Folkin’ Around: The 48th Annual Folk Festival keeps the good times rolling

Vesta Johnson could be your grandmother–that is, if your grandmother is a musical trailblazer. The eighty-something Missourian, one of the first female fiddlers in the style called “old-time” or “Ozark style,” made a name for herself with her energetic bow work at a time when few women played at all. Although she’s more accustomed to playing in small halls populated with friends and family, she graced the big stage at Mandel Hall last year for the 47th Annual University of Chicago Folk Festival. The organizers wanted to make sure she made it home safe after the performance, so they searched for her high and low backstage.

“We couldn’t find her anywhere,” says Folklore Society co-president Dakota Derryberry. “She eventually turned up at two or three in the morning playing fiddle with some of the other organizers and her grandson.”

Partying till the wee hours of the morning may not seem like part of the folk musician’s lifestyle, but effusive enthusiasm for getting together with friends and playing music drives everyone involved with the UofC Folk Festival past their limits. Derryberry and her fellow co-president, London native and math grad student Edward Wallace, spend eight hours a day in the cramped Mandel Hall box office during the two weeks running up to the show–mind you, these are the same two weeks when midterm madness peaks. Their dedication is born out of the same passion that has brought musicians from West Virginia to Louisiana all the way to the UofC for the past forty-eight years.

“All of our musicians love to play,” says Wallace. “We don’t get any of the stuff from performers who think they’re rock stars. They play before the show, they play backstage after the show, they stay at people’s houses and play all night after the party. The organizers join in, or the ones who dance have impromptu dance sessions backstage.”

This should not be surprising–the joy of playing just for the sake of playing is what defines folk music. Well, maybe. “You will never hear the same answer twice, not even from the same person,” chuckles Wallace when asked how he defines folk music. “And I think that’s a good thing. I think of folk music as opposed to art music, or to commercial music. It’s music which is made to serve a function for the community–it’s music to play at dances, to bring the community together, for them to discuss and talk about together…It’s not about pursuing some Elysian ideals, or to make money.”

The founders of the first Folk Festival in 1961 were uncomfortable with the blurring of the lines between folk and commercial music. At that time, many people identified “folk” with major commercial musicians–Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and so on. The organizers decided that if people were receptive to their music, they would love “true” folk music–true to the roots and from the people. Some tongue-in-cheekily called the Festival the “Anti-Folk Festival” since it strayed so far from the mainstream perception of folk music. “They wanted people to hear the hill sounds, the old-time sounds, and learn the history of the folk sounds,” say Derryberry and Wallace.

That definition of folk music has been re-written fairly regularly over the course of the Festival’s run, but a dedication to populism and equanimity has survived to this day. Instead of having “headliners” and “supporting acts,” all performers are billed with equal emphasis and many of them are close friends. When asked who this year’s standout performers would be, Wallace refuses to pick sides: “Well, we’ve got a fabulous lineup this year,” he says enthusiastically. He then proceeds to name, well, the entire lineup as standout performers. “Kim Wilson is the greatest living blues harmonica player. Paddy O’Brien from Chulrua knows more tunes than anyone else–he’s got 5,000 to 10,000 tunes in his repertoire, and started recording them 500 at a time. And Christie Gilrie of the Lafayette Rhythm Devils came to play last year when she was seventeen, and all the male undergraduates fell in love with her, so people are really excited about that…”

There is one void in this year’s Folk Festival: the absence of Professor Starkey Duncan. Duncan has been the adviser to the Folklore Society, which claims to be the campus’s oldest Recognized Student Organization. (The organization preceded the festival, first staged in 1961.) Starker, a professor of psychology, passed away in 2007. According to the Society’s dedication to him, his contributions were “immeasurable and irreplaceable.” Despite his absence, the Festival planning has been running more or less smoothly. “He really cared about students running things,” says Derryberry. “It’s really hard to do things without him, but he was so careful to teach everyone what to do and to guide them–that’s why we can carry on.” And they’re heading to a bright future: in two short years, the Folk Festival will celebrate its 50th anniversary. They’re already looking for the best acts possible, and will commemorate with the release of a book and a CD of the best festival recordings from the past 50 years. “These recordings are absolutely unique in American history,” says Derryberry. Starkey would be proud.

The University of Chicago Folk Festival, Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St. February 8-10. Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 6pm. (773)702-9793. www.uofcfolk.org