getting signed to Sargent House records in 2008, the band went from harmonizing in bars to touring with Allison Krauss and Union Station.

“I think the choice was not necessarily to adopt a folky sound,” explains Good Old War percussionist, vocalist and accordion player Tim Arnold. “It was kind of just to simplify things and, you know, tone it down. Use acoustic instruments. But we weren’t really, like, saying, ‘Hey, let’s make a folk band.’ We were kind of just like, ‘Let’s just turn the volume down and concentrate on writing songs.’ It kind of evolved naturally that way.”

One reason why these contemporary folk musicians feel at home in Philadelphia is the sense of community that the City of Brotherly Love provides. Most of the musicians know each other and each other’s music.

“If we were to sit down and write a song with Raph,” Arnold says,  “it might give us a little insight on a different way to do it. And that’s another way to grow: playing with other people. I think that’s why, maybe, the Philly folk thing is thriving at this point. Everyone is friends and everyone works together and makes the best music that they possibly can.”

Another folk artist who contributes to the budding community is Brad Hinton. He has shared the stage with Hezekiah Jones. Cutrufello played harmonica with him at the 50th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival in August.

Hinton’s style of folk music is more of an homage to the past than many of the contemporary folk-influenced musicians in Philadelphia. He creates country blues music with The Brad Hinton Band and roots music with Wissahickon Chicken Shack.

“There’s something magical about that old music,” Hinton explains. “It speaks to something in me that I can’t describe, a link to my heritage. I’m drawn to the roots of American music.”

As an artist who shares his talents with many new musicians who are adopting the folk style, Hinton knows full well about how the Philadelphia folk scene is based on its communal tendency.

“The artists in this scene are just as happy to listen to their peers’ music as they are to perform their own,” he says. “There is a huge sense of collaboration. There’s no competition.”

Gene Shay, the longtime disc jockey at WXPN and founder of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, says that this folk renaissance is just one of many revivals. Folk music itself is difficult to define as it’s such a huge genre, with roots in just about every indigenous population. The first appearances of folk music, Shay says, come from early storytellers who passed music through the only channel that was available – voice and repetition.

“Mothers would sing to their daughters,” he says. “Daughters would hear them and sing them to their daughters, and therefore a song like ‘The Water is Wide’ is passed down. There were songs like that about making moonshine that went back to the 1700s, songs that started out as Irish tunes. Songs came from the German people, came from the Pennsylvania Dutch. They had their traditions and their dances and their music and some of those songs still exist.”

As the Vietnam War quietly approached in the late 1950s, the most notable folk revival began in America. It flourished during the 1960s when young people used the genre to speak out against the escalating war, the draft and violence in general. College students picked up guitars and wrote protest songs. They played at coffeehouses and their idols were Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

That movement took roots in Philadelphia, especially along South Street and in West Philadelphia. A strong community developed. And while people came and left the city, the sense of camaraderie among the folk crowd remains strong.

“We sit together as a crowd,” says Shay. “We tend to get to know each other because Philadelphia is a big city but it’s also small. Community is one of the features of folk music. In fact, it’s even in the kind of songs they sing. In non-folk music, a lot of the songs are about me or she. There are songs where she’s great or she should come back to me. They are all I. It’s ‘I love you’ versus ‘We’re all in this together.’ We. The ‘we’ attitude. ‘We shall overcome.’ Songs like that are the people talking about how it could be better if we all cooperate and put our arms around one another and all you need is love, you know?”

Shay calls the latest wave “contemporary folk-style music.”

“They are not folk,” he says. “They are folk-style. They write things that sound like they could have been written by an old-timer, or they sound like something by somebody who lives up in the mountains. Or they sound like an old blues man. These guys, they know the blues. They know the original folk songs. They can interpret.”

Cutrufello estimates there are around 40 such bands in Philadelphia working within that category.

“We all legitimately like each other’s stuff,” Cutrufello observes. “There’s a lot of talent here, you know? And maybe everyone says it about their city. Maybe the guy from Minneapolis says they have a very talented city and there’s a lot going on in Minneapolis. I don’t know.”

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