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Behind the Music

Backstage At the U. of C. Folk Festival

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For 41 years--since before the folk revival of the 60s, since before the Old Town School, since before Bob Dylan made a record--the University of Chicago Folklore Society has brought together legendary and unknown harpsichord pluckers, hog callers, step dancers, shape-note singers, and other practitioners of traditional song and dance under the banner of its annual Folk Festival.

The weekend of the festival is almost always one of the winter's coldest--an easy beginning for stories carried home by acts visiting from the south. But the warm hospitality offered by the student, faculty, and neighborhood hosts is legendary. There's no money for hotels, so the performers are housed and fed by volunteers--often musically inclined sorts who relish the chance to jam with the masters. Saturday night one lucky (and stalwart) band is invited to play the annual party, a dance that spins off more jam sessions, which often last till dawn.

Since 1967, my second year at the college and the year I first picked up a camera, I've been recording not just the scene onstage at Mandel Hall but also what goes on offstage, at the workshops and parties where it becomes evident that music is just the tip of the cultural iceberg. Sometimes the view widens: In 1969, several members of the Balfa Brothers Band, Cajuns from near Mamou, Louisiana, bunked at the apartment I shared with my girlfriend, who'd go on to work for the Smithsonian and earn her doctorate in folklore. When the Balfas invited us to come down for Mardi Gras, a month or so later, no fewer than 12 students piled into a drive-away van and had the time of our young lives: sleeping on the floor of Rodney and Anna Balfa's shotgun house, following the Courir de Mardi Gras as it wound from farm to farm around Mamou, partaking in a communal gumbo dinner and nap in the town square, and dancing all night in Cajun and zydeco bars from Mamou to Lafayette.

We went for the music and came away having witnessed a whole life: Rodney was a bricklayer, raising chickens and a garden for food, living close to the land and near his brothers, playing wonderful tunes for his neighbors to dance to almost every Saturday night. It was a long way from cold Hyde Park to the warm fields of Louisiana, but a short trip across the bridge we built at the Folk Festival.

The lineup for the 42nd annual Folk Festival features groups from Quebec, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, as well as Chicago-based performers playing Mexican, Irish, and Serbo-Croatian music. Each night's show is kicked off by Highland piper Bruce Quintos of the Chicago Police Department's Emerald Society bagpipe and drum corps. The concerts take place Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 7:30 PM, and Sunday at 6 PM at Mandel Hall, at 57th and University; tickets run $13-$18 for adults or $7 for students, teenagers, and children. A three-day pass is available for $40. Free workshops, jam sessions, and dances are held Saturday and Sunday from 10 AM to 5 PM at Ida Noyes Hall, 59th and Woodlawn. Get more information at 773-702-9793 or www.uofcfolk.org; buy tickets at 773-702-7300.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.

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