Honoring 60 years of traditions of Folk Festival

Mark Guarino discusses the origins of the U. of C. Folk Festival during a presentation at the Hyde Park Historical Society. 

“Folk music at the time was still kind of underground music,” said journalist, author and panelist Mark Guarino as he recounted the early history of the University of Chicago Folk Festival during a celebration of the Fest’s 60th year at the Hyde Park Historical Society, 5529 S. Lake Park Ave., on Feb. 1.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, folk music was popularized through the performances of a relatively small group of musicians, most notably Woodie Guthrie, The Weavers, Lead Belly, and Cisco Houston, who played big-city coffee houses, union rallies and folk dances, and through the field recordings of folklorists who had travelled and recorded traditional folk music throughout the rural south in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

By the late ‘50s, the popular folk music scene had been driven underground by the Red Scare, and the traditional musicians, who had been recorded earlier, “kind of went back to their lives … and faded into obscurity,” said Guarino.

In 1958, Mike Fleisher, who had served as a disk jockey in the Navy during the Korean War and who had been introduced to folk music in Chicago during a Henry Wallace rally as a kid, entered the University of Chicago as an older student. Within a couple of years, he had helped organize a concert on campus for the New Lost City Ramblers.

“He [Fleisher] by all accounts was a pretty eccentric guy,’ said Guarino, and “he was passionate about the music.”

In February 1961, Fleisher and other University of Chicago students produced the first University of Chicago Folk Festival. It was emceed by Studs Terkel.

Finding and getting musicians to come to the festival was no small task; it took “college kids” getting in their cars and driving down to the south to find them, said Guarino.

Panelist and former Lab School teacher Bob Kass was one of those “kids” who, as president of the University of Chicago Folklore Society in 1962, was the key organizer of the third Festival in 1963.

“In the summer of ‘62, there were musicians that I wanted to contact,” said Kass, “but I had no way of knowing how to do it.

“My dad was very kind to let me use his car (I don’t even know how he got to work) and I drove, and, actually on part of this trip Elvin Bishop was with me (Bishop was a guitarist with the Paul Butterfield Band and a future inductee into the Blues and Rock & Roll Halls of Fame), he was headed home to Tulsa, and I drove to Arkansas.

“I showed up at Jimmy Driftwood’s home. (Driftwood was the writer of ‘The Battle of New Orleans, which had won the 1960 Grammy for ‘Song of the Year,’ and the country standard ‘Tennessee Stud’), and I don’t know how I got that info (Driftwood’s address).

Watch a video of Jimmy Driftwood playing his homemade guitar here.

“I was interested in finding Almeda Riddle whom I had heard had been recorded.

She was very cool and would bring another kind of music, another type of music (acapella) to the program.

“Jimmy Driftwood told me how I could find her; it was not in the same town; it was further west.

“I showed up at her home; her granddaughters were there, teenagers I think. She wasn’t home.

“When she came back, I asked her if she would come to the Festival.

“She said she would, but only if Jimmy Driftwood would come. She wasn’t going to come alone. She wasn’t, you know, she was not a young lady. And so, she came.”

As Kass finished this story he played a recording of Riddle at the 1963 Festival. In 1983, Riddle was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Listen to Almeda Riddle singing “My Little Rooster” (not at the Festival) here.

Although a smaller festival than it once was,

For the last several years, the festival has spanned two days, not the three it originally was, but the programming still presents a wide and evolving range of folk traditions. This year, recognizing the contributions of recent immigrants to the United States and of indigenous peoples, the Festival will, among other performances, present Mariachi Sirenas, an all-women Mariachi band; Orquesta Charangueo, an Afro-Cuban band; and Medicine Line, a Metis fiddle group.

Listen to Jamie Fox of Medicine Line discuss the origins of Métis fiddling and play some tunes here.

More information about the 60th University of Chicago Folk Festival can be found at http://www.uofcfolk.org/

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