Folk Festival doles out some of that old-time tradition

By Ben Nelson

[img id=”80151″ align=”alignleft”] The first song performed at this year’s University of Chicago Folk Festival, by the Elkins String Ticklers, was instrumental by necessity: The elderly West Virginia balladeer who taught the band his composition could remember only its title—which was, ironically, “Remember What You Told Me.” The Elkins group’s next song was untitled for exactly the same reason.

So it goes with folk music. By the time a new generation of players discover the beauty of their forebears’ playing, it’s often too late to capture the original versions for future listeners. Even famed musicologists John and Alan Lomax, who spent decades crisscrossing America in search of roots music, likely missed as many unique performers as they found.

Don’t think of it as a loss; think of it as a chance for reinvention. After Woody Guthrie’s death in 1967, boxes of unreleased song lyrics sat untouched in his Brooklyn home for almost 30 years before being handed over to English folksinger Billy Bragg and American roots-rockers Wilco. The resulting album, Mermaid Avenue, sounded like nothing Guthrie had ever done himself—and was by all standards a huge success. It works the other way, too. Bob Dylan (who almost got his hands on that Guthrie haul in the early ’60s) has used stolen and public-domain melodies throughout his career. “So you write your own songs?” Dylan was asked on The Steve Allen Show in 1964; “Well, they’re all mine now,” was his answer.

It was in this spirit that the 47th Annual Folk Festival took place over the weekend. Performers spanned five decades in age and brought together the musical traditions of Ireland, Eastern Europe, the American South, and Chicago’s South Side. They all credited their influences with great reverence and admiration and then proceeded to make the songs their own.

The Elkins group wore expressions of deep concentration as they performed a set of Appalachian mountain music on fiddle, banjo, and guitar; each instrument’s melody was individually complex, and when all three were woven together the result was impressive. They were followed on stage by Tony DeMarco, who interspersed Irish fiddle tunes with cracks about his last name and strong Brooklyn accent: “My mother’s name is Patricia Dempsey, I swear.” His passionate playing dispelled any lingering doubts about authenticity, which is, in any case, a poor standard by which to assess folk music produced in the 21st century. The artist’s job is to demonstrate his musical heritage, not his personal lineage—DeMarco did that convincingly.

A full drum kit was wheeled out and electric guitars plugged in for the next act, but nobody shouted “Judas” or threatened to cut the cords. Instead, the artist who traveled the shortest distance was greeted warmly by his hometown crowd. L.V. Banks, self-described king of the South Side blues, shuffled onstage with the patience of a man who has been honing his live show in Chicago bars for over 50 years. After some fumbling with his amplifier, Banks produced a shriek of feedback from his Les Paul, quickly enlivening what had been a relatively quiet show thus far. He and his three-piece band ran through a set of blues standards by the likes of Muddy Waters and B.B. King, Banks’ friend and mentor. The short, choppy stabs he took at his guitar revealed the influence of Albert King as well as B.B., while drummer Willie Smith nearly stole the show from the front man with his energetic playing.

The headline act on Friday was Rich in Tradition, a bluegrass band whose press material includes a description of their sound that can’t be improved: “hard-driving-mountain-music-lonesome-singing style.” The group’s five members, hailing from North Carolina and Virginia, played banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and bass, and all sang in high, clear voices that combined beautifully in multi-part harmony. They alternated between bluegrass standards—songs about “women, liquor, dogs, and trains,” as they put it—and spiritual songs, explaining the strong links between bluegrass and gospel. One of these bluegrass gospel numbers, “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer,” sung by Tim Martin, the son of bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin, was among the high points of the weekend.

I braved the sub-zero temperatures and returned to Mandel Hall the next night mainly to see the Pine Leaf Boys, who had been recommended to me as the Festival’s most exciting act. The five members of this Cajun and Zydeco band from southern Louisiana all looked to be under 30, and they definitely brought a youthful exuberance that the Folk Festival had been lacking. Within a few songs they had the Festival volunteers dancing onstage, while audience members got up in the aisles and followed suit. Group leader Wilson Savoy’s accordion was the focus of the Pine Leaf Boys’ upbeat songs, while a powerful, driving rhythm section anchored their swamp blues numbers. The energy level never dipped, even when they set aside their instruments and sang with only handclaps and foot-stomping as back-up. Savoy and his band are among a very small number of young musicians who play in the traditional Cajun style, and it was a privilege to see them perform live.

The excitement of the Pine Leaf Boys’ set alone, however, couldn’t dispel the mostly staid atmosphere of the Folk Festival. Its formal setting undoubtedly played a part; at times, it felt faintly ridiculous to be listening to this music, which was intended to accompany dances and social gatherings, while seated beneath the ornate Victorian woodwork of Mandel Hall. But the important thing is that after 47 years the Folk Festival is still taking place, and is supported by a dedicated and enthusiastic following. Even in 2007, artists like Leadbelly, the Carter Family, and those featured on the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music (available from the Regenstein Recordings Collection) are being discovered by new listeners. Hopefully they’ll help keep this music alive a little longer.