2000: FEATURES (print version)
University of Chicago Folk Festival played second fiddle to none.
the mostly jeans-and-flannel-shirts crowd,
the aristocratic air of "Ida Noyes, Mrs. La Verne Noyes" stood out.
With an uplifted chin, high collar, and Edwardian hat, the grande dame
gazed westward from a gold-framed portrait hanging in the building that
bears her name. She presided over a far less formal assortment of musicians
come to strum the guitar, pick the banjo, and sing the blues at the
40th Annual University of Chicago Folk Festival. Her stateliness notwithstanding,
the library--along with the rest of Ida Noyes and Mandel Hall--played
host to some downright downhome rhythms and melodies during a three-day
round of workshops, jam sessions, and concerts held during the first
weekend in February.
Organized by the University's student-run Folklore Society
and partly funded by the Illinois Arts Council, the festival served
up 11 acts who alternately turned the flatlands of Illinois into the
English countryside, an Appalachian valley, and the Jamaican shore.
First held in 1961, the event is now billed as one of the longest-running
college folk festivals in the nation. Staffed by volunteers, it's about
making music, not money. In typical fashion, this year's festival was
expected to just break even. Most of the money--raised through sales
of concert and raffle tickets, T-shirts, and 1,300 home-baked cookies--went
toward booking and transporting the festival performers, who were fed
and housed by Hyde Parkers.
Although the festival continues to broaden the range of
traditions represented--this year included a Russian choir and Middle
Eastern dancers--it stays true to its original purpose of showcasing
the roots of American folk music. Among other big names, the festival
has drawn the likes of flat-picking guitarist Doc Watson, ballad singer
Horton Barker, and the New Lost City Ramblers, who helped revive rural
Southern string-band music. This winter saw the return of one Rambler,
guitarist Tracy Schwarz, accompanying two other previous festival players,
southern Appalachian singers Ginny Hawker and Kay Justice.
U of C psychology professor Starkey D. Duncan Jr., PhD'65,
has advised the Folklore Society for 33 years, drawing on his own experiences
growing up in Nashville and working summers in the western North Carolina
mountains. The festival's underlying purpose, he says, "is to have traditional
music performed by people who grew up within the tradition."
The first annual University of Chicago Folk Festival set
the event's laid-back, authentic tone. In 1961, the Folklore Society
president, Mike Fleisher, AB'64, talked the New Lost City Ramblers into
making a stop in Chicago during a concert tour. The band--which included
Mike Seeger, the half brother of Pete Seeger--played old-time music
in the third-floor theater of Ida Noyes. That show started an annual
tradition of bringing in outside acts to jam with Folklore Society members,
who had been gathering regularly in the Reynolds Club to play the guitar,
mandolin, and banjo since the early 1950s. The reason the fellow players
decided to become a recognized student organization was "not very high-minded,"
explained James Schoenwetter, AB'55, AB'56, in the anniversary program
notes. "We needed status to blunt the effects of the dirty looks and
antagonism of those who considered the Reynolds Club lounge sofas and
overstuffed chairs their personal napping spaces, and we needed a label
to identify the group that would gather once a month to party."
Some 3,500 attended this year's party, organized by Folklore
Society co-presidents Charles Gabriel Rhoads, a third-year in the History,
Philosophy, and Social Studies of Sciences and Medicine program, and
Spider (née Emily) Vetter, a second-year geology concentrator who plays
guitar and accordion. Third-year anthropology concentrator Cinthya Carrillo
was among the some 45 student volunteers who helped out. Though Carrillo
appreciated the chance to hear something different from her preferred
progressive dance music, diehard old-time fans owned the event. Bill
Raia, a railroad union official, and his wife, Darlene, a Sears receiving
clerk, have been trekking to the festival from the Northwest Side for
the past 35 years, at times braving snowstorms and dragging along their
two children. "I grew up around this kind of music," said Bill. "My
parents went to barn dances. We like old-time music--you know, fiddle
music. And if you're talking about a gathering like that in the city,
this is it." Similarly, Laura Gloger, who works in alumni relations
at the GSB, has been committed to the festival since 1967, when she
volunteered to help the New Lost City Ramblers maneuver from train station
to campus through two feet of snow. She handled ticket sales for years
and now maintains the Folklore Society's mailing list. "The music is
so great," she said. "It's for-real music from the heart. People don't
have agents telling them to sing what's hot. It's community-based music,
At this year's festival, folk aficionados could experience
that music during three Mandel concerts held Friday, Saturday, and Sunday
nights. As the lights dimmed before each show, kilt-wearing Bruce Quintos
stilled the audience with his bagpipe strains, which he also plays at
official Chicago police and fire department events. Most performers
appeared in at least two of the concerts. Eight members of the Copper
Family--including 85-year-old Bob Copper--crossed the Atlantic from
a village on the English coast to harmonize songs passed down in their
family for seven generations. The Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show
were a real hoot in their big-lapel suits and black-and-white wingtips,
taking turns showing
off their bluegrass rhythms on guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and
bass from behind a single, '40s-style microphone. Little Arthur and
the Back Scratchers played the West Side Chicago blues like only a band
led by a 66-year-old raised on the same Mississippi farm as B. B. King
fiddler Liz Carroll and guitarist Jim DeWan lent the serenity and energy
of Ireland, as did another Chicago-based Irish group--accordion player
Jimmy Keane, fiddler Sean Cleland, and bouzouki player Pat Broaders.
