It’s a little bit bluegrass and Celtic, with a touch of country and Cajun and a pinch of contemporary, and it’s all about telling the stories of everyday people. Jon McGinty looks at the roots of American folk music and our local folk music festivals.
Do you prefer music you listen to with your ears over music you feel pounding on your chest? Can you really get into a song in which the words still count, one that tugs at your memories? Do you enjoy acoustic guitar licks, harmonica wails or foot-stomping fiddle music that makes you want to get up and dance or sing along?
If any of that strikes a chord with you, you’re probably already a fan of folk music, whether you realize it or not.
What is Folk Music?
This worldwide genre encompasses Celtic to bluegrass, country to Cajun, traditional to contemporary.
“It’s music that occurs from the bottom up, instead of the top down,” says Joe Jencks, 40, a Rockford native and folk singer/songwriter who performs throughout the country, either solo or as part of the trio Brother Sun. “Traditional folk music arises organically out of communities, then finds a voice in the larger culture. It speaks to peoples’ needs. Pop music, on the other hand, is a top-down process. It’s contrived somewhere, then put out there to be consumed by a mass audience.”
Contemporary folk music arose in the U.S. in the 1930s and ’40s, during a revival of traditional songs by musicians like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. In addition to renewing and recording traditional music, they also composed their own songs, commemorating events, telling stories or celebrating the struggles of common folks. Guthrie’s songs about the Great Depression earned him the nickname, “the Dustbowl Balladeer.”
Seeger joined with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman in 1947 to form The Weavers, which performed and popularized both traditional and contemporary folk songs, especially political protest songs. Their politics led to their first break-up in 1952 during the McCarthy era.
The folk music revival peaked in the mid-1960s, with such recording artists as Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul & Mary. TV shows like the “Smothers Brothers” and “Hootenanny” also popularized the music and the performers.
Today, the tradition continues with modern singer/songwriters who recall the old songs and add their new interpretations and creations to the mix.
Luckily for residents in this part of the country, venues, festivals and networks still exist in abundance to offer live music performances and opportunities to participate in this musical heritage.
You Don’t Have to Be Bob Dylan
“I gave a report on Bob Dylan when I was in high school,” recalls Mark Dvorak, 50, a folk singer/songwriter from Riverside. “It led me back to the roots of traditional music. I soon got a guitar and started to teach myself how to play.”
A turning point for Dvorak occurred when he signed up for guitar lessons at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music (OTSFM) in the early 1980s.
“I found the school when we were both growing,” says Dvorak. “That experience convinced me you didn’t have to be another Bob Dylan to have music in your life. I thought maybe I could get good enough to come back there some day and teach.” And he was hired to do just that, in 1986.
In the 1990s, Dvorak made connections with some folk music icons, deepening his appreciation for the historical roots of his craft. One summer he visited the grave of Lead Belly, the famous folk/blues musician and 12-string guitar instrumentalist of the 1930s and ’40s, in Morningsport, La. At the concert commemorating the 40th anniversary of Sing Out! Magazine in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall in 1991, Dvorak joined Pete Seeger on stage, and later met Win Stracke, co-founder of the OTSFM.
“Stracke was the most impressive man I ever met,” says Dvorak. “He knew Woody Guthrie, all the folk music pioneers. He had the vision of what Old Town School could be – a musical patchwork quilt of united nations – and pulled people together to make it happen.”
In 1998, Dvorak joined fellow folk musicians Tom Dundee and husband and wife Michael Smith and Barbara Barrow Smith, to produce Weavermania, a performance group which resurrected the music of The Weavers. After Dundee’s untimely death in 2006, Chris Walz joined the quartet, which still performs locally.
All About the Story
In any good folk concert, the stories told between the songs are as interesting and important as the music, especially when the performer is as grounded in the history of his craft as Dvorak.
“Originally, it was my way of calming my nervousness,” says Dvorak. “Now I try to look for things that have roots – a personal story or a traditional idea. Everybody’s music comes out of their direct experience. I tell stories about my mentors, like Win Stracke or Big Bill Broonzy. Even if I don’t play any of their songs that night, those people are still with me. I feel like my music has become a representative of a piece of Chicago.
“Songs have become the way I tell the world who I am and what I’m thinking. That’s how folk singers get through the world – we write about it, we sing about it. In the theater, the actor puts on the mask of a character. In our music, we take the mask off.”
Joe Jencks grew up in Rockford, and announced his intention to become a folk singer at the ripe old age of 10.
“My mom thought it was cute, but my dad was a bit more skeptical,” recalls Jencks. “Yet he never missed a show I was in until he died.” Jencks went on to pursue music in college. His early mentors and inspiration included feminist and singer/songwriter Holly Near and folk artist John McCutcheon.
