This past Saturday, skittering fiddle strikes and sharp banjo twangs resounded off the walls of the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall during the second day of the 51st annual Folk Festival. As the night wore on, the stage’s deep red curtain provided a mesmerizing backdrop for the equally engrossing musical acts, from the rumbling riffs of Eddie C. Campbell to the swampy Cajun chattering of Jason Frey & Co.
The atmosphere was so entrancing, in fact, that you might not have even noticed the adult skew of the audience. You probably wouldn’t have seen the college-aged couple snickering at the elderly man and woman sashaying in the corner either. Perhaps you wouldn’t have even heard the chuckles from the balcony during a lengthy accordion solo, or noticed the few empty seats in the back of the hall. But despite what you may (or likely may not) have heard about the withering state of traditional folk music, the UofC’s Folklore Society is just as lively as it was the day it was founded in 1955.
The original founders of the Folklore society and its earliest members, a few UofC students interested in traditional Appalachian and backcountry music, would meet up for weekly Hootenannies, which consisted mainly of dancing and banjo jam sessions. The Society’s first festival was held in the winter of 1961, largely due to the efforts of member Mike Fleischer, who had connections to the now legendary folk band New Lost City Ramblers. John Burnett, a long time volunteer and Folklore Society advisor who joined the organization as a student in 1957, recalled the first festival, “Those first performers were the type of people who lived the music.” With authentic backcountry musicians such as North Carolina’s Frank Proffitt at the first show, the UofC’s Folk Festival established itself as a major event in the budding world of contemporary folk music just in time for its commercial explosion during the early 60’s. “Before that, there wasn’t really anything called folk music,” says Burnett, “It was simply called hillbilly or mountain music.” As the folk revival of the 1960s ushered acts like New York born Joan Baez and San Francisco’s Kingston Trio into the limelight, the Folk Festival gave less famous acts a chance to play the traditional regional music that had inspired such mainstream artists.
Today, the Festival still emphasizes authentic folk and cultural music, and also offers free workshops for everything from banjo styles to klezmer dance. The concert lineup often contains folk acts from the American South, such as this year’s Mike Compton and Friends, as well as ethnic traditional acts such as Irish musician John Williams. And though most of the performers and Festival attendees are aging, current UofC student and Folklore Society co-president Alexa Silverman isn’t worried about the future of folk. “Most of the people who are playing traditional music are getting older. But there are a lot of people here who are interested.” John Burnett, who has seen the entire life cycle of popular folk music agrees, “I see so many young people here playing the music of two generations ago. With the birth of rock music, the last generation lost interest in more traditional sounds. The kind of interest I see today was absent then.”
And if this year’s performances were any indication, Burnett and Silverman are not just wishful thinkers. Frank Fairfield, a 24-year-old from California’s central valley who has toured with the prominent folk/indie band Fleet Foxes, stunned the Saturday night crowd with his impeccable banjo plucking and emphatic seated dancing, dispelling any suspicion that folk is on the way out.
Though the empty seats in the back and the teens stifling giggles in the balcony may have made it seem like this genre is on its way out, folk music has never been terribly concerned with facades. With such deep seeded traditions and talented musicians, it is unlikely that the rambling twangs and manic mandolin solos of the Folk Festival will cease any time soon.