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  Written by
  Charlotte Snow

  Photography by
  Eugene Zakusilo


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Good guys finish first
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Edward Hirsch Levi
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U of C Folk Festival
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The prophetic art


The 40th Annual University of Chicago Folk Festival played second fiddle to none.

image: FeaturesIn 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.

image: Ida Noyes, Mrs. La Verne Noyes

The aristocratic air of "Ida Noyes, Mrs. La Verne Noyes"

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.

image:  Fancy footwork

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.

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