Friday, August 19, 2011

Gene Shay — Philly Folkfest emcee for 50 years

For Journal Register News Service

He’s an American folk music icon. But he’s also our Main Line neighbor. A more gentle man would be hard to find.
Gene Shay is known and respected nationwide as the founder and emcee of the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival and as the unhurried, welcoming voice of Sunday night’s folk music radio program (WXPN 88.5 FM, 8 - 11 p.m. and As the producer or host of untold numbers of folk concerts, record albums and events; and more recently as the doyen of on-air folk music on the Internet (, Wednesdays and Saturdays, 5 - 7 p.m.) and satellite (Sirius XM: The Village, Sunday, 6 - 8 p.m.), he is truly in a class by himself.
No one else anywhere does what he has done for more than 50 years. As he put it recently, “I’m not one to boast, but it’s just a fact that no one has the experience, knowledge and network that I have.”
Shay will receive a well-deserved honor at the folk festival’s 50th anniversary on Sunday, Aug. 21. At his side will be his wife, Gloria, with whom he is also sharing a 50th anniversary, and their daughters, Rachel and Elana, and their families.
He reflects quietly, “I think I am the only person who has been on the festival stage every one of those 50 years.”
Born Ivan Shaner, he grew up in Nicetown (North Philadelphia), the eldest child in a Jewish family. Forbidden to play near busy Germantown Avenue, he spent most play-time indoors.
“I listened to a lot of radio,” he recalled. “I loved all the music: classical, jazz, traditional folk, show tunes. As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a radio announcer.”
Much to his sisters’ annoyance, “I practiced all the time,” he explained. He wrote scripts for himself, imitating announcers’ voices. He’d regale the family with recitations of food containers’ labels and play-by-play descriptions of their household activities. By the time he was 16, he had developed his distinctive sound.
As soon as he arrived at Temple University, he became a communications major and worked at WRTI radio station. After a stint in the Army between wars (he volunteered the day after graduation), he was hired immediately upon his first professional audition at WHAT. Puzzled when the station manager asked him what name he was going to use on the air, he realized that Cold War listeners might not trust a man with a Russian name. He became Gene Shay.
When the host of WHAT’s Sunday evening folk music show retired, Shay was asked to take it on. The folk genre had been purely traditional music, but now “the national folk scene was just taking off with singer-songwriters.” He has captained the show through seven different stations.
Newlyweds Gene and Gloria joined the fledgling Philadelphia Folksong Society (PFS). Soon, David Hadler, a fellow PFS board member, approached him suggesting that they organize an outdoor concert. They pitched it to the board and became the founders of the weekend-long Philadelphia Folk Festival. Proudly, Shay explains, “You know, the Festival is run entirely by the Folksong Society, entirely by volunteers. It has never been sponsored by any governmental or private entity.”
As life became more hectic for the growing family, Shay shifted his career into promotions and public relations, and had to let go of running the festival, but “stayed with what I do best: emceeing and advising on talent.”
Shay marvels at the folk festival’s enduring success.
“Many people treat it as a family vacation and reunion, with generations gathering. There’s always a sense of community, which is an essential part of folk music.”
During its 50 years, the festival has always been an evolving mix of traditional artists and acoustic singer/songwriters, balancing stalwart performers with budding talent. Through it all, there has been one constant: the soft-spoken, mild-mannered, always-ready-with-a-joke emcee Gene Shay, the “folk DJ.”

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