UChicago Folk Fest 2019: 59 Years Strong

Mandel Hall from the balcony, the University of Chicago

The University of Chicago Folklore Society’s Folk Festival has been a part of the world (in its current form, at least) for fifty-nine years, this past Folk Fest being its fifty-ninth. (It began in the infancy of the American folk revival, a wee bit before my mother’s jug band days.) It’s been part of my life since I was a few months old. We went nearly every single year throughout my childhood and young adulthood, and then, between constant financial constraints and ongoing issues, we stayed away for a few years. This year, on a spur of the moment decision (not mine! I’m pretty pathologically incapable of doing anything spur of the moment!), we went back.

This year’s Saturday concert was, actually, fantastic. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, given some of the past few years. It even almost started on time! The Folk Festival, you see, is infamous for starting late—like, for starting an hour late, sometimes, or even more. Set changes take forever as the poor suckers roped into MCing stumble through some sort of awkward routine and everyone (including them) really wishes that Studs Terkel would rise from the grave to MC just one more Folk Fest. (This is so for real! WorldCat even has an entry for that first concert! I mean, you’re not gonna get it, because it’s at U of C, but it exists!) I was (pleasantly) amazed when our piper piped us in after only ten minutes, and not the customary half-hour. I mean, I have a thing about running on time. (I could claim it as the only thing I get from my German ancestors, except the only things I can reasonably trace to them, other than my own stocky frame, are moral ambiguity and a yen towards left-wing politics and unionism.)

This year’s bands were pretty tremendous. We started with an Irish duo—bohola—which included an incredibly sensitive accordion (one doesn’t usually think of accordions as sensitive) and a bouzar, which looked rather more like a guitar from the balcony. We segued into the Cajun band, which I worried about: I love Cajun music, with its pounding, hard-driving dance rhythms, its dismal lyrics and upbeat melodies, and I get pretty upset when the band sucks.

This band definitely did not suck: indeed, T’Monde was incredible, and blew it out of the park. They had that hard-driving Cajun sound, right down to the twang in their accents (and if you’ve never heard a good Cajun band, let me say this: it’s an unforgettable sound); they were the best Cajun band to come through since the days when the Pine Leaf Boys came through once a year or so. (It’s worth noting that Drew Simon is actually also in the Pine Leaf Boys: it’s a small world.) T’Monde was rather more versatile than the typical hard-driving Cajun band: we even had some happy songs (including one which, hilariously, had a sad melody to fit its happy lyrics!) and an achingly lovely unaccompanied ballad—not the sort of fare I’ve heard before from a Cajun band, and not to be missed.

It must have been intimidating to follow up T’Monde, but Steam Machine managed. I don’t much agree with their classification—what the hell is old-time, anyway? I will rant more on this anon—but I like bluegrass, and I adore banjo, and they had some good banjo and some good bluegrass. (I hate trucker hats, and all the dudes were wearing them, but that’s a personal thing on my part, and ’tis true that there’s often something at least slightly hokey in an ensemble’s attire—they are, I assume, going for the old hootenanny vibe, and maybe not quite getting it right.)

The piper piped us back in after intermission, and we got a ’20s and ’30s style jazz band: the Chicago-based Fat Babies, who are neither fat nor babies (they’re skinny white guys, mostly), and who are absolutely fantastic. I love the sounds of the ’20s and ’30s—or of the jazz, at any rate, not of the streets—and they brought that sound in glorious spades. As an old bassist, I most loved—of course—watching their bassist and bandleader, Beau Sample, who even used his bow. (My suggestion to them, of course, would be to join the damn union already: they’d find their pay scales much improved.) The Price Sisters finished us off: bluegrass, although softer than what I sometimes think of, when I think bluegrass, and with a fiddle and a mandolin (and a backing band) rather than the banjo that I always want, anywhere, everywhere, always. They are excellent, and it will be pretty rad to watch where they go. (I still want more banjo.)

So the fifty-ninth Folk Fest was a hit, at least for me. It was amazing and fabulous and a reminder of just how much I love roots music. It was also a mess, as it always is, in its selective acknowledgement of what constitutes American roots music. (And this is where I am honor-bound to remind my readers that I am a theoretical postcolonialist—by which I mean postcolonial theory is my theoretical positioning and the way I read and understand the world—and that will color everything you’re reading here and elsewhere.

The United States is not a white nor an English-speaking country. We acknowledge that latter part, at the Folk Festival, through Irish-language and French-language songs—but it’s not enough. As glad as I am, as the daughter of a Québécois-speaker and a Spanish speaker myself, to hear French spoken as an American roots tongue, well, I want more. Steam Machine’s Rina Rossi was the first person I have heard on the Mandel Hall stage to acknowledge that we’ve ripped music off, and I was glad to hear it finally said: those African-American railroad workers, in the case of the song Steam Machine was about to play, deserve to be remembered for their contribution. (Also, check out Steam Machine’s bassist, Nokosee Fields, who also happens to be a champion fiddler; he’s a badass.)

But I hate that “old-time” classification. (It has an awful Wikipedia page, in case you’re curious.) Who owns the concept of “old-time”? Who has the right to claim it? What is old-time, anyway? Sometime yesterday? Is not all traditional or roots music, in its way, old-time? Or is none of it old time, since all of it is living? This is, of course, a fairly personal rant: but I would much rather hear that a band is playing traditional string band music, or bluegrass, or shanties, or whatever; I think old time is a terrible classification. (This could also be my inner librarian talking.) And, of course, as much as I love always having Irish music—and I do, believe me, I love Irish music—I want to see the roots music of my fellow Americans more accurately represented at this Folk Fest that should speak to all of us.

It seems almost absurd, in this here and now, that we should have to advocate for Mexican or Puerto Rican music to be included in an American folk festival. For that matter, I think that Chinese and East Indian and Pakistani and Korean and Nigerian and Kenyan folk music ought to be part of our roots music celebrations, because they are. And where is the Native American music? I don’t think I have ever seen a Native group perform, or at least, have not seen one since the Andean Raíses de los Andes came through, when I was maybe five, with their giant panpipes.

I love roots music; I love folk fest, and hootenannies, and people dancing in the halls and the aisles and on the stage and also on their chairs, because they have possibly had a bit too much to drink before they came. They are special places to me, and the University of Chicago’s tremendous Folk Festival has done its share to mold me and form me into the person I am today. And for that reason, I want to see it become even greater, and more accurately reflect this country that we all call home.

And here’s to next year, and the sixtieth annual University of Chicago Folk Festival! I’m already excited.

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