Student Stories

The 52nd Annual Folk Festival

Students walking through Ida Noyes Hall on February 10th through 12th may find guitar jam sessions in one corner and hear the faint tapping of people practicing a swing dance upstairs. Musicians will fill every nook and cranny of Ida with their instruments and music, creating what may seem like a “traveling caravan.”

The 52nd annual UChicago Folk Festival will be held in Ida Noyes Hall and Mandel Hall. The Festival brings professional musicians, avid listeners, and students together for a weekend of workshops and concerts.“Hundreds of people come to Ida from hundreds of miles away if they have guitars, banjos, etc., and they will sit in circles and jam together,” said William Cramer, second-year physics major and Folklore Society co-president. “You just have to spend the day in there.”According to Cramer, The Folk Festival was created in the 1950s to emphasize folk roots of contemporary music and preserve the historic and pure forms of traditional folk music.  Comprised of both student and adult members, The Folklore Society plans the festival. They spend three weeks per category–Irish traditional, old time solo, old time group, bluegrass, Cajun, blues, gospel, and this year Texan swing–listening to music and contacting experts to ask for recommendations. The group then holds what Cramer described as “heated discussions” about the various musicians and vote on who they will ask to perform.According to co-president Devyn Russell, a third-year economics major, the Society is a collaborative effort of many people invested in quality music“The integration of student organizers and longtime members forms a unique community, culture, and network of people,” said Russell.One of the primary goals of the Society is building a long-standing audience of both people who are already involved with traditional music and new listeners. The annual festival is the primary way the Society reaches both avid fans of the genre and those unfamiliar with folk.Workshops offer a chance for students to learn to explore different instruments and styles, dances, and the history of various folk music movements. Students can attend as many sessions as they want and don’t need musical experience to participate. According to Russell, this open environment means individuals can take something away from the festival no matter their skill level or prior exposure to folk music.“Students will find something valuable in stopping by. It’s all really good, quality music. Even if you don’t do something big, you can still get involved and have a good experience,” Russell said.Some of the musicians even continue their interactions with students after the formal sessions. One of Cramer’s favorite experiences from last year’s festival was when he joined an informal jam session with one of his favorite musicians.“After the Irish fiddle workshop, John Williams had a bunch of friends together, and I got to play fiddle with him for about an hour,” Cramer said.John Hatton has participated in the festival in as a musician, vendor, and audience member since the 1970s. This weekend, he is joining the Kentucky Clodhoppers on guitar. According to Hatton, the workshops, as well as the conversations that often follow, provide valuable opportunities for individuals to learn more about the culture that surrounds the genre.“Students always have the question of what the best album ever is or the best musician,” said Hatton. “I tell them to go seek these people out in their own environment. There’s a lifestyle that goes along with it as well as just hearing the music.”Participants continue to play together throughout Ida until the last moments of the day, when the festival organizers kick them out to head over to the evening performances.Formal concerts are held Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night in Mandel Hall, with four or five acts performing each night. According to Hatton, the festival established a reputation over the years for bring some of the top performers out for the festival.“It has been incredible, the number of people who’ve come through there. There are people who came out of the woodwork, unknowns who have blown me away,” he said.Co-president Julia Wetherell, a fourth-year English major, is particularly excited about a new act to the lineup, which she says will attract more students to modern, but still traditional, folk music.“I’m really excited about the Quebe sisters. They’ll be teaching a dance and performing. They do a three-part harmony and three-part folk style Texas fiddle that we haven’t had often,” Wetherell said. “I think it’s the most unique act we’ve had. It also means we’ve got this really young act, and I think they’ll be exciting for a younger audience.”For most in the folk community, the festival is a time to gather in Ida to play, listen, and dance to their favorite music. But they’re also excited to welcome new listeners to the community and the music.“I’m most looking forward to the same thing as every year–new friends, old friends, and playing music together,” Hatton said.