In Memory of Faith Petric
September 13, 1915–October 24, 2013
by Nancy Schimmel
Faith Petric’s ambition as a child was to learn all the songs there are. She learned a lot of them. And Faith knew how to put a song across, especially the funny ones, where timing is as important as rhythm. She sang every kind of song: traditional and recently written, songs for kids and songs for grown-ups, political songs and silly songs. She was often introduced as the Fort Knox of Folk Music. For Sing Out! magazine, she selected parodies for her column, The Folk Process, so singers from all over could air their pet peeves and epiphanies. She put out a number of albums to share the songs she gathered, including one of children’s songs on the A Gentle Wind label, but people singing together, live, was her special pleasure.
The San Francisco Folk Music Club met at Faith’s for decades, and so did the Freedom Song Network, of which Faith was a cofounder in 1982. FSN is a West Coast sister of PMN (People’s Music Network), the mostly East Coast organization from which the Children’s Music Network sprang.
Faith was such a lynchpin of the Bay Area folk community you would think she had always lived there, but actually she started out as a small-town Idaho preacher’s kid. She just made a small town of her own in the middle of San Francisco.
In their blog, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer recalled a story:
Faith told us that the Philadelphia Folk Festival hired her to perform in schools in Philly’s inner city. They sent her to the toughest school, where she found herself in a classroom of rough kids from the African American “hood” who assumed this little ole white lady was a joke. She looked them in the eye, started talking about being born in a log cabin, and captivated them for the next forty-five minutes.
Faith understood the necessity for music in the movement—she had marched for civil rights in Selma and sung on many a picket line. Estelle Freedman interviewed Faith and wrote a song-biography of her, “She Was There,” that covers her roots and her activism well. I didn’t know she’d gone east during World War II to build Liberty Ships and, in her off hours, got to know Josh White and Leadbelly. Estelle sang the song at Faith’s ninety-fifth birthday concert in 2010 at the Freight and Salvage in Berkley, California. You can see the performance, and Faith introducing it, on YouTube.
Faith had a big house and an easy hospitality that made 885 Clayton Street the center of the Bay Area folk community for years. The first time I remember talking to Faith was in 1957, just after I’d graduated from Cal. I know the date because that was my year of exile from the Bay Area. I was living in Sacramento and coming down to Berkeley every other weekend for some cool—both literal and figurative. I ran into Faith at some event, and she invited us to stay at her house anytime. Well, we always stayed with my folks, but the thing is, that was not just one of those “Oh, you must come over sometime” invitations. She meant it and we knew it.
Faith had a daughter to raise, so she didn’t quit her day job till she was fifty-five. She and her singing friends took to the road in a bus, and the Portable Folk Festival was born, with Faith and various combinations of performers traveling around the country and astounding the populace.
I think Faith’s log cabin, hymn-singing roots gave her the perspective that made her such a good performer for Chautauqua, bringing old-time vaudeville entertainment to towns too small to have a regular music venue. She did that for twenty years.
Faith traveled across the pond as well. Visiting her daughter in Ireland, she made the rounds of the pubs and clubs and made connections between the folkies of the British Isles and the Bay Area. She made easy connections between the East and West Coasts, between singers and vaudeville performers, between performers for adults and performers for children.
At ninety-four, Faith Petric was the very first recipient of the Folk Alliance Region West’s Best of the West Lifetime Achievement Award. Her ninety-fifth birthday celebration was a vaudeville show at the Freight with jugglers, singers, and bubble-blowers, and Faith right at home in the middle of it all.
A whole lot of people in a whole lot of places are missing Faith right now—her sense of humor, her sense of fun, and her encyclopedic knowledge of folk music and the people who make it. She spent her last days at Coming Home Hospice in San Francisco’s Castro district, listening to her friends sing to her, introducing her visitors to each other as she always did. She died there last October 24 at ninety-eight, her daughter with her and her granddaughter on the phone.
Here’s a link to her daughter Carole Craig’s blog about the process of Faith’s dying and Carole’s coping.