Meet the folks

It’s Saturday afternoon, and famed fiddlers like the New Mules and Liz Carroll are sitting on stools in a half circle, sharing stories and songs with several dozen of their closest friends. The atmosphere at Ida Noyes Hall feels that friendly, anyway, which is what brings people back year after year to the University of Chicago Folk Festival, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this past weekend.

“The cool thing about the University of Chicago Folk Festival is that it’s very intimate,” says Paul Lucas, a software technician on weekdays and a folk enthusiast the rest of the time. The musicians are “very accessible,” Lucas says. "They’re very generous with their time and sharing their musical knowledge and ability. All festivals try to do that, but because of either location or because of sheer size—there was a good number of folks [this year] but it wasn’t overwhelming—it just seemed like a more intimate venue to have a folk festival.”

In addition to concerts Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening, this year’s festival featured 34 daytime workshops Saturday and Sunday, ranging from Scandinavian dance to 19th-century parlor music to the history of the hurdy gurdy. Lucas held a workshop on Piedmont-guitar stylings, featuring a wide-reaching history of the genre paired with some hands-on instruction in the art of Travis picking. The Piedmont blues, coming out of the Washington, DC, area, is characterized by finger picking and an alternating bassline, creating a jazzy, ragtime feel that's more upbeat than some of its folk counterparts.

Lucas, a Highland Park resident who has founded three folk-music Web sites, has a simple mission: help other people enjoy the Piedmont style as much as he does. He spoke to a group of a few dozen on Etta Baker, the first female Piedmont guitarist ever recorded, and hopes that festivals like the University’s will help continue the Piedmont tradition that started in the ’20s and ’30s, as well as “inspire someone to pick up Piedmont and bring it in a new direction and take that to a new audience.”

He’s not selfish about drawing attention to his preferred niche of folk music. The festival organizers "try to give you a wide block of music from Americana. They’ve got old-time, bluegrass, country blues, Cajun; the only thing they’re missing is maybe jazz from the ’20s and ’30s and maybe gospel.”

Jake Grubman, ’11

Photo by Lloyd Lee, ’11



February 19, 2010