“The stories roped me in,” says Jencks. “Their songs told me about a bigger world, filled with people who struggled as immigrant workers, civil rights activists, revolutionaries, reformers.”
Jencks also became aware of music as a powerful tool for transformation.
“I see it happen almost every night on stage,” he says. “I watch people walk into a concert hall with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Then, in response to an idea, a sound, harmonies, a voice – maybe a good joke or story between songs – I watch it lift. They sit a bit straighter, notice their neighbors and come into the present moment. Any time our awareness is transferred from all the things we are constantly thinking about into the present moment, it has the potential to be transformed …We all then go back into the world with a little bit more to give.”
Both Jencks and Dvorak acknowledge the dynamic nature of the folk tradition.
“Some songs get into circulation that seem not quite finished,” says Jencks, “but that’s part of the folk process. If I manage to write a song that’s timely enough, that speaks to peoples’ experiences, then somebody else might pick up that song and carry forward its essential parts, even if they change some of the words.”
“We’re all looking to participate in our own music again,” Dvorak reminds us, “to find out what it means to sing and play together. What a concept!”
Woodstock Folk Festival
The Woodstock Folk Festival will be held on Sunday, July 15, on the historic Town Square in Woodstock, as it has been for the past 26 years.
That Square is the same location made famous in the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray. The first festival was organized by Melody Ladd and Amy Beth, a local folk musician and instructor.
“They wanted to bring the Mast House idea to the town square,” recalls Beth’s husband, Ray, who is now treasurer of the Festival Board.
The Mast House is a private home in Woodstock, filled with antiques, musical instruments and mementos from the owners’ world travels. The owners hosted a monthly sing-along/open stage for several decades, closing in 2010. Amy Beth was involved with the festival until 2002, when she left to pursue other musical interests. The festival incorporated in 1992, and a small festival board now organizes the event each year.
“About 10 years ago, we decided we wanted to do something to honor the performers,” says Beth, “so we instituted the Lifetime Achievement Award, which we give out each year at the festival.” Past recipients include Holly Near, Jim Post and Michael Smith. This year the award goes to Tom Paxton, who wrote such memorable songs as “The Last Thing on My Mind” and “Ramblin’ Boy.”
For the past two years, the festival board has collaborated with the Woodstock Opera House, which brings in the festival headliner for a concert the evening before, as will be true this year with Paxton.
“It helps us afford more expensive musicians,” says Beth. “Since we have no major sponsors, the festival is paid for by contributions from the year before, as well as a spring fundraiser and selling ads in a flyer we distribute.”
Main Stage performances take place outdoors on Woodstock Square. In addition to Paxton, other Main Stage artists this year include R.J. Cowdery, Tim Grimm, Anne Hills, Joe Jencks, Small Potatoes, Kate MacLeod and Kat Eggleston. The Open Mike Stage will be indoors at the Stage Left Café, adjacent to the Opera House. The featured performer there will be the Georgia Rae Family Band, a mom and three amazing daughters. Stage Left is also the location for a ukulele workshop led by Lil’ Rev.
The Main Stage will be co-hosted by Chuck VanderVennet, a local attorney and folk music fan, and Rich Warren, host of WFMT’s “Folkstage” and “The Midnight Special,” two venerable music broadcasts heard throughout Chicagoland and the nation. Warren will feature performers Kate MacLeod and Kat Eggleston on “Folkstage” the night before the festival [8 p.m./CDT, WFMT/98.7 FM].
And about that movie …
“We still have a Groundhog Day celebration every February,” says Beth. “People show up early in the morning, just to watch us pull a groundhog out of a tree stump. Been doing it for 15 years.” To learn more, contact woodstockfolkfestival.com.
Fox Valley Folk Music & Storytelling Festival
One of the oldest and largest folk music festivals in the state is held in Geneva each year, over Labor Day weekend. The Fox Valley Folk Music & Storytelling Festival takes place on a 13-acre island in the middle of the Fox River. It consists of two full days of continuous folk music, storytelling and folk dancing on eight stages, with more than 30 featured acts, plus a hands-on workshop for adults and children.
“It’s probably the only festival in the area where you can experience this mix of music and other activities – over 100 hours of presentations – in a totally family-friendly atmosphere in a beautiful park,” says Juel Ulven, President of the Fox Valley Folklore Society (FVFS). Ulven was associate editor of Come for to Sing folk music magazine from 1975 to 1990, and one of the founders of the North American Folk Music Alliance that formed in 1988.
Since 1975, the FVFS has produced about 100 events each year, including barn dances, music concerts, storytelling