U of C Folk Festival notable for its rich history, passionate performances

By Peter Robinett

Last weekend saw the 45th annual University of Chicago Folk Festival, which is composed of three shows—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night in Mandel Hall—and a series of workshops, dances, and jam sessions throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday in Ida Noyes Hall. The festival has not changed dramatically since its 1961 inception by the Folklore Society, the registered student organization that still organizes it.

The format of the festival is well established, and many of the participants have been coming year after year. Professor Starkey Duncan was present at the original festival and has been faculty advisor to the Folklore Society since 1967. However, he is not alone in his dedication to the festival, as there are several volunteers who have participated from the beginning and are still active in its production. Attendees are likewise dedicated, with one telling me he has been coming for 35 years.

The festival is a complex undertaking, with over 12 hours of performances by 10 different acts and eight hours of workshops, all over three days. To accomplish this, almost 200 volunteers are involved in various aspects, from manning the lights at the performances to cooking three meals a day for the performers. Planning for the festival began in earnest in the fall, with members of the Folklore Society searching for acts and getting together all necessary elements for the festival’s success. That said, planning the festival is a year-round endeavor for the society, much more labor-intensive than their monthly contra dances or annual Fiddlers Picnic in May.

The festival is well known in the folk music world for its dedication to traditional, rather than revival, folk music forms—what one person described to me as “roots music.” Throughout the festival I asked performers and volunteers what the different acts had in common. In other words, what exactly is folk music—specifically the folk music one hears at the festival? Steve Helton of the Flint River Boys said that folk music is “real music for real people,” adding, “If it’s good music, it’s good music.” Ideas about authenticity and quality were common, with many noting that the festival always has great performers. Cleek Schrey, a pianist and fiddler, noted that folk music is non-commercial and casual, as opposed to art, or classical, music. Explains Schrey: “This kind of music is timeless.”

Many told me that the performers play this music because of a passion for it, playing it for its own sake, with little commercial success to be found. Others stressed the role of informal training and tradition, with songs and styles passed from generation to generation through example rather than sheet music. By maintaining traditional and generational links, performers are maintaining the music’s ties to communities. Many stressed to me that folk music is community music, music that represents the experiences of particular cultures. John Daley, an Irish fiddler who was accompanied by Schrey, remarked that many of the melodies are similar and hearken back to traditional Celtic forms. This is unsurprising, given that the fiddle and other string instruments were common to almost all the acts. Likewise, many of the performers play music (like bluegrass) from areas of the country traditionally settled by immigrants from Ireland and Scotland.

The enthusiasm I saw throughout the festival is testament to the enjoyment found in folk music by both musicians and audience members. Pianist Geraldine Gay told me, “I love playing. I love performing.” Another musician told me that the wide range of musical styles was his favorite part of the festival. Proof of this can be seen in the many impromptu jam sessions that took place backstage throughout all the concerts. Those who were not even performing on a given day came to hang out and listen to their fellow musicians.

The audiences were also excited, awarding loud applause to every performer. Many directed their passion to the dances and workshops at Ida Noyes, where they got to meet and play with the performers. Tanya Mau—graduate student and head of the Folklore Society—told me that seeing this interaction between performers and fans was one of her favorite parts of the whole festival. As head of the society, the festival has demanded much of her time recently, but when I asked her if she would do it again she answered with an emphatic yes, explaining, “I absolutely love it. It was one of the best weekends of my life.”

Despite its many successes, I was struck by the festival’s lack of student attendance. While the Saturday show was sold out (and I saw many undergraduate students), the other two concerts were not nearly as well attended. Looking out from my chair Friday night, I saw a sea of white and gray hair, with the occasional bald head thrown in for good measure. Maus confirmed my impressions, mentioning that graduate student turnout was also quite low. Focusing on this low turnout, she said that publicity—both on campus and across the South Side—needed improvement. She acknowledged that the Super Bowl hurt Sunday show turnout, with perhaps only a quarter of the seats in Mandel Hall occupied.

Unfortunately, this factor is out of the society’s control. Maus explained that the Folk Society books the hall at least two years in advance and cannot reschedule the festival when the date of the Super Bowl is announced. While they’ve successfully avoided the Super Bowl in the past by moving the festival back a week (this happened approximately a decade ago), they were unable to do the same for this year’s concert. The society has not had any luck getting the NFL to reveal the exact dates of future Super Bowls more than one year in advance. It’s hard to tell, though, if the Super Bowl is the only issue limiting student turnout. Might it be that U of C students don’t like folk music?

Maus rejected this argument, mentioning the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack and the documentary Down From the Mountain (in which Folk Fest performer Chris Sharp of the Old Time Serenaders can be heard) as proof that people do enjoy folk music. She may well be right, as the presence of over 900 people during Saturday’s show can attest. Despite the low turnout for two of the concerts, the festival should definitely be considered a success. Organizing three concerts (featuring many great musicians) and two days of well-attended workshops and dances is no small feat, and it is one for which the Folk Society should be commended.