Folk Survival: The UofC Folk Festival celebrates its fiftieth anniversary

(MehveÅŸ Konuk)

Once upon a time in 1961, four thousand people traveled through a blizzard to sit in the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall and listen to performers from all over the United States play at the first UofC Folk Festival. Organized by the UofC Folklore Society, the Festival received high praise and has continued as an annual event ever since. Now, as the Society prepares to hold the 50th incarnation of the festival this coming weekend, its members and audience have been called to remember its storied history and notable place in the tradition of folk music in the United States.

In a review for the New York Times, Robert Shelton wrote of the first Festival, “In a period when the popularization of folk music has led to many specious species of dilution and hybridization, the bulk of the music at the festival was as pure and refreshing as a swig of spring water.” Reviewers at the folk magazine Little Sandy said the obscure yet expert musicians performing at Folk Festival “formed the hardcore authenticity which made the University of Chicago festival ultimately more successful than almost any other folk festival presented to city audiences.”

Fifty years ago, the festival was a reminder of folk’s origins, not a stage for social protest. Mike Fleischer, president of the Folklore Society, was quoted in the early years of the Festival sounding more than a little anxious about the direction folk was taking: “We feel that folk music should be studied before it dies.” The origins of folk were getting lost in the new music inspired by what many felt was a more authentic voice. As UofC 2009 graduate, Festival veteran organizer, and longtime Folklore Society member Ezra Deutsch-Feldman explains, the Festival was originally an attempt to save folk music from places like the “southeast U.S., from Appalachia…different from what came from Pete Seeger hearing and
making it popular.”

Even Seeger, the iconic figurehead for the protest music-focused Folk Revival, felt uncomfortable with the drift from authenticity. He wrote to Sing Out! magazine about the UofC Folk Festival, “If you wrote it up strong enough, it might even start to sound the death knell of the phony festivals and see more festivals like this take place.”

Although not explicitly prompted, civil rights were embedded in early performances at the Festival. Artists like Hobart Smith accompanied Bessie Jones of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, and Estelle “Mama” Yancey shared stage space with Jimmy Driftwood, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, Fred McDowell, and Sunnyland Slim. As Deutsch-Feldman explains it, “The origins of the festival were more in labor than civil rights; the festival was designed to push back against commercialization.” But artists such as the New Lost City Ramblers, an urban band, “brought with them the people they learned the music from,” says Deutsch-Feldman. “Elizabeth Cotton, African-American guitar player, Roscoe Holcolm, a banjo guitar player and singer…people that had not seen a broader Northern audience. Especially a college student audience.”

This might sound like a fairytale of social progressivisim, but the real magic was in the refusal of festival organizers to get carried away by the Folk Revival and the stubborn loyalty of organizers to showcasing traditional folk music at its best. Deutsch-Feldman explains, “Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary were folk music…but a really different kind. There was a lot of worry that the new obsession with folk music among college students would drown out and forget about the original folk music.”

This year, festival organizers and popular culture have made the same musical endorsements: Kim Wilson and Liz Carroll, both performing, were Grammy nominees. Other events at the festival include a series of free workshops Saturday and Sunday, one of which will include examples of all the different musical roles played by the fiddle, from Irish traditional music to banjo to bluegrass. Another provides basic instruction in folk-style dances. Workshops are taught by performers, allowing for an incredible degree of accessibility. Shelton wrote also in his Times review that “the key words were tap-roots, tradition, authenticity, and non-commercial,” and the festival seems to be in no danger of balding in content or ambition. The festival is not a’changing the things that made it special in the first place.

Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St. February 12-14. Friday – Sunday, various times and prices. (773)702-7300.