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February 6, 2009

For 49th year, folkies dust off time-worn tunes

Sheila Kay Adams’s grandmother used to sing her a song called “The Four Marys.”

“‘Now this is about Mary Queen of Scots, not Bloody Mary,’ she’d tell me,” Adams said. “Can you imagine a mountain woman with a sixth grade education knowing that? It’s oral history. That’s what I’m trying to give back.”

The song, which dates back to 16th-century England, was one of the first Adams learned growing up in Soddom, NC—“spelled like it is in the Bible, and that’s the only similarity, Gospel truth.” There, she learned hundreds of songs from her family that have been passed down for seven generations or more. That rich history makes her right at home among the other performers at this year’s 49th Annual University of Chicago Folk Festival.

In the early 1960s, folk music was in the midst of a revival, with artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan adapting tunes that had been sung for hundreds of years. Many fans loved the new interpretations of the classics, but there was a sizable contingent that liked things in the original.

“Those guys made a lot of money taking old songs and singing mostly stripped down, less rough-edged versions of the great songs,” said Edward Wallace, a fourth year math graduate student and co-president of the U of C Folklore Society. “But there was a feeling that the old versions of the songs were better—in a very U of C way, just as we prefer the original Great Books to summaries or adaptations.”

That passion for original roots music led a band of undergraduates to form the Society as a means to bring less commercial practitioners of roots music to Hyde Park and celebrate their histories. For decades, the Society has hosted an annual three-day concert in Mandel Hall. It’s known among musicians as one of the best gigs around.

“I came here in 1993, and three years later I called y’all to see if you’d please have me back,” Adams said. “There was just a whole lot of positive energy…. I won’t make half as much as I usually make, and I have to eat [air fare], but I’m coming back because I really, really love the festival.”

Seven-year-veteran festival performer Billy Flynn, an electric blues guitarist, is also eager to come back this year.

“I consider it an honor, and I always will,” Flynn said. “Some of the best recorders have come to Mandel Hall. For me to take a part of it, it’s always the high point of the winter months.”

Wallace, a fiddle player, got involved four years ago, partly due to his passion for Irish dance music, but also because of the Festival’s excitement.

“After the Festival every year, there’s a party for volunteers and performers in about five rooms of an apartment. There’s a bunch of people playing music in every room, and you just wander around with all this energy,” Wallace said. “Three friends and I just started playing music in the pantry because there was no other room, and we were having such a great time that we hadn’t noticed for quite some time that the party had ended.”

American folk music, a wide-ranging category that runs the gamut from bluegrass to blues, used to be practiced by artists who lived in small rural communities, immersed in the traditions of one particular genre. But, Wallace said, that vision of purity is no longer tenable at the modern Festival.

“Current musicians don’t always learn it from their fathers and uncles,” he said. “Some of them were college students and moved to Kentucky and made this type of music their life’s work. Nowadays it’s as much about the respect people have for the tradition and learning it directly, opposed to books.”

And while the musical traditions represented at the festival include everything from old-time string bands and Quebecois stylings to Cajun accordions and Scottish bagpipes, all the musicians share something in common: the need to pass on their stories.

“Folk musicians don’t regard the music as something that’s alive, that’s just theirs,” Wallace said. “It’s their responsibility to keep the music alive.”

Flynn, the blues musician, said he’s keeping alive the music of his mentors, including Chicago blues legend Jimmy Dawkins. A few days after Flynn turned 14, he trekked down to Chicago from Greenbay, WI to hear Dawkins, but was turned away at the door because he was too young.

“I was out in the alley of the club, sitting on the ground with my guitar. And out comes Jimmy. ‘How come you don’t come in and play with us?’” Flynn remembered Dawkins asking. “He saw something in me, the wanting to learn.”

Dawkins looked Flynn up right out of high school and asked him to join his band. Now, Flynn has created a career of his own as a bandleader and professional sideman, coming to the Festival to back up such blues greats as Kim Wilson and Elmore James, Jr. Recently he was tapped by the producers of Cadillac Records, a movie about blues greats from the 1950s, to record the guitar tracks for the movie’s soundtrack.

Flynn’s success all fits in with his goal of honoring the greats.

“The original bluesmen are getting older, things are changing,” Flynn said. “People now try to do the gymnastic-type thing [on the guitar], but with blues players, they’re trying to create a good feeling.”

Adams, too, seeks to pass on time-honored traditions to younger generations; her 21-year-old cousin, Amanda Southerland, will share the stage with her this year. “It’s not just a bunch of songs; it’s a way of life,” Adams said. “It’s hers by birthright. It’s hers because she’s the great-great granddaughter of one of the women that taught me.”

The song-stories have a visceral power, Adams said, to keep her tales—and history itself—alive from generation to generation. Yet however many people take up her craft, the way of life she cherishes so dearly will still continue to fade.

“I know I can’t give them my memories of watching a horseshoe competition, and being mad because we weren’t playing baseball in the street…. and my cousin came up to me and he sang me song and that’s where I learned ‘The Two Brothers,’” she said, before singing a few haunting bars.

Adams frequently broke out in song as she spoke about her grandmother, who taught her countless songs.

“I loved the way it sounded when Granny would be looking for ginseng, she’d call it sing root, and you could hear her singing on the hill,” Adams said. “All of that is part of my growing up years…. It was never that they sat us down like they do today and said, ‘You’re going to take piano lessons and become a pianist.’ It’s more like, ‘Listen to this story.’”

If Adams can help Southerland and the audience at Mandel, grasp the importance of these songs, then she’ll rest a little easier.

“There was magic here, lords and ladies and knights and steeds,” Adams said. “I don’t mean to preach, but we’re losing it: our passion, our ability to communicate, our ability to listen. And so I’m on a mission. But it’s a good mission.”