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APRIL 2000: FEATURES (print version)



The University of Chicago Folk Festival played second fiddle to none.

In 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, living 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 could.

Chicago 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 traditions.

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 own."

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.

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