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Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival Returns to Salem County

By Zachary Klein,

originally published: 08/17/2023

Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival Returns to Salem County

A tradition of more than 50 years returns to the Salem County Fairgrounds, located at 735 Harding Highway in Woodstown, this Labor Day Weekend. The Delaware County Bluegrass Festival has been held since 1972, and in South Jersey since the 1990s. This year’s 51st annual festival will take place Sept. 1-3 and is sure to bring a jamming good time to all in attendance.

The 2023 edition of the festival features more than 20 bands, with six or seven performing each day of the festival. Some acts have a long history of coming to this event, while others are newcomers. Debbie Durant is the 2023 festival director and also the Vice Chair of the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music board, which sponsors the event. She expressed her excitement about being in this particular role for the first time this year.

“I am managing all of the moving parts that make up the festival,” Durant said. “And, with the Philadelphia Folk Fest and the Philadelphia Made in America Festival not happening this year, we are excited that people might be looking for a new experience, and come over.”

The festival has had roots in Salem County for more than 30 years since it relocated from Pennsylvania. Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music Board Chair Brian Duffy has roots in Salem County and spoke to the importance of why this event continues to operate there.

“We have about 3000 people come and spend four or five days or more in Salem County. It's nice to see them sprinkle around the community,” Duffy said. “So it's benefited the community by bringing a lot of folks in from nearby states that haven't really seen this part of New Jersey.”

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One of the most interesting things about how the festival runs is that it is entirely volunteer-managed. Durant shared how important it is for volunteers to come out in order to ensure the event runs smoothly.  

“All of the staffers are unpaid except the artists, emcees and sound people,” Durant said. “But the people who take your money or park cars or help you buy a membership, even people who work backstage, they are all volunteers.”

Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival Returns to Salem County

Spectators onlook from distance at the mainstage where the bands perform. (Photo courtesy Debbie Durant)

To stay as authentic as possible, the festival only books bands that are rooted in the traditional American genres of bluegrass and old time. It is important that these are the only two genres represented to stay on task with the mission of the festival, which is to bring these types of music to the South Jersey community and spread awareness of how they have deep roots in American tradition. The bands that were selected for this year’s festival all have ties to the two genres, keeping the festival focused on its goal.

“We are grounded in traditional American music, basically bluegrass and old time, but we also favor people and bands who we might call a ‘palette cleanser,’” Durant said. “Some of the traditional bluegrass  groups are about everyone playing together, which makes it more fun for the audience.” 

One of the groups that favor the style of “everyone playing together” is the Lonesome Ace String Band, which hails from Canada. According to Durant, they are one of the hottest groups on the bluegrass and old time scene right now, so she was excited that they were able to come to this year’s festival. The trio consists of a fiddle, a banjo and an upright bass, and they are veterans of the industry who have performed gigs in the United States and Canada, and across Europe. John Showman is the fiddler for the group and he said that he is ready to play the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival for the first time and perform the band’s hits for the crowd.

“We’re pretty excited to be there (even though) it's a long drive for us,” Showman said. “But it's really kind of a chance for us to dive into a lot of really great traditional music that has been kicking around North America for a long time.”

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However, not everyone may know what the style values of bluegrass are, especially because it is not a genre that gets significant airtime on mainstream media channels. The genre first developed in the 1940s, with Bill Monroe being one of the original pioneers. Durant had her own definition of what characterizes the sound of bluegrass. She said it was this sound that fascinated her and made her do further research.

“Bluegrass is kind of its own language,” Durant said. “You can sing sad words to happy music. And you could say it is an emotional language.”

Duffy also added what the genre meant to him and why its preservation and passing down from generation to generation is so important.

“The songs usually tell a story, often a tragic story, and much of the music and harmony patterns came out of what people learned to sing in churches,” Duffy said. “It is also usually played without music. In fact if an act does have sheet music in front of them, it cannot really be considered bluegrass.”

For people who love the language of bluegrass but may not know how to start playing, the festival is offering a Wernick Method Jam Class to help novice bluegrass players participate in a full-scale jam. The class is designed for those who already play an instrument but may not have the means to play with other people. An instructor will teach participants the same song. The class runs all three days of the festival and each class builds on specific music skills.

Over the years, Durant expressed how certain factors have played a role in turnout and other success levels. She mentioned how weather conditions have not been to the festival’s advantage on several occasions. However, this year, she is optimistic that everything will play in her favor and that her first year as full-time festival director will be as smooth as possible.

“If everyone leaves happy, tells their friends and wants to come back next year, that is the sign of success for us,” Durant said.

Tickets are currently available at a discounted rate on the festival’s website until Aug. 27 and will become on sale at the fairgrounds Aug. 30 at 8 a.m. Performances begin Sept. 1 and run through the end of the day Sept. 3.

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About the author: Zachary Klein is a journalism major at Rider University who has a passion for telling stories about the arts and those who make them. He currently serves as a house manager at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton and when he's not working there or on stories, he is probably at a theatrical production somewhere in the tri-state region. His work includes theater reviews and feature stories for Rider's college publication, The Rider News, as well as theater reviews for his own personal website, Zach resides in Princeton with his family where he has lived for eighteen years. He is thrilled to join as a feature writer in his first professional writing credits.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.



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