Folklore Society brings roots musicians to Mandel

By Chris Perry

Back in the day, students clamored in the hundreds to attend University of Chicago Folklore Society shows and concerts. That was the early 1960s, when the soulful and driven Kentucky bluegrass of Ralph and Carter Stanley—and the pent-up anger and energy of Skip James’s Mississippi Delta blues—rang fresh in ears already tired of insipid, wholesome folk-music trios like the Kingston Trio and the Weavers.

Crowds of young students milling about the Folklore Society office and hallways were hungry just to catch an earful of music on the cutting edge—the pure and electrifying music from the Appalachian Mountains, the Mississippi Delta, and the segregated South Side of Chicago. The music sparked a totally new scene, a new generation that could appreciate the fusion of bluegrass mandolins on speed with the rhythmic rocking ’n’ rolling of the blues.

Youthful renegades like the Rolling Stones began to cover the blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf that drifted into Europe from the small dives of Chicago’s South Side. While rock ’n’ roll (and the post-WWII commercialization that drove it) soon eclipsed the youthful fascination with regional and local music styles, musicians embedded in their local communities have continued to draw upon these musical traditions in the U.S. and throughout the world.

The U of C Folklore Society organized the U of C Folk Festival every year, and musicians and artists now considered legends of American roots music—Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, the Balfa Brothers, Doc Watson, and the New Lost City Ramblers—stood on the stage of Mandel Hall on the University of Chicago campus to perform for a house packed with young hip kids. They were exciting times.

Forty-six years later—in a tiny room in the lofty recesses of Ida Noyes Hall—a small group of dedicated undergrads, grad students, and alumni quietly but sometimes contentiously continues the tradition of scouting out potential artists from throughout the world for the annual U of C Folk Festival. They listen to, fight over, and passionately select each artist to perform at three evening shows.

Talented musicians deeply immersed in traditional roots music from around the world look forward to performing at the show. As one performer said to the audience last year, “Performing at the U of C Folk Festival is like finally arriving at Carnegie Hall.” Already about 2,500 people from across the U.S. come each year to sold-out evening shows in Mandel Hall and workshops at Ida Noyes Hall. But every year there are U of C students who know nothing about the Folk Festival.

The trendiness of roots music ebbs and flows. But the raw, intense music created in geographically and ethnically diverse communities of the U.S. still inspires the now-older devotees of the ’60s—as well as a new generation of listeners, young musicians, and artists coming to it with a completely new take. More recently, experimental hip-hop artist Pedestrian (James Brandon Best) has embedded passages from Harry Smith’s famous 1928 anthology of country dances and ballads from the rural South in his recent issue, Volume I: UnIndian Songs. The punk-rock label Fat Possum Records has adopted major country-blues artists such as Robert Belfour (appearing at this year’s Folk Fest) and R.L. Burnside. Wilco, the Handsome Family, Winterpills, and many other indie musicians continue to draw from the country and mountain music of the Carter Family and the country blues.

This year’s Folk Festival will be held February 10–12 in Mandel Hall, featuring Robert “Wolfman” Belfour, world-famous Irish fiddler Séamus Connolly, Bruce Greene and Loy McWhirter, Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass, the Pine Leaf Boys, Pulalhe o Pé, the Rogues, Nancy Sluys and Friends, and—from Chicago’s own West Side—Byther Smith. In addition, the Folk Fest presents two full days of workshops and lectures on Saturday and Sunday in Ida Noyes Hall that are free and open to the public.

“Wow, never heard of it…” should not be an excuse for missing this event that brings the best of roots music to the public—from the crooked fiddling of the Appalachian Mountains to the wired and nervous Celtic jigs and reels of Ireland and Scotland to the gut-wrenching whoops and cries of Louisiana Creole dance-hall music. The powerful sound of roots music alone should place the U of C Folk Festival near the top of U of C rituals for undergrads and grad students.