Today marks the beginning of the 42nd annual University of Chicago Folk Festival, a weekend celebration and showcase of traditional music that attracts thousands of people and dozens of performers each year. The nationally renowned festival features evening concerts and free workshops all weekend.
This U of C tradition was started in 1961 by the Folklore Society and has the honor of being the oldest student-run festival in the country. “People know us across the nation. A lot of noteworthy people have performed for us,” said Spider Vetter, president of the Folklore Society and coordinator of the festival.
According to Vetter, the main purpose of the festival is to serve as a stage for the sharing of traditional music and to encourage people to learn more about various regions of the country. This emphasis on community is a prominent theme of the weekend festival. “People come to enjoy the music. The music that the performers play is the music that they play on their back porches. It’s music made by people in small communities that otherwise would not have the opportunity to be shared,” Vetter said.
This year’s festival features 10 diverse bands, ranging from David Davis and the Warrior River Boys, a traditional bluegrass band, to Matapat, a sample of the music and dance of Quebec, to Sones de Mexico, an example of Mexican folk music. “Each of these bands is from a region of the country. They play the music that is traditional to that region,” Vetter said.
The concerts are held in Mandel Hall each evening of the weekend and are the primary source of the Folklore Society’s funding for the event. Performers will also be selling recordings after each concert in the Reynolds Club.
During the day, the festival offers many educational workshops in Ida Noyes Hall. Workshop topics include various fiddle styles, harmony singing, contra dance, Cajun dance, slide guitar, and basic bass. They are free to the public and are aimed to give participants a chance to become involved in the festival firsthand. “I like the fact that people can learn more about making community music themselves,” Vetter said.
In addition, it has become customary at the festival for informal jam sessions to arise among visitors. The Folklore Society encourages people to bring their instruments in case impromptu bands form in between events.
The Folk Festival is also famous for being primarily run by students. The Folklore Society began planning committee meetings at the beginning of this year. Many alumni and community members also join in the annual effort to present the festival. “It’s a really huge community effort. I am excited to help make it happen,” said Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, a linguistics student in the College and volunteer coordinator of the festival.
The Folklore Society has labored to keep the festival from becoming commercial in order to extend the community feeling to the 40 performers in addition to festival audience members. “We home-cook all of the meals for our performers, and they are housed in private homes,” Vetter said.
Such attention to community has resulted in a folk festival that draws crowds of over 4,000 people each year. The festival runs through February 3 this year, and concert tickets are still available at the door.