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February 8, 2008

Annual festival unites folks this weekend

Though many of us here at the U of C hail from backgrounds with well loved musical traditions, and the Core sees to it that at least some of us are musically literate, traditional music isn’t the kind of thing that appears too often in iTunes libraries or end-of-the-year best lists. And if your familiarity with folk starts with Bob Dylan and ends with Simon & Garfunkel, you might well ask why you should bother slogging through the slush to the annual U of C Folk Festival at Mandel Hall this weekend.

Members of the U of C Folklore Society, who kicked off this year’s festival with dancing and live music in Hutch Commons Wednesday, would answer that folk is a whole lot of fun. The small but enthusiastic group of undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni has organized the event for 48 years running. Dave Landreth of the string act the New Bad Habits says folk is the kind of spectacle that will appeal to people as soon as they first see it performed; he calls it “a very attractive music.”

A diverse list of artists from around the U.S. will be coming to Hyde Park, and at least some genres they play—bluegrass, gospel, Cajun, and blues—should sound familiar if only because of their influence on contemporary groups. The artists share a commitment to regional sounds and music that is best experienced in a group setting.

Unlike the lone singer-songwriter sound that’s often labeled as folk rock, this kind of folk music assumes interplay with a live, participating audience. It values its ties to communal traditions like weddings and village dances. Folk, after all, is roots music, according to Edward Wallace, co-president of the Folklore Society. It’s the music of communities and families—childhood music. Where popular music—or, for the indie kids, alternative music that nevertheless achieves a similar level of recognition throughout the country thanks to media agents like Pitchfork—is a common musical denominator, folk resists such standardization. It naturally varies depending on the kind of tradition that each person has grown up with.

But not all folk is the stuff of back porches and rural landscapes, Kurt Bjorling of the Chicago Klezmer ensemble points out. “Here in America, we tend to think of folk as the kind of music that folks play after supper, well enough to satisfy themselves and anyone that happens to be playing with them—music for folks. But in Europe, the term ‘folk music’ refers to music of a particular ethnicity or nationality,” he says. “Klezmer was always conceived of as a professional music—not just what folks play. Although it was the music of a particular group, it was primarily a professional musical idiom. The people who played it guarded that repertoire.”

The common thread between variants of folk music is a recognition of its social function, which the Folk Festival tries to emphasize. Members of the Folklore Society pointed out the festival isn’t a bad setting for a date, citing alumni couples that first met or started dating at the event. Many Hyde Parkers and other Chicagoans who are expected in the audience have attended for years—even decades. The midwinter date is also a real plus for attendance.

And this year, the weather’s not nearly as bad as it was in the winter of ’67, when, in one tale associated with the mythology of the festival, a snowstorm kept half the artists at home and festival organizers couldn’t get their sound equipment from downtown until a group of guys volunteered to go get it on snowshoes and pull it back to Hyde Park on sleds tethered to their waists. So if mid-quarter isolation is starting to set in, and you want to see some dancing other than the sort people do around the lakes in the quads, look to the U of C Folk Festival to inject some warmth into your dreary February.