Old Folks: From blues to bagpipes, the 49th University of Chicago Folk Festival upholds tradition

A violinist plays at Mandel Hall in last year's festival, photo courtesy of the University of Chicago Folk Festival
In the 1960s a new style of folk music took over the genre in America. Traditional American folk songs were re-worked, re-written, and ultimately re-packaged into a slicker form that achieved enormous commercial success. The movement’s leading lights–Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; the Kingston Trio; Bob Dylan–are known as much for being countercultural icons as for their music. Despite their prominence, though, some folk fans sought to revive the genre’s traditions. Among them were a group of University of Chicago students, who established the University of Chicago Folk Music Festival in 1961.

In its early years, the small festival emphasized Appalachian and bluegrass music. The former grew out of centuries-old forms of English, Scottish, and Irish music played on bowed and plucked instruments; in contrast, bluegrass was only first played in the 1940s, when a few Appalachian musicians incorporated jazz, country, and ragtime influences into a new and technically demanding sound. The festival proved successful, and over the years expanded both in size and in diversity of sub-genres represented. Forty-nine years later, the three-day music-filled festival hosts an enormous variety of musicians. Performances range from Irish folk music to electrified Chicago and rural acoustic blues, and Cajun, Celtic, and New England dances.

“The Folk Festival is about bringing these groups together to show how each tradition is still alive,” says Edward Wallace, a fourth-year PhD candidate in mathematics and one of the primary organizers of this year’s festival. In his view, the festival celebrates community as much as music. “Folk music does not exist without narrative, and the University of Chicago Folk Festival is a place where the narratives of performers, students, and community members can intersect through music,” Wallace says. “This music is about getting involved. It’s a community.”

As communities go, folk is a diverse one, as this year’s lineup indicates. Some of the festival’s performers include Elmore James, Jr., son of famed Chicago bluesman and popularizer of the electric slide guitar Elmore James, Sr. Two other performers with ties to the festival are Sheila Kay Adams and her cousin, Amanda Southerland. Originally from a small mountain community in North Carolina, Adams is a veteran of the festival, having sung Applachian ballads there since 1993. Southerland is part of the same family musical tradition, but this is the first time she’s sung publicly.

“Folk music is not pure as music,” explains Wallace. “It has a social role. It is a kind of storytelling in communities.” Although the festival has been around for almost fifty years, it has struggled to find its role within the University community. Over the years the Festival committee has made a concerted effort to draw greater numbers of students, and this year they are offering several free workshops in Ida Noyes Hall and performances in Hutch Commons. But, since the beginning, the Festival has emphasized three things everybody loves: music, dancing, and celebration. For his part, Wallace is optimistic. “We still need students to come. And I know when they do, they’ll love it. It’s just one big, energetic party.” Forty-nine years of tradition back him up.

Multiple locations on the University of Chicago campus. February 6-8. Main performances Friday, 8pm, Saturday, 7:30pm, and Sunday, 6pm; workshops and free performances during the day. (773)702-7300. Friday and Saturday $25 general, $20 senior, $10 student; Sunday $20 general, $15 senior, $10 student. uofcfolk.org