Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

That’s All, Folk! After a 20-year run, Jess Hayden passes the Susquehanna Folk Music Society baton to a new generation

Jess Hayden, photo by Art Wachter

“Folk”—now there’s an interesting word.

“Folk” can refer to a genre of music. “Folk” can refer to a style of dance. “Folk” can refer to a way of life.

“Folk” means people, but it can also refer to a specific type of people, like “that Jess Hayden sure is some good folk.”

For Hayden, “folk” is a mindset.

On the final day of 2021, Hayden will retire as the executive director of the Susquehanna Folk Music Society. She leaves behind a 20-year legacy of fundraising, event proliferation and, generally, enhancing the folk culture in and around the Harrisburg area.

A self-proclaimed introvert, Hayden’s a people-person who has stepped outside of her comfort zone, all in the name of “folk.”

“The concept of ‘folk music’ is really up for debate,” Hayden said. “It’s the people. What we prize is translated folk music that’s been handed down from person to person. It’s music of the people, but it can be modernized. Folk music tells stories so we can learn about different people in different times.”

Hayden’s successor will have a tough act to follow.

Recently, following an extensive search and hiring process, musician and writer Peter Lee was selected to succeed Hayden. Lee will be charged with taking SFMS to the next level, much in the same way that Hayden did at the turn of the 21st century.

“Part of the reason I chose this time to retire is that the Susquehanna Folk Music Society is headed in a great direction,” said Hayden, a 65-year-old resident of New Cumberland. “It’s super exciting. We have this influx of new, young people, and it’s very intentional. There’s a ton of interest in folk music by younger people. They are very respectful of the folk music tradition.”

Through Hayden’s guidance, the society has grown its membership to an all-time high of 600 members. SFMS sponsors over 40 programs and events a year, everything from musical and dance performances to jams and coffeehouse concerts to virtual series and educational programs, and, of course, the Susquehanna Folk Festival—all performed by nationally and internationally recognized, as well as local and regional, artists.

Headquartered in New Cumberland, the society does not operate its own venue. Instead, concerts and shows are performed at venues across central Pennsylvania, including locally at Fort Hunter in Harrisburg.

“What makes it unique to me is that the performances are generally very intimate types of experiences,” Hayden said. “There are a lot of conversations from the stage to the audience. It feels like folk artists like that community aspect. The performances are so relaxed, and I really like to see the interaction between the artists. I love the history and that it’s so connected to the past.”

Like all genres, folk music is unique. However, it differentiates itself with the wide range of instruments used to perform it, as well as its links to traditions and heritages from around the world. Included in the genre are disciplines like the blues, Celtic music, Balkan music, Appalachian music, traditional African music and Hayden’s personal favorite, Jewish klezmer music.

But the true power of folk music may emanate from its ability to connect cultures.

“I think about that all the time,” said Hayden, of music’s role in our society. “I think music just reverberates very profoundly in all of us. We’ve all had the experience of hearing music. It just touches our core like very little else does. It moves us. It activates so many feelings. It transports you.”

Folk Community

A group of like-minded volunteers founded the nonprofit Susquehanna Folk Music Society in 1985. Initially, Hayden became involved as a volunteer and a board member before becoming the sole employee in 2001.

“Folk music is an unusual genre in that you don’t get to hear it every day,” Hayden said. “Our volunteers are people who are just glad to find it. We feel everyone has a strong commitment to folk music. Through everyone’s support, this works.”

First and foremost, Hayden is a musician—a well-rounded and experienced musician. Her instrument of choice is the clarinet, which she has played as part of the Old World Folk Band and the West Shore Symphony Orchestra.

“Growing up, the question wasn’t whether or not you wanted to play an instrument, but which one,” Hayden said. “My father was a music teacher who could play just about anything, and he was a lover of folk and traditional music.

One day, he decided to put together a family folk band called the Dalton Family Singers.

“That was my introduction to music,” Hayden said. “I learned a lot and always had an interest in folk music.”

Certainly, Hayden’s pending retirement will alter her lifestyle. While it will allow her to entertain other interests and pursuits, she cannot imagine an existence that does not include folk music.

“The first thing I want to do is go on a little trip because I think a period of separation would be helpful,” Hayden said. “I want to do some volunteer work and continue my relationship with Susquehanna Folk Music Society.”

After all, SFMS has not only been her work life, but her social life, too.

“We call it ‘the folk community,’” she said. “That sense of finding each other is a very strong motivation. It’s something I’m really passionate about.”

For more information on the Susquehanna Folk Music Society, visit

If you like what we do, please support our work. Become a Friend of TheBurg!


Continue Reading