Beyond the music: Folk Festival’s rich tradition at UChicago

In its 60-plus-year history, celebration creates personal connections among community

For more than six decades, the University of Chicago Folk Festival has brought together an array of musicians and performers from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds—all united through a love for music, dance and cultural expression.

According to fourth-year student and Folklore Society co-president Nick Rommel, the campus tradition is a “a celebration of music and culture—one where our relationship with the music is close and personal, not where we are just consumers—which is missing in many aspects of our lives.”

Throughout its history, the festival has welcomed its share of famous performers, including the New Lost City Ramblers; Ralph and Carter Stanley, the titans of bluegrass; Elizabeth Cotten, the influential inventor of the famous “Cotten picking” bass style; and Willie Dixon, one of the most influential Chicago blues artists. A young performer named Bobby Zimmerman—now known as Bob Dylan—even visited the inaugural festival in 1961 but allegedly wasn’t deemed worthy of a spot in the musical lineup.

Now in its 64th year, the two-day 2024 festival will be held on Feb. 9-10. It will include free workshops during the day at Ida Noyes Hall, followed by ticketed concerts at Mandel Hall in the evenings. Tickets and a full schedule of events and musical performances are available on the Folk Festival website.

The festival’s beginnings

The Folk Festival debuted in 1961, when Hyde Park was a vibrant capital of folk culture. Then, folk music was seen by many as a symbol of a simpler, anti-consumerist past. College towns such as Hyde Park, with a large countercultural population disillusioned by the postwar industrial boom, saw folk music’s popularity spread like wildfire. Jam sessions were ubiquitous across campus, and the volunteer-run UChicago Folklore Society ballooned in size, becoming the largest student organization on campus.

With increased popularity came increased scrutiny among folk music’s most ardent fans. Mike Fleischer, president of the Folklore Society from 1961–62, was one such hardliner, and he was determined to protect what he saw as “authentic” folk music. Under Fleischer’s presidency, the society began planning for something unique in the folk music world: a festival focusing on authenticity and in direct opposition to the commercialized mega folk festivals then widely prevalent in the U.S., according to a 2023 article in the University of Chicago Magazine.

This commitment to authenticity, however, meant festival organizers had to take dramatic measures to gather enough performers for a full schedule. That meant combing through folk anthologies to find promising artists, where most artists were rural or working-class amateurs who would submit recordings to labels and never hear anything of their successes. Club representatives had to travel across the country to knock on the doors of often-obscure artists to convince them to perform in Chicago, with many even having to transport the performers to and from the festival themselves.

As journalist Mark Guarino wrote in his book, Country and Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival: “The artists were known by these students but forgotten by the people who had recorded them.” John Hurt was one example, a once-celebrated folk icon living in poverty toward the end of his life, but was warmly welcomed to UChicago as a performer, once more.

Rumored to be in attendance during the first-ever festival in 1961 was a then-unknown Woody Guthrie fanatic by the name of Bobby Zimmerman–now known as, Bob Dylan. While some dispute accounts of Dylan having attended the festival, jamming out with local musicians and performing on university radio shows, musician Mike Michaels, EX’61, recalls the famous musician sampling the festival’s scene before moving to New York and becoming the darling of commercial folk.

According to a 2018 UChicago Magazine article, sources said Dylan’s music at the time was forgettable, with the late UChicago history professor Moishe Postone remembering him as “just a bad Woody Guthrie imitator.” Paul Levy, AB’63, remembered Dylan playing for a student committee affiliated with the Folk Festival, likely vying for a spotlight in the Sunday afternoon hootenanny featuring “local Chicago folksingers.” Levy cast the deciding vote not to invite Dylan to play.

“It must have been that he showed up hungry and homeless. … I had the impression he was a completely lost soul,” Levy told the UChicago Magazine. As a consolation prize, Levy and his roommate agreed to let Dylan sleep in the cupboard of their 53rd Street apartment for a few days.

Deciding who fits the festival

The festival’s history of inclusion is something the Folklore Society takes great pride in: Many titans of Black music played at the first festival, including Arvella Gray, Elizabeth Cotton, Big Joe Williams and Mississippi Fred McDowell. In later years, the festival’s focus expanded to immigrant groups that arrived after the 1960s, such as Asian and Hispanic Americans.

While still loyal to the cause of celebrating authentic folk music, the Folklore Society has loosened its definition of what constitutes “folk” over decades. Today, it encompasses a variety of genres, including blues, electric blues, jazz, Cajun traditions and many international folk traditions. To the society, “folk” has grown to include all generationally transferred traditional music, bringing even more variety to an already diverse institution.

“There is no cut-and-dry definition, but we aim for musical traditions that predate the radio and TV,” Rommel said. “We want traditions that popped out of communities from the bottom-up, where instead of just listening to someone perform and buying their CD, people made their own music, their own traditions, and they had a personal relationship with the artists and with the music.”

During the Society’s weekly meetings, students and older community members—affectionately called “geezers”—debate what constitutes “folk” and who could be allowed into their festivals. They split planned festival content into seven slots, representing certain genres or musical styles, and spend seven weeks in the fall voting on one slot per week. Meetings are often filled with disagreement, debate and good-natured arguments over the meanings of music.

Anyone can participate in their meetings and join their listhost. While most are undergraduate and graduate students, meetings also see many Hyde Park community members, suburban alumni and other folk fans. UChicago staff and faculty have a history of involvement in the Society, notably Starkey Duncan, the late professor of psychology and the main force behind the Folk Festival in the 2000s.

Last year’s event, the first to be in-person after several years of virtual programming, saw a peak of 800 people in attendance. Festival organizers are confident that they can build on that success this year, by offering free workshops in which patrons can learn to play the fiddle, harmonica, and the hurdy-gurdy; or explore how to do quilting, crocheting, change ringing, shanty singing, and more.

More than just a concert

The obscure artists who the festival organizers passionately recruited were often happy to teach eager students the ins and outs of folk music, which helped lead to the Folk Festival’s modern-day format. At night, Mandel Hall is filled with the sounds of melody, but during the day, musicians, dancers and artists hold workshops at Ida Noyes Hall to teach attendees about their passions.

Rommel’s favorites are the dancing workshops, where people can “drop by, learn a few steps, and become part of this beautiful amoeba of dancing.” This year’s attendees will be able to learn a variety of dance styles, such as Klezmer, Morris, Scandinavian, Barn, Balkan, Scottish, Belly and Renaissance dancing.

Perhaps most importantly, the Folk Festival showcases a vibrant mosaic of culture, like a microcosm of the larger UChicago community. It’s a reminder of that which unites us and allows us to bridge cultural divides: a love for art, a willingness to learn about other traditions and a respect for the universal language of music. Often, musicians will invite other artists they meet backstage to perform with them, spontaneously merging and evolving different cultural traditions in front of the crowd. People often break into dances in the hall, communicating in unspoken words.

These moments of connection often resonate with festival-goers, and it is one reason why the festival remains a Hyde Park cultural staple.

“People see the Folk Festival as a close and connected community, which is missing from a lot of aspects of our lives,” Rommel added. “That’s why we’re growing every year.”

For more information, visit the Folk Festival website.