Step up to the San Francisco Free Folk Festival 

Folk music and San Francisco are a pair — The City’s natural beauty and Wild West manner have long lent themselves to the sort of pastoral poetry expressed through American folk music.

In the 1950s and ’60s, a folk boom cemented San Francisco’s relationship with the genre, a bond that has experienced twists and turns in subsequent decades, but remained strong.

The San Francisco Free Folk Festival, celebrating its 35th anniversary at Presidio Middle School this weekend, offers all the proof one needs. This year’s festival features two 10-hour days of music and dance workshops, concerts, dance parties, crafts and participatory musicmaking.

It’s a hands-on format that’s been proven to work: Despite being free and volunteer-run since 1976, the San Francisco Free Folk Festival has outlasted nearly all its rivals. Its parent organization, the San Francisco Folk Music Club, founded in 1948, has an even better record.

Even with an institution as laid-back as an old-time folk music club, there comes a need for an infusion of youthful energy. That happened in the 1960s, and has been happening in subtler ways over the last decade with a revival of popular interest in folk-inspired music.

The trend has benefited newer events such as the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, which last year drew 600,000 people to Golden Gate Park. The San Francisco Free Folk Festival and its host club, which programs events throughout the year, are making a concerted effort to tap into the youth market. Booker Richard Rice says he sought to invite newer, younger bands to the festival this year to help attract youthful crowds and begin to pass the torch to a new generation.

In the old-time folk scene, “young” can mean under 40, but Rice found a particularly youthful spark in 18-year-old Zoë Blank, a San Francisco singer-songwriter making her Free Folk Festival debut (in concert 6 p.m. Saturday) this year.

Blank grew up around folk and remains proud of its influence in her life.

“I think folk music is really accepting and collaborative,” she says. “I think it would be great for younger folks to learn how much support is out there.” Blank says she started with fiddle and is interested in old-time and Irish fiddling, but will be playing her acoustic guitar at the festival.

With innumerable dances, open jams and sing-alongs sprinkled among two days of live music on five stages, the San Francisco Free Folk Festival is decidedly family-friendly.

If Blank and other younger performers such as the Harkenbacks, Bhi Bhiman and the Dirt Floor Band have their way, the folk gospel will continue to spread.

“I think young people are getting sick of what is going on in mainstream music,” Blank says. “They’re looking for something a little more profound.”


San Francisco Free Folk Festival

Where: Presidio Middle School, 450 30th Ave., San Francisco

When: Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Tickets: Free


10 acts to catch


  • The Harkenbacks, 1 p.m.
  • Cello Joe, 1 p.m.  
  • Faith Petric, 2 p.m.
  • The Juncos, 4 p.m.
  • Thick Soup, 5 p.m.  
  • Absynth Quintet, 5 p.m.


  • Bhi Bhiman, 3 p.m.  
  • The Dirt Floor Band, 4 p.m.
  • Don Burnham & the Bolos, 4 p.m.
  • Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally, 5 p.m.

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Nate Seltenrich

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