For 30 years Jenny Armstrong's father, George, had marched onto the stage in Mandel Hall playing the bagpipes to open the University of Chicago's Folk Festival. But six years ago his Alzheimer's had gotten so bad that he could remember only one tune. "He fell on Saturday night trying to march up onto the stage," says Armstrong. "It was devastating." Her mother helped him up. Armstrong picked up the bagpipes and asked him if he wanted her to finish the tune. "He wasn't ready to turn it over. "No. I will finish.' He didn't want to finish that piece as having fallen, but to end it on his feet." Then she laughs. "Victorious--yes! I'm glad he did it."
She piped to open the festival the next evening--there are always three nights of performances. "So really on the 30th year he passed it on to me." He encouraged her, and only much later did she discover that he'd been grief-stricken that he couldn't play at the festival again. "Even though he grieved for what he was losing, he could still have the strength to say, "Good for you. I'm glad you're doing this. Go on."'
The bagpipes had been primarily her father's instrument. He and his wife, Gerry, were folk musicians, and they often performed with their two daughters. Armstrong, who frequently does one-woman shows, is known primarily for her singing and songwriting and for playing the fiddle and banjo. But she's played her father's pipes at the festival every year since he fell.
After he died two years ago at the age of 65, she wasn't sure she would continue the tradition. "Talk about a heavy legacy. This passing on of the vision is one thing. But I wasn't taking on a 30-year contract," she adds with a laugh.
Yet she found herself practicing the difficult instrument more, and when the university called to ask if she'd play at this year's festival she agreed. Finally, she said, "I was taking hold of the pipes for myself."
Armstrong opens the festival at 8:15 PM Friday, February 2; 7:30 Saturday, February 3; and 6:15 Sunday, February 4. Mandel Hall is at 1135 E. 57th. Tickets are $14, $7 for children and students; call 702-7300. Armstrong will also give a singing workshop Sunday at 10:30 AM with her two teenage daughters, Suzannah and Georgia Rose, Ginny Hawker, Tracy Schwarz, David Morris, Karen Casey, and Kristi Guillory. Armstrong and her mother will give a second workshop at 11:30 the same morning. Daytime workshops, which are free, are in Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th; call 702-9793.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Kathy Richland.