And the bands played on


This past Saturday, the second day of the U of C Folk Fest ended the same way it began: with skirts whirling and heels kicked high. Closing out a four-hour concert that sold out Mandel Hall and included performances by bands in five distinct styles—bluegrass, Irish traditional music, blues harmonica, old-time banjo, and Cajun—the Lafayette Rhythm Devils invited audience members to grab a partner and get out of their seats. “Pretty much all Cajun music is dance music,” admonished accordionist Yvette Landry as she led the band into another rollicking number. Two by two, listeners took to the aisles and the open space at the back of the hall. Some ascended to the stage and danced along its edges. Festival volunteers came spinning out from the wings, two-stepping and waltzing as the Rhythm Devils played song after song, until it was well past 11 p.m.

More than 12 hours earlier, the festival’s daytime schedule had kicked off at Ida Noyes with a Scandinavian dance lesson and a waltz workshop. The Rhythm Devils were on hand in the early afternoon to lead a 90-minute Cajun dance session in the Cloister Club. Leaving shoes by the door, participants also turned up to learn English country dance, Irish Céilidh dance, Balkan dance, and clogging and flatfooting. Meanwhile, button accordionist Pat Cloonan and tinwhistle player Kevin Henry led an hour-long Irish session that filled the Ida Noyes library with listeners and players, and multi-instrumentalist Gary Plazyk taught a workshop on the hurdy gurdy, a hand-cranked stringed instrument invented in medieval Europe. Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice, a band from Virginia and North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains who gave the opening performance at Saturday night’s concert, took listeners through a few bluegrass fundamentals.

Sometimes, though, the biggest commotion was caused by the impromptu jam sessions that sprang up in hallways, staircases, empty rooms, or any out-of-the-way spot. Folk Fest participants who brought their banjos, guitars, fiddles, and mandolins met up between workshops—or during them—to play a few bluegrass or Irish tunes.

Organizers of this year’s Folk Fest, the University’s 48th annual, dedicated the weekend-long event to late Chicago psychology professor Starkey Duncan, PhD'65, who served as the festival’s faculty adviser for 40 years, until his April 2007 death. At Saturday night’s concert, mathematics grad student Edward Wallace, copresident of the campus Folklore Society (which organizes the Folk Fest), told the audience that Duncan’s influence still guided the event’s volunteers. "We miss him very much.”


Photo: Every Folk Fest features plenty of dance lessons and jam sessions. Images from the 2007 festival by Dan Dry.

February 15, 2008