February 8, 2011

Folk Festival revives music of yesteryear

Beginning Friday, the University of Chicago will host its 51st Annual Folk Festival in Mandel Hall and Ida Noyes for three days. This year’s festival will continue to preserve the traditional music of the past, but with modern day artists and the rebirth of old genres.

The University of Chicago Folk Festival has become a nationally renowned event, drawing in people from all around the country to play and listen to folk. The festival is carefully planned, with board members booking musicians as far as a year in advance due to the difficulty in finding performers of such an old genre of music.

“Sometimes we say...that the only [bands] that are traditional enough for us are the ones that are dead, and hiring living ones are a compromise,” said Ezra Deutsch-Feldman, a 2009 U of C graduate returning to help with this year’s festival.

In addition to folk, bluegrass, Irish, and Cajun, each year the board tries to include a different genre. This year will be gospel, a genre that hasn’t been included in the festival for some time, with the Evening Light Brothers performing.

“This year we decided to feature a gospel group, which lets us promote something that is popular locally as a part of Chicago,” said Alexa Silverman, one of the co-presidents of this year’s Festival.

The Folk Festival serves as a place not only to hear traditional music, but also to meet the musicians who are the best in their field and who are willing to talk to Festival attendees.

“I play banjo and guitar,” Deutsch-Feldman said. “If I can work up the courage to ask [the musicians], I try to play some music with them, or at least get some advice from them.”

Some musicians attending this year are a familiar sight to the Folk Festival. This will be the fifth year for John Williams, who will perform traditional music of Ireland on piano and concertino. Williams performed in the movie The Road to Perdition, where he was commissioned to compose and teach an Irish piece to Paul Newman and Tom Hanks.

“I feel like it’s a national venue, Mandel Hall, and the music is presented at a very high level,” Williams said.

He looks forward to performing on Mandel Hall’s Steinway piano.

“I play piano in a traditional manner and it’s primarily for dance music. I’m looking forward to having that large piano under my fingertips and belting out some great music,” Williams said.

While Williams will be returning to Mandel Hall for the fifth time, this year will be some artists’ first. Mike Compton, a bluegrass musician, will be attending for the first time to lead the Bluegrass Workshop. Compton played mandolin on two Grammy award-winning pieces in 2001 and has traveled the globe playing


“I’m looking forward to meeting some new people in Chicago and to be able to play with some of my friends,” said Compton. “I’ve found that music communicates when words fail and seems to be the great common denominator.”

Even if one is not familiar with traditional folk music, the Festival is a great place to become acquainted with this timeless genre.

“[Folk] is kind of like an old antique that has been lovingly cared for, and still has had its few battle scars,” said fiddler Bobby Taylor, who will lead the Fiddle Styles workshop. “It is something that is wholesome, timeless, and just wonderful, and if anyone gives it a chance and a listen, and tries to understand a little bit of the history and the soul and spirit of the musician, the welcome mat is out for them.”