The Piper in the Campground
by Mike Agranoff
a monologue delivered from the stage of the Philadelphia Folk Festival
August 27, 2004
With minor subsequent edits.
I want to speak to you of heroes.
From its inception, the history of this country has been blessed with heroes. From Patrick Henry to Sergeant York, to the Freedom Riders, to the 911 First Responders, we have had our heroes. Those who saw physical danger between them and their goals. Who walked straight into that danger with their eyes open to achieve those goals. But let me tell you: you and I, every one of us has within us the capacity to be a hero. If we are awake, aware, see the situation, and seize the situation, you and I can be a hero. And I know that, because it happened to me. And there may be those of you out there who can bear witness to that. Because it happened to me right here
at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1987
in the Campground.
How many of you are campers? Well let me clue in the rest of you: You have not truly experienced the fullnes of Philadelphia Folk Festival until you've camped. How can I describe it? Picture Woodstock meets Bangladesh. The Campground at the Philadelphia Folk Festival is crowded, and noisy, and uncomfortable, and inconvenient, and blazing hot and freezing cold and dusty dry and wicked wet and...and wonderful!
The Campground at the Philadelphia Folk Festival is more than a collection of tents and RV's. It is theatrical constructs, and makeshift architecture, and high art. It is the very air itself redolent with the unmistakeable perfume comprised of equal parts woodsmoke, mud, and marijuana. It is living room furniture carried by hand a half mile from the parking lot, and inflateable swimming pools, and weather balloons, and pink flamingoes, and hula hoops, and laser light shows, and a full upright piano in the bed of a camper pickup, and a World War Two amphibious landing craft sporting agricultural license plates decked out as a camper, and a 3/4 scale Brahma bull with a beer keg in its belly.*
And more than that, it is a collection of communities; a gathering of the tribes that reconvenes every August springing out of that hayfield on the hillside like some kind of Brigadoon on acid. Tribes with names of mystery, names of power, names of magic. Names like Camelot, and Aurora Borealis, and the Pod People, and the Flids, the Philadelphia Jug Band, and The Merry Pranksters, and the Bubbleheads, and, of course, the Azzoles, God bless 'em, the Azzoles.
My enclave was called the Whipmaster Chargers. (And that's another story unto itself.) Now this particular year, I had arrived a little later on Thursday afternoon than usual, and discovered to my dismay that there was no room left within its boundaries to set up my tent. So I struck off for parts unknown until I found a bit of green big enough to accommodate my tent. didn't get to meet my new neighbors right away, but struck off to renew acquaintances and play some music. I got back to my tent reasonably early, around 1:30, and hit the sack.
It was 7:00 on Friday morning when I first got to meet my new neighbors, when one of them took it into his head to play upon the bagpipes directly behind my tent. I'll say this for him: he was a good piper. And I like the pipes. But there is a time and a place for everything. And 7:30AM in the Campground of the Philadelphia Folk Festival is neither the time or the place for the bagpipes. "There are those," thought I, "that will not be pleased with this turn of events." So I piled stuff on top of my head, and was actually drowsing off to the drones when he laid off his piping and commenced to greet the morning with a cheery "Hey campers! It's Festival! Paaaaarty!!" Oh, man. He was not up early. He was up late. So I stumbled out of my tent, gave him the hairy eyeball, and went off to get some breakfast.
Saturday morning. 7:00. Pipes.
This is not acceptable. This shall not continue. No trying to sleep through it this time for Mikey! I hauled on my pants and glasses, and stormed out of the tent with steam coming out of my ears. Now I was never a fighter. And he was a burly guy, drunk as a skunk, and with half a dozen guys around him. And I didn't give a crap. He had just ceased his piping and started into his "Hey Campers" routine, when I waded into the gathering, got right in his face and said, "Hey! This is good piping, but it's a real bad idea. There are people around here trying to get some sleep! I'm trying to get some sleep! There are volunteers who have been out there working their shifts until three and four in the morning, and they're tring to get some sleep! And your only purpose for doing this is to wake us up. And that's not cool! So stop it! And don't do it again! Ever!!!"
He looked at me and said, "Man, I've been piping here every morning for the past five years, and I ain't heard nobody complain yet."
I looked around and said, "Do I hear any more complaints about the piping?" And from 20 tents all around, came "YES!!!!!"
And he looked around and said "Oh. Sorry." and went away. And I surveyed the field around me, found myself the last man standing, victorious against the forces of evil. And as the invisible movie audience in the sky rose to its feet in applause, I strode victorious into the sunrise, a hero.
Now every word of this story is true, but it was such a good story that I had to formalize it into the performance piece you just heard. But the denouement came a couple of months later at the Eisteddfodd Folk Festival, where I was performing. I told this story from the stage. And afterwards a woman came up to me and said, "You were the one! Thank you! Thank you!" "Shucks, ma'am. T'weren't nothing any red-blooded American hero wouldn't have done.
*Note: for photos of the Philly Fest Campground, see my Blog post of August 21, 2016. The Duck (amphibious landing craft), and the Brahma bull were, alas no longer in attendance that year, but a bus with an observation deck and a double-size boar were.