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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


image: Features
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 re
ggae, 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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  APRIL 2000
  > > Volume 92, Number 4

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