Bois Sec Ardoin, Edward Poullard, Danny Poullard, and Charlie Terr let
loose Louisiana Cajun music on their box accordions, fiddles, and guitars.
Ralph Blizard showed that at 81 he could still drive home his trademark
Appalachian Mountain Longbow style as the New Southern Ramblers backed
the Tennessee fiddler on vocals, guitar, fretless banjo, and bass. The
trio Ginny Hawker, Kay Justice, and Tracy Schwarz got the blood
flowing with old-time ballads and gospel songs, including tributes to
the Carter Family, who inspired modern country music. Scandinavian waltzes
and Minnesota narratives flowed from John Berquist, and the eight-member
Keith Eric and Waterhouse band swirled red, gold, and green as they
danced and played reggae, throwing in at least one Bob Marley cover.
While tickets for the concerts cost from $7 for students
on up to $17 for general admission, fans could catch their favorite
acts for free on Saturday and Sunday during open workshops at Ida Noyes
Hall. In between riffs, performers explained their approaches to banjo
playing, gospel singing, barn dancing, and more than a dozen other folk
Speaking from a makeshift stage set up below Ida's portrait,
guitarist Phil Jamison gave his take on the nuances of traditional Southern
folk music to 100 or so people--some toting their own battered instrument
cases--seated in folding chairs and perched on windowsills. "In bluegrass
you wow people with hot licks," he said, "but old-time music is ensemble
music and when I'm playing in a group, whether I'm in a jam session
or performing, I will consciously let my ears do the walking." Banjo
player Gordy Hinners described his role in a band this way: "What I
typically do behind the fiddle is I try to put an accent on the backbeat.
That basic rhythm helps support the fiddle. It sounds like a train underneath
and I hope it allows the fiddle to go where it wants to go." Later,
to a still-packed library, Arthur Duncan, backed by his Back Scratchers
(who include drummer and Blues Before Sunrise radio show host
Steve Cushing), explained with a smile his atypical harmonica technique
of playing the bass notes on the right: "They call it 'bottom-up.'"
While the library may have felt more like a friendly back
porch where passersby felt free to pull up a chair and listen in, the
second-floor West Lounge turned into a country clapboard church. Ginny
Hawker urged those who had gathered in a semicircle for a Saturday workshop
on gospel singing to "try some of those Primitive Baptist things with
your voice. You don't want to be doing piano singing all your life.
Good singing depends on what you do in between the notes." One standard
Appalachian technique, she noted with a laugh, "is like a yodel, and
it's best to learn it in the privacy of your own pickup." On Sunday,
the U of C Shape Note Singers Association took over the attic-like space.
With the light oak floor reflecting the winter sun, they sent the emphatic
rhythms of their far-from-timid gospel throughout the building.
Downstairs, the beams and oversized windows of the Cloister
Club looked less gothic and more barnlike when Ralph Blizard and the
New Southern Ramblers set the mood for upwards of 30 couples to dance
the New England contra under the direction of the Chicago Barn Dance
Company. In the building's every available nook and cranny, performers
mingled and made music. Hanging out before her evening performance,
singer and guitarist Kay Justice thumbed through the hundreds of CDs
for sale in the lobby, settling on some by Da Costa Woltz's Southern
Broadcasters, the Skillet Lickers, and fellow performer Liz Carroll.
The sounds of headliners jamming with members of the musically inclined
public emanated from the first-floor cloakroom and the second-floor
lounge. On the first staircase landing, her back to an unbroken backdrop
of white snow and clouds, Hawker practiced what she'd preached, belting
out "Family Reunion," supported by guitar, fiddle, bass, mandolin, and
banjo. "Once it gets going," notes co-organizer Gabriel Rhoads, "the
festival just powers itself, and comes alive with an energy all its
And by the time an Irish medley brought the festival to
its crescendo on Sunday night, it wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine
Ida loosening her starched collar, and humming a few notes herself.