February 25, 2019

The Folk Festival Triumphantly Returns to Mandel Hall

The 59th Annual UChicago Folk Festival was held in Mandel Hall from February 15 to 16. Featuring two nights of live performances and a day of workshops, the event featured a geographically and culturally diverse array of folk musicians and artistry.

The UChicago Folklore Society was founded in the early 1950s and has dedicated itself to running the annual Folk Festival since 1961. The first decade of Folk Festivals hosted a number of now-renowned folk music icons, such as the New Lost City Ramblers, the Stanley Brothers, Elizabeth Cotton, and Willie Dixon. Situated in the heart of the 1960s nationwide folk music revival, the first few festivals were also extremely popular. The New York Times covered the first festival, praising the “tap-roots, tradition, authenticity, and non-commercial” characteristics at the weekend’s “three long evening programs.” Attendance has declined from the festival’s heyday in the ’60s, however, with the festival’s number of nights decreasing from three to two.

For this year, the first night of the program began with a short bagpipe procession by a member of the City of Chicago Pipe Band. Then old-time band Steam Machine took the stage. During their performance, the four-member group played a variety of Midwestern and Appalachian folk classics. The band members jokingly referred to themselves as being somewhat “pan-Midwest”—many of the members have come from or played across the Midwest, whereas others hailed from the South and Appalachia.

Returning trio T’Monde played both nights to perform a number of Cajun songs—some sung in Louisiana French, some in English—punctuated by the group’s instrumental combination of accordion, guitar, and fiddle. The songs evoked the social and cultural environment of colonial Louisiana, with titles like “J’ai vu Lucille” and “Tite Fille de la Campagne.”

The festival also featured a performance by Elmore James Jr., son of the late blues legend Elmore James, and his blues band. The group played a number of southern blues classics, incorporating blues musical traditions stemming from regions of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

The Price Sisters, an Ohioan bluegrass duo, closed out both nights. The fiddle, mandolin, and vocal harmonization of the sisters, Leanna and Lauren Price, were accompanied by band members on guitar, banjo, and upright bass. The group performed both bluegrass classics as well as original songs from their most recent album, A Heart Never Knows.

The 1920s jazz band, the Fat Babies, played on the second day of the festival. The seven-piece musical ensemble cultivated traditional 1920s aesthetics while peppering in a modern flare to the jazz classics.

Beyond American music, the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble presented Klezmer music, a unique musical tradition of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish communities, on the first night. The Ensemble is considered a pioneering group in the late-20th-century revival of the artform, with their recordings frequently referenced in academic circles as being some of the best in the field. The duo of Jimmy Keane and Pat Broaders also appeared as Bohola, performing a variety of both traditional and more modern Irish folk music.

The festival also featured daytime workshops on the its second day, including dances, family activities, and jam sessions. Some of these were led by the performing groups, like a session on Cajun Dance with T’Monde, or a discussion on bluegrass music with the Price Sisters. Other events ranged from a crash course on playing the hurdy-gurdy to harmony sessions for the curious, as well as more straightforward performances for those entertained by the prior night’s music.

Authenticity and enthusiasm for the folk artform remain staples of the festival on part of both the organizers and the attendees. Folklore Society co-presidents took to the stage in the interludes between performances to field Folk Festival trivia for a chance to enter poster and T-shirt raffles, with a number of attendees showing impressive knowledge of some of the earliest festivals. The volunteer-driven festival, to this day, focuses on the art and aesthetic appeal of folk music traditions, rather than commercial appeal of profit margins that unfortunately predominates the music industry. This focus on authenticity has sustained the festival thus far, with its 60th anniversary next year a testament to that success.