Despite frigid weather, attendance at the 60th Annual University of Chicago Folk Festival reached the best levels in years over the performances over Friday and Saturday nights.
The folk music scene has expanded beyond its ‘50s and ‘60s focus on blues, bluegrass and old-time country to include musical genres that reflect the changing face of the country, including the music of relatively new immigrants.
In the early days of the festival, audiences waited for the legends of the music scene to take the stage – Odetta, Pete Seeger, The Staple Singers, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters. They were surprised and enthralled by the performance of a relatively unknown person or group.
The 60th Annual Folk Festival had its legends and its crowd favorites.
Performing both Friday and Saturday evenings were the quirky and innovative group Bill and the Belles who, in 2016, were listed in Rolling Stone as “Best of the Roaring Twenties,” and Danny Paisley, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2016 vocalist of the year, with his Southern Grass ensemble.
Mariachi Sirenas, an all-woman mariachi band based in Pilsen, and Orquesta Charangueo, a Midwest-based Charanga ensemble that plays the Cuban dance music in the “New York” style, pleased the crowds.
And Saturday, a day of workshops at the festival, The Jimmy Breaux trio, headlined by Breaux, who formerly was accordionist with the Grammy-winning group BeauSoleil, played for the ever-popular Cajun dance in Ida Noyes Hall.
But Friday evening’s performance by Medicine Line, composed of fiddler Jamie Fox of Hayes, Montana, and pianist Scotty Leach of Centralia, Washington, provided the surprise.
After playing a charging, happy reel, Jamie Fox looked out over the crowd and asked, “How many of you have heard of the Metis?” A couple of hands went in the air.
“Metis, means mixed in French,” she said. “Even our own people, we don’t really have an idea. We get stuff from folklorists that tell us what we are. I’ll tell you from my experience.
“I come from the Fort Belknap Reservation. There is a north community and a south community. The north is where a lot more people live. It’s more traditional native culture.
“You go south, it’s more secluded. And that’s the community where everyone is okay with being mixed. A lot of native people were mixed with something, whether it’s another native tribe, whether it’s Scottish, Irish, French, anything.”
Fur traders, farmers and others from Europe migrated into the Great Lakes and Northern Plains areas of the continent, bringing their own musical traditions. Over generations these traditions changed and evolved, becoming now the traditions of the Metis communities.
Metis fiddling includes playing a lot of “crooked” tunes, Fox explained, which are tunes where the number of beats deviates, during the playing of a tune, from the standard number for the tune. A beat is added, or a beat is dropped, now and then.
“A tune that is crooked, it has a life,” said Fox. Fox then explained the origin of the term “moccasin dance.”
“The town I grew up in, there was a big dance hall,” said Fox. “It had two floors. On the first floor they would always have a pow-wow. With everyone in regalia.
“And then on the top floor, it was the Metis people. The people who were really mixed. They would go upstairs and have a fiddle dance. But obviously it’s a community and everyone is involved.
“So, some of the times one of the men, mainly men in regalia, would go up to the second floor and they would do like a jig or a step dance, in their regalia [including moccasins].
“It’s funny how people ask me ‘Is that really traditional?” said Fox.
“Cultures change, and evolve, so, I don’t know if it’s traditional or not, but it was a good laugh. And that’s really important in native cultures, to find the healing around things.”
Bending into her bow, Fox started playing the “moccasin dance.” Leach picked it up and drove it forward with his piano. Using their feet, they tapped out the tune, periodically looking at each other, Fox directing, Leach following and pushing.
It was a surprising glimpse into a culture that I hadn’t known.