The 56th Annual UChicago Folk Festival will take place this coming weekend, February 12 and 13. Featuring live performances on both nights as well as free music and dance workshops at Ida Noyes Hall on Saturday, the festival invites the Hyde Park community not only to spectate but to participate in what has been a longstanding celebration of folk music on campus.
The first UChicago Folk Festival was held in 1961, less than a decade after the formation of the Folklore Society, and was organized by musicologist Mike Fleischer (X ’63). A student trio known as “The Stony Island Boys” comprised of Mike Michaels (X’ 63) on the mandolin, his roommate Jon Aaron (A.B. ’64) on the guitar and fellow first-year David Gedalecia (X ’64) on the banjo. The three were among the first attendees of the Folk Festival when it began.
Although the festival always takes place on campus, its roots are grounded in the development of folk music nationwide. In the late ’50s, many contemporary bands were giving folk music a “pop feel” in that they commercialized it for pop culture and stripped it of its traditional roots.
“People in the folk world felt that it wasn’t authentic enough,” explained Mark Guarino, a journalist who is working on a book about the folk history of Chicago. The festival started at the height of the folk revival as a “reaction against rock and roll” and as a “railing against” what many people, including Fleischer, felt was “sort of a bastardization of folk music at the time.”
“These festivals popped up because of the interest of showing where this music really originated,” Guarino said. Fleischer’s vision of bringing in non-commercial artists to “teach and explain their craft to students who would have no exposure to that music” still continues today.
However, back in the day, contacting artists was no easy task. Indeed, Fleischer did not always know who wrote the folk songs later refashioned by pop bands, nor did he have convenient means of reaching out to the artists whose 1920s and ’30s recordings he listened to. Guarino contrasted the ease of finding artists on Spotify with how Fleischer and his friends would personally travel south to find performers: “Back then, it was more of a treasure hunt.”
Through these “treasure hunts,” Fleischer struck gold. He and his friends travelled as far as Arkansas to the farms of artists such as country singer Jimmy Driftwood. Later, in 1963, Fred McDowell came to Chicago all the way from Mississippi to perform for the first time in public in front of a white audience at the third annual festival. These student-performer collaborations, Guarino explained, represented “an interaction between completely different sets of people—college students who were 20 years old, urban people living in Chicago” and “people living in farms or small communities who worked simple jobs and did not have very high education level and were decades older.” Connected by their shared interest in folk revival, however, “they got along and got to know each other and developed a trust and real respect.”
The process of bringing the festival to life was truly a student effort. Guarino described the whole endeavor as “an underground thing” that was “really about who you knew.” As a result, the connections formed brought many artists and music enthusiasts into a tight-knit musical community.
All of this was happening during a historically significant period in Chicago. “This is at the dawn of the civil rights movement, at the dawn of the beginnings of anti-war movement, and at the beginning of what was to become hippie culture,” said Warren Leming, a founding member of the rock and folklore band Wilderness Road and a former member of Second City. In his words, it was an “astoundingly progressive” time for Chicago, and UChicago was at the heart of this radical progress. He mentioned Chicago Mob Scene, a 1957 album produced by artists living near UChicago, as “evidence that there was a very vital folk scene in the UChicago as early as the ’50s.” According to Leming, the festival became “the model for what was duplicated a thousand times nationwide.”
Apart from being a reaction to the changing nature of folk music at the time and to events of nationwide significance, the festival was also launched in response to a widespread interest in music on a local and campus level.
“The UChicago folk festival emerged out of a widespread interest among the students and people in Hyde Park,” said Gedalecia, who later became the Michael O. Fisher Professor of History at The College of Wooster in Ohio. “It kind of emerged in an organic way from the community itself.”
Over the phone, he mentioned something that sounded familiar: “Every weekend, there was a party somewhere.” Aside from participating in big jam sessions at Washington Square Park every Sunday and playing in coffee houses, people would also play in each other’s apartments, especially since there were many students living off campus in those days. Students would have “hootenannies,” or jam sessions, in Woodward Court, an old dormitory where the Booth School of Business is now. “That’s where all the folk musicians used to hang out,” Gedalecia remembered.
The bands would also practice in Pierce Tower, which stood where Campus North is now being built. Unsurprisingly, as Gedalecia said, “That first folk festival was a really major event on campus for the Hyde Park community [and] for all of the folk musicians who were at the University.” Indeed, he even said that musical instruments were considered college staples. “I’d heard that there was a lot of folk music going on so I thought I should bring those instruments,” he said about his banjo and guitar.
Gedalecia’s anecdotes highlight the strong presence of folk music on campus. “Some of my friends went on to become substantially well-known figures in blues music,” he remembered. Then-physics major Elvin Bishop, who later played in the same band before launching a solo career, was in Gedalecia’s year. Norman Dayron, who won a Grammy in 1980 for producing the album Rare Blues, also attended during Gedalecia’s time.
During his first year, Gedalecia met Paul Butterfield, who would later form the Paul Butterfield Blues band with Bishop and guitarist Michael Bloomfield. “We were both freshmen at UC and we hung out quite a bit before the Butterfield band ever got together,” Gedalecia said. “We’d listen to some music with Paul in his room in B-J, and I would jam with him on piano.”
One could find many well-known musicians and bands at the festival, including The New Lost City Ramblers from New York and Joan Baez at the 1963 festival. Ralph Stanley from The Stanley Brothers said to Gedalecia while he was playing, “Keep playing that banjo, young fellow!”—advice that he would repeat 40 years later, when Gedalecia met him again at a show in Ohio.
Yet perhaps the most surreal experience The Stony Island Boys had was meeting a “raggedy kind of guy” at the festival who listened to them play for half an hour and who Mike Michaels introduced to them as Bob Dylan. At the time, Gedalecia said, “it was no big deal because he was not the Bob Dylan of a couple years later.” Indeed, Michaels even played duets with him on WUCB, the folk music show on the University Radio Station, before he became a global phenomenon.
Although Gedalecia left UChicago after a year, he credits his continued musical involvement to the folk scene on campus. The Stony Island Boys were featured at the University of Michigan Folk Festival in 1960 and also played a solo concert at the Woodstock Playhouse in New York in 1961.
“I’d never still be playing bluegrass if I had not gone to UC,” Gedalecia said. “I think UC was a unique place for all of that.”
There has always been a diverse range of music genres featured at the festival. “People were just getting introduced to musicians from the black community and from Appalachia,” Gedalecia said. When the folk festival first started, he said, “there was just a lot of interchange and you could always find people playing here and there,” which is what gave the festivals a “nice kind of community feeling.”
Next week’s festival will echo this diversity. The Fat Babies, a jazz group, will be performing alongside the International Polka Association Tribute Band. There will also be classic bluegrass from the Patuxent Partners.
“I think it means that people are still interested in the diversity that exists within the American music tradition,” Gedalecia said about the various groups performing next week.
When talking about the University of Chicago’s legacy, most people immediately think about our economics faculty and the range of Nobel Prize winners affiliated with our school. The history of the folk festival, however, shows that Hyde Park has also been a thriving hub for banjo-pickers and bluegrass lovers who loved to jam. It is these musicians who demonstrate, as Leming simply put it, that “The U of C was”—and hopefully always will be—“a mecca for all kinds of interesting people.”