September 1724, 1998
fall guide|behind the scenes
50 years of singing, teaching and promoting good folk.
by Mary Armstrong
For the last 50 years Halpern has devoted herself to the promotion and performance of folk musicsometimes as a livelihood and always as an avocation.
Esther loves to talk about the here and now. Don't get her started on new ideas for the sales booth or how wonderful her 120 volunteers are. Some of the volunteers are second-generation participants whose mothers volunteered the entire family into the festival. Under Esther's tutelage these kids have evolved into devoted workers who now do much of the planning and scheduling. This extended family of festival workers, with Esther as matriarch, must be doing something right. The sales of T-shirts and tchotchkes have grossed one and a half million dollars since the festival's debut, with all profits going to the Folk Song Society's grants and scholarships fund.
The Folk Song Society (which puts on the Philadelphia Folk Festival) exists to preserve and perpetuate folk music. Its grants and scholarships are a large part of how the organization fulfills its mission. Shriners Hospital and the Home of the Merciful Saviour get funds for (folk) music therapy. Annual scholarships go to the Folklore Department at the University of Pennsylvania and to the High School for Performing Arts. The Odyssey Program has for many years funded the performance of folk artists in area schools. And this year Esther was out selling extra hard to raise money for her newest pet project: folk music in the libraries.
Look for notices in your local branch: Since her goal is to bring music you don't ordinarily hear into a setting where kids can actively participate and then research it, expect old-time music in West Philly and the blues in the Far Northeast. For example, last spring Steve Schonwald introduced a song about Moby Dick with such graphic historical detail that right after his program the library had a run on books about whaling.
After Esther has enthused about things to come, you can sometimes get her to reminisce about the time when she and her husband Ed ran the city's most popular "genuine" coffeehouse, the Gilded Cage. That qualifier distinguishes it from the excellent performance rooms of the same eraplaces like the Main Point and the Second Fretwhich called themselves coffee houses, but were never really neighborhood hangouts/jam centers like the Cage.
With pots of coffee at 40 cents and sandwiches at 85, "I don't know how we ever made a living," Esther muses. "But we had 13 good years."
Within a few months of their marriage in 1956 the Halperns had taken over the Gilded Cage. Keeping the prices low meant that it could be a community resource: a living room for students in studio apartments, a place where musicians knew they would be welcome to bring their instruments and make themselves at home. She fondly remembers those days before answering machines when many young pickers relied on Ed and Esther to field their calls at the Cage.
Every weekend from 1956 to 1969 Esther Halpern played four sets a night in the 30-seat room on south 21st Street. In between were often impromptu performances by stars like Theodore Bikel and John Hurt who had finished up at the other clubs, or young talent just honing their licks. During the same era, around the corner on the 2200 block of Walnut Street, the Esther Halpern School of Guitar employed such local lights as Jerry Ricks, John Oates (of Hall and Oates fame) and Linda Cohen.
One night, way back in 1958, some of the regulars stopped by to bring Esther along to the second meeting of the Philadelphia Folk Song Society. One of those regulars was the late, much lamented Bob Siegel. He and Esther both went on to become board members right from meeting number two. Ed Halpern is an equally devoted soul who serves as the Folk Song Society's treasurer. It is no wonder that their daughteran only childrefers to the Folk Song Society as her sibling rival.
So where does this endless devotion to promoting folk music come from?
Folk songs were an everyday part of her life as a child. As with so many families who didn't have many material possessions, singing was a form of free entertainment. Esther is a first-generation American. Both parents were from Russia and reunited here just in time to be slammed by the Depression. Her dad counted himself lucky to have WPA work, and when he didn't have that, he was a junk man. But he was a singing junk man, one who had such a repertoire of Yiddish songs that when Esther sings them today, people take notes.
"One of my earliest memories was of my father lifting me onto a wagon, in front of a microphone [at a community picnic], and telling me to sing," says Halpern.
During the '50s Esther learned that the songs her dad had taught her were an important part of the folk music revival. She laughs, recalling that her boyfriend at the time was the son of a pawnshop owner. He got her a deal on a steel guitar with a cowboy on the front. She took enough guitar lessons to play six chords"all minor!" she addsand off she went to her first paying gig: $10 from the Haddasah.
Chutzpah is not a trait that bloomed late in Esther Halpern.