58th Annual Folk Festival Plucks Heartstrings in Mandel Hall

The 58th Annual Folk Festival returned to Mandel Hall this year with two concerts and a full day of workshops (with video).

By May Huang and Kevin Trickey

This past weekend, the University of Chicago Folklore Society hosted the 58th Annual UChicago Folk Festival. The two-day event involved workshops, dancing, and a remarkable lineup of folk musicians who played nearly six hours of music on Friday and Saturday nights.

Although there was a foot of snowfall in Chicago last Friday, perhaps decreasing the festival’s turnout, the diverse group of musicians brought energy to Mandel Hall. Following Patrick Lynch’s ceremonious bagpipe introduction, the festival kicked off with accordionist Sheryl Cormier, who was recently inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, and her band of Cajun musicians. The group hardly had to begin playing to display their Louisiana roots: Vocalist Russell Cormier wore a New Orleans Saints cap, and Sheryl’s accordion sported a red crawfish. A true powerhouse, there was no better band to raise excitement for an upbeat weekend of folk music. The band visibly grew into the music one song after another, with barely enough pause for Sheryl to beam her customary “thank you, merci beaucoup!” before her impossibly quick fingers began flying again.

Dan Gellert, an old-time musician, followed Cormier with a fiddle and assortment of banjos. He shared anecdotes about his music, explaining the banjo’s historic roots and the significance that the lyrics of traditional songs might have had to the farm boys who first played them. 

“It’s actually theoretically possible to play in tune,” he said, explaining why he preferred playing fretless instruments, which unlike fretted instruments like guitars, can produce any pitch. Gellert’s concentration was palpable as he pulled off incredibly fast tunes, displaying impressive dexterity and, true to his word, impeccable intonation.

The next performance was perhaps the least familiar to the average student or folk enthusiast, and perhaps more engaging as a result. Jarochicanos, a band from Pilsen neighborhood, wore vibrant dresses and explained the history of their musical style, son jarocho, which has its roots in Veracruz, Mexico. From their unwavering singing above a walking bass line to their tap-dance breaks, the group offered a strong sense of communion. 

The Western Elstons followed the intermission with a more recognizable set of countrified American classics, including Twilight Time and Homer and Jethro’s amusing twist on the classic [Li’l Ole] Kiss of Fire. The band of four incorporated incredible variety, alternating between Joel Paterson’s electric guitar skills and the vocal talents of Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough, whose voices carried across the hall even when, at one point, they ditched their microphones. In some ways, the variation in the Western Elstons’ performance offered a microcosm of the Folk Fest as a whole, with its diverse musical representation and exploration of different styles.

“[We] wanted to…showcase the strong variety of music styles in the community and in particular show that all kinds of people can play and appreciate folk music, regardless of race, age, or gender,” explained third-year Mahathi Ayyagari, who is copresident of the Folklore Society alongside third-year Isabella Martin. Diversity, in every form, is crucial to expanding how people interpret the folk genre. As Martin points out, the festival no longer advocates its original ‘anti-revivalist’ stance, which prefers the most traditional styles of folk music, from the 1960s.

“One person came up to me on Friday’s show and said that they loved that the Fest wasn’t just your stereotypical fiddle-heavy concert,” Ayyagari said. During the all-day workshops on Saturdays, jam sessions included both community members and performers, demonstrating the genre’s inclusivity.

To close out both Friday and Saturday’s shows, the Folklore Society brought in Mike Compton, Bill Monroe’s former protégé and modern master of the mandolin. Accompanied by Billy Strings, Brian Christianson, Dave Talbot, and Andy Todd, the group gave two jaw-dropping bluegrass performances featuring Christianson’s smooth fiddling, Talbot’s ridiculously rapid banjo fingers, Todd’s ever-dependable vocals and bass, and some truly incredible yodeling by Strings. Though Compton shared the stage humbly, he was the indisputable star of the show (and, arguably, of the entire Folk Fest). Compton’s effortless mandolin playing received innumerable applauses, and those who experienced his playing must have left in wonder.

Yet the most enchanting part of their performance was not the music itself, but the infectious happiness with which they played. Throughout the set, Compton and his band wore goofy grins and shared plenty of jokes with each other—and the audience—between songs. Compton’s group represented the ideal closing act, not just as bluegrass musicians, but also as performers.

Much of Friday’s music, passion, and personality was again on show for Saturday’s concert. Sheryl Cormier’s Cajun band, Dan Gellert’s fiddle, and Compton’s group all made their return to Mandel Hall, which welcomed a much larger turnout than Friday’s crowd (and possessed, consequently, a higher energy level). Pauline Conneely and Jonathan Whitall joined them for a set of perpetual-motion Irish folk music played on banjo and piano, as did 82-year-old blues singer Mary Lane for an incredibly moving performance, peppered with her trademark exclamations of “I love you.” Interspersed throughout the two nights were little uplifting moments characteristic of the student-run production, including the newly introduced Folk Fest trivia questions (did you know that Joan Baez and the Staples Singers once graced the Mandel stage?), raffle draws, and jokes delivered by Whitall’s young son. During most performances, backstage volunteers and audience members social danced in the stage wings, moved by the music.

Before, after, and in between performances, dedicated volunteers upheld a Folk Festival tradition by selling raffle tickets, cookies, t-shirts, canned jellies, music, and other souvenirs.

“Volunteers are what keep the festival running,” Martin said. Indeed, many of the Folk Festival’s attendants have been coming to the festival and volunteering for twenty years or more. The Folklore Society’s alum advisor Kate Early, who credits the festival for influencing her decision to attend UChicago back in 1980, remains involved in the festival; her fellow volunteer Nina Helstein (A.B. ’64) not only continues to help out, but has also attended every festival since 1961.

Martin explains that the Folklore Society’s greatest challenge is drawing students to the festival and getting them involved in the RSO. For some, the festival’s genre is perhaps too rooted in the traditional. Martin she also finds that the highlight of running the festival is understanding how traditional music influenced music today, seeing how a genre that is traditionally “old-time” still finds modern bearings.

It is easy to see why many of the Folk Festival’s attendants keep returning year after year. The UChicago Folklore Society’s dedication, persistence, and success in organizing the festival is a talent of its own, and their ability to attract the best folk musicians, expose a diverse array of music and culture, and stage such a fantastic operation is one that will keep audiences absorbed for years to come.

The Folklore Society is hosting a Contra Dance on March 3, as well as its annual Fiddler’s Picnic in May.