One of the FOLK

It's 1972, and that's John Prine and Bonnie Raitt sitting in the Folk Festival audience. It was far from the last time each performer would show up.
It's 1972, and that's John Prine and Bonnie Raitt sitting in the Folk Festival audience. It was far from the last time each performer would show up. (Philadelphia Folk Festival)

The golden anniversary

Posted: August 14, 2011

David Bromberg was born at St. Agnes Hospital in South Philadelphia, and before his family moved to New York, the dazzling guitarist, who will perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival this weekend, spent the first few years of his life in either Chester or West Chester.

"I know they're very different, but I can't remember which," says the 65-year-old singer and songwriter, who last month released Use Me, a genre-hopping roots-music album featuring Los Lobos, Vince Gill, Linda Ronstadt, and Levon Helm on Appleseed Recordings, which is based in one of the places Bromberg may be from. (West Chester, that is.)

Like Helm, Tom Rush, Jorma Kaukonen, Arlo Guthrie, and Tom Paxton, Bromberg is a longtime veteran of the Folk Festival who will be returning to the Old Pool Farm in Upper Salford Township for the fest's 50th anniversary celebration, which runs Thursday through Sunday.

Bromberg, who has lived in Wilmington above his David Bromberg & Associates Fine Violins shop since 2002, will play the Folk Fest's main stage on Saturday afternoon, where his 11-piece Big Band will co-headline with party-starters Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue.

It was as an accompanist for Jerry Jeff Walker that Bromberg first played the festival in the late 1960s. The guitarist, who studied musicology at Columbia University and was further schooled by blues great Rev. Gary Davis, also was playing studio sessions with Bob Dylan, Chubby Checker, and John Prine, and wrote songs with George Harrison.

Hanging out at the Old Pool Farm back in the day, Bromberg enjoyed the collaborative spirit of the festival, where he'll be back in the swing when he takes part in an acoustic blues workshop with Jorma Kaukonen, Roy Bookbinder, and others on Sunday afternoon.

Later that day, he'll be part of a husband-and-wife workshop with his wife, artist Nancy Josephson, who will perform with her sweetly harmonizing Angel Band.

Those workshops and other impromptu jam sessions are a key part of the folk-fest ethos, says WXPN radio host Gene Shay, who will be emceeing and telling jokes at the festival for the 50th consecutive year.

(A sample groaner from the 76-year-old Shay, who was once mock-arrested on stage for "impersonating a comedian": "How many folksingers does it take to change a lightbulb? Eighteen. One to change it, and 17 to ask to be on the guest list.")

"I'm excited because it's the 50th year, but also because there's some great talent, and an opportunity to see some once-in-a-lifetime jams," says Shay. "I mean, if I can see Bromberg jam with Jorma and Levon . . . I'm just excited about the music. I always have been."

When he was a rising young player, Bromberg remembers, he backed up Tom Paxton, John Hartford, and Tom Rush, among others at the festival.

"A lot of people would ask, and I enjoyed doing it, so I was on the stage quite a bit," he remembers. "I used to play with just about everybody, and I had a ball. I loved it."

In either 1971 or 1972, Bromberg brought Bob Dylan along with him to the Old Pool Farm, Shay remembers. But Dylan didn't play, choosing to hang out backstage talking to Janis Ian and Bessie Jones instead.

Bromberg stepped out as a front man in the 1970s, when his cover of Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" was an FM radio staple, as was his song "Sharon," later sampled by the Beastie Boys on "Johnny Ryall."

But Bromberg went missing from Old Pool Farm, and from the folk and blues music world altogether, in the 1980s and 1990s.

"I was burnt out," he recalls. "I didn't play music for 22 years. I went out on the road for two years, and I didn't come home for two weeks. . . . I simply wasn't a musician anymore.

"When I was not on the road, I wasn't jamming, I wasn't playing and I wasn't writing. What there is a musician?

"I didn't want to be one of these guys who drags himself onto the stage and bitterly does an imitation of what he used to do," Bromberg continues. "There are enough of those around."

Instead, he went to violin-making school in Chicago, and didn't start playing again until after he moved to Wilmington when, at the urging of Mayor James Baker, he agreed to start up two weekly jam sessions along the city's Market Street corridor.

"I figured I'd go for a couple of months, and then they'd live or die on their own," Bromberg recalls.

"But I loved them, and some wonderful musicians started showing up immediately, and I started to get some chops back."

There's a Wednesday Chicago blues night now at the World Cafe Live at the Queen, down the street from Bromberg's shop, and a Monday night acoustic session will be moving to a nearby coffee shop, Bromberg says.

In 2007, Bromberg returned to recording with the country-blues album Try Me One More Time on Appleseed. The next year, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt invited him on stage when they played the Wilmington Grand Opera House.

Hiatt invited Bromberg to come to Nashville to record, and Josephson, Bromberg's wife, came up with the concept for Use Me. The album finds acts like Dr. John, who contributed "You Don't Want to Make Me Mad," and Vince Gill, who contributed "Lookout Mountain," which he wrote with Guy Clark, writing and producing a song tailor-made for Bromberg.

"I called a lot of people, and almost everyone said yes," says Bromberg. But since he traveled all over the country to record it face-to-face with his collaborators, it cost close to $50,000, a heavy price for a small label like Appleseed.

It was worth it, says Appleseed's Jim Musselman, who adds that Use Me is selling a thousand copies a week. That's "very strong" in an environment where "just like they say 50 is the new 40 in life, 20,000 units is now the same as 50,000 a few years ago."

"The thing about David was I felt he deserved for it to be done first-class in every way. He is an incredible musician who is so well-respected by other musicians."

Bromberg says making the album "was a little scary, because I was putting myself totally in the hands of each of these people." He was flattered, though, by his friends' generosity with prime material, such as Hiatt's terrific "Ride On Out a Ways." Bromberg points out, "One reviewer said, 'I'm amazed that he gave that song away.' "

Since returning, Bromberg is careful to avoid any risk of repeat burnout.

"I don't do any gigs that I don't think I'm going to enjoy," he says. "And I don't take myself out on the road so long that I'll get sick of it. I've taken control of it."


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, ddeluca@phillynews.com, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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