Longevity, prestige of U of C Folk Fest creates own folklore


As the story goes, a young Bob Dylan stopped by, unbidden, to participate in an open mic jam session, performing a set of Woody Guthrie songs as the first University of Chicago Folk Festival got underway in 1961.

“This was before he was Bob Dylan,” Nick Rommel, a U of C student who is co-president of the university’s Folklore Society, said of the musician, whose real name is Robert Zimmerman. “A couple of years later when he got big, he asked if he could play the festival and we said no.”

By then, Dylan had become a singer/songwriter, more pop artist than folk musician, and the acts the Folklore Society wanted hewed in another direction. It’s the type of conversation that’s still happening at the society decades later.

“There’s a strong traditionalist strain in the Folklore Society, and we have extensive debates about what counts and what doesn’t,” said fellow student and society co-president Jack Cramer.

As they planned for the 63rd Annual UChicago Folk Fest, taking place Feb. 10 and 11 at the university’s Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St., the old school crowd held sway once again. The schedule includes folk music from a range of traditions: classic bluegrass, Mexican son huasteco, Bulgarian gudulka, Louisiana Cajun, traditional Irish music and some old-time fiddle music. Being a Chicago festival, a blues act is always on the bill as well. Details are at http://www.uofcfolk.org.

A registered student organization, the Folklore Society is unique, in that a “significant portion” of its membership is made up of university alumni, and even some enthusiastic community members from the Hyde Park area, Cramer said.

Blues musician Mississippi Fred McDowell, who died in 1972, performs at the University of Chicago Folk Festival in this undated photograph provided by the U of C Folklore Society.

One of those is Kate Early, a past co-president of the club when she was a student in the 1980s who has stayed involved.

“What we’re doing was not uncommon in 1961, but it is uncommon now,” said Early, who attended her first U of C folk festival in 1980. “We try to get as close to the root and bone as we can get. It’s not easy, and it’s gotten harder over time, because mass media is everywhere and people are influenced by radio, TV, videos.

“But ideally, we want (to book) people who are intimately connected with their tradition, either through their own family history or because they’ve attached themselves to a master.”

And over the years, the list of performers at the event includes plenty of those masters. Legendary performers such as blues icons Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and Bill Monroe, the “father of bluegrass music” are among those who have appeared.

A second-generation band that spread Chicago-style blues throughout the world may have been born at the U of C events.

“Paul Butterfield came up in the milieu of the festival,” Cramer said. “He was friends with one of the organizers of the initial one. Elvin Bishop as well. The Butterfield Blues Band kind of formed around the festival.”

It’s an event that’s generated its own set of folklore, hearkening back to the society’s origins in the early 1950s as a group more devoted to the art of storytelling.

“As the folk music revival of the 1960s kicked in, the entire orientation of the club shifted gears to the festival,” Cramer said.

A ticket from the first University of Chicago Folk Festival shows a lineup of performers who now could constitute a hall of fame of Americana music.

Judging by the lineup at the first festival, their efforts paid off. The performers would qualify as a hall of fame these days, with the list including Willie Dixon, Elizabeth Cotten, Roscoe Holcomb and the Stanley Brothers, among others.

A recording from that first festival constitutes “pretty astonishing stuff,” Early said.

“Studs Terkel was the emcee that night, and made this very dramatic intro, and then the New Lost City Ramblers came out and started wailing away, in an old time kind of way,” she said.

Terkel was involved with the first several years of the festival before he “got a lot busier and the society couldn’t afford his fees,” she said.

But Terkel ended up helping the society out again decades later. When radio station WFMT donated a massive audio archive of Terkel’s radio shows to the Chicago History Museum, it alerted Early to the possibility of retrieving the station’s recordings of the festivals first 35 events.

“There was this medium-sized office with crates,” Early recalled. “Some of the crates contained Chicago Symphony Orchestra (recordings). Some contained Lyric Opera, some contained Old Town School and some contained us. I thought, Holy crap: This is the history of my club in my hands.”

Some of the tapes containing those historic performances were in bad shape, but with the help of donations and grant money, the club has been in the process of restoring and digitizing those historic performances.

Right now, they’re accessible for listening at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, as well as at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. But there are no plans to make the recordings more widely accessible as of now because of copyright concerns, Rommel said, “especially as we move into the streaming era.”

Still, “these are important resources that should probably be available to lots of people,” he said.

The society also has a vast archive of other material as well — programs and posters, “ancient CDs and cassettes” and other material in the basement room they’ve commandeered for their activities, sharing it with the university’s ROTC group. It’s where they sit “shoulder to shoulder” at monthly meetings when they hash out what acts have the folkloric credentials to make it onto the Mandel Hall stage.

It’s also a place where “things are left to be lost,” Rommel said, amid Army boots and other odds and ends, so there’s an ongoing effort to digitize the printed materials, working with the Hyde Park Historical Society and the Regenstein Library.

Members of the University of Chicago Folklore Society work behind the scenes at a previous University of Chicago Folk Festival at the school's Hyde Park campus in this undated photo. This year's festival is Feb. 10 and 11.

Part of that effort resulted in a spreadsheet of every set list from evert musician who performed at the festival over the decades.

“We got an email from a person writing a book about Magic Sam, and wanted to know what Magic Sam’s set list was in 1967,” Rommel said. “So we go through our huge spreadsheet and I told him what songs Magic Sam played.”

The Folk Festival is returning with a live audience for the first time after two years of running a virtual event because of the pandemic. A full day of workshops, including jam sessions, Scandinavian dancing and sea shanty singalongs is set to resume as well on Saturday, before that night’s performances.

It will be the first live event for co-presidents Cramer and Rommel.

So they’ve been trying to get the word out to their fellow students that it would be a good idea for them to be a part of something new and historic at the same time.

“A big problem was they didn’t know it was going on,” Rommel said. “Now we’ve had two virtual festivals in a row, so we’ve really stepped up our design and visual image efforts. We’re trying to be at the table at public events, to get our name out there. We’re hosting jam sessions where everyone is welcome.”

“A lot of the interest comes from the Chicagoland folk community,” agreed Cramer. “We’re trying to reach out to young people and trying to increase that average.”

Early, whose favorite performance at the festival was by Louis Killen delivering a themed set in 1984, said there are about two dozen active members in the Folklore Society, including alumni such as herself. One woman who remembers that first 1961 festival usually tells the story about Dylan’s participation and subsequent snub.

“The kids call us geezers,” Early said. “I like to think of us as the Elders of Folk.

“Strictly speaking, we are not official, but are alum advisors. We provide the glue for the society over time, since few of the kids settle here.”

She said if Bob Dylan wanted to come back for next year’s festival, the society might allow it this time.

“Perhaps,” she said. “Some of his music is sprouting deep roots.”

That could match well now with an event that has some pretty deep roots itself.

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at [email protected].

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