Folk festival rooted in family traditions
By Rhema Hokama
Photo by Paul Watkins
Workshops are a chance to get close to the performers. It’s a chance to sit down in a small room, with smaller audiences. At the workshops, we can really get a sense of what performers are about”
Co-President of the Folklore Society
Folk music has been a part of Ezra Deutsch-Feldman’s life for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Deutsch-Feldman learned to play banjo music from his mother, who inspired in him a love of traditional bluegrass.
“I had been hearing a lot a folk music ever since I was born. By the time I was in high school, I started playing the banjo with my mom teaching me,” says Deutsch-Feldman, a third-year in the College. “At the time, it didn’t feel like I was learning folk music the traditional way because I was learning it at home in Washington, DC.”
This year, Deutsch-Feldman will join hundreds of other students, faculty, and Hyde Park community members at Chicago’s 49th annual Folk Festival, which the University of Chicago Folklore Society has hosted annually since 1961. This year’s festival runs Feb. 6–8 at Mandel Hall and will feature concerts by professional and student folk musicians, interactive workshops, and traditional dance performances.
This year’s lineup boasts a range of music genres and traditions, spanning regions from Appalachia to Cajun Louisiana to Ireland. Concerts will feature renowned Irish fiddler Brian Conway; Québécois musicians Lisa Ornstein and André Marchand; Sheila Kay Adams, a seventh-generation Appalachian ballad singer; Cajun accordionist Paul Daigle; bluegrass band Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers; and Chicago blues legend Elmore James Jr.
An appreciation for traditional music and instrumental technique unites the eclectic groups of artists and bands at this year’s Folk Festival. The Folklore Society strives to bring in performers who preserve original approaches to regional and ethnic music. This year’s Folk Festival features several artists who grew up in musical families and continue to perform music sung and played for generations.
“One of our two Blues acts this year is Elmore James Jr., whose father was one of Chicago’s best Blues musicians,” says Deutsch-Feldman, co-president of the Folklore Society. “I’m really excited about his performance because, listening to Elmore James Jr. play, you can definitely hear an echo of his father’s music.”
This year, ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams will return to the Folk Festival for a second time after making her Hyde Park debut in 1993. For seven generations, Adams’ family has passed down traditional Scottish, Irish, and English ballads that her ancestors brought from Europe when they immigrated to the small town of Madison County, N.C. in the 1700s.
“Sheila Kay Adams’ grandmother had six kids in the house, and the way she entertained them was to have the family sing together. And of course all her kids went on to become singers themselves,” says Edward Wallace, a graduate student in Mathematics and co-president of the Folklore Society.
“What we value is really traditional music, and people who play music in a traditional way and learning it within a tradition,” Deutsch-Feldman says.
Participants at this year’s Folk Festival can chat with artists at morning and afternoon workshops, which will run Saturday and Sunday during the celebration. Workshops provide opportunities to learn traditional song and dance steps and to hear artists talk about their musical heritages.
“Workshops are a chance to get close to the performers. It’s a chance to sit down in a small room, with smaller audiences. At the workshops, we can really get a sense of what performers are about,” Wallace says.
Workshop participants will play fiddle music with Brian Conway, sing maritime songs with Tom Kastle, compare banjo styles with Sheila Kay Adams, and perform traditional Scandinavian, Scottish, Yiddish, Balkan, and Cajun dances.
“During the workshops, we have a lot of people everywhere playing music. In the landing in Ida Noyes, in the corridors, downstairs, everywhere’s packed with people dancing and playing instruments. It’s a wonderful atmosphere,” Wallace says.
The Hyde Park folk arts community will launch this year’s Folk Festival with a kickoff party on Wednesday, Feb. 4 from 8:30 to 10:30 PM in Hutchinson Commons. The party will feature music by Chicago bluegrass group the Henhouse Prowlers and performances by student groups Bhangra and Gingarte Capoeira.
For schedules and ticket information, visit the University of Chicago Folk Festival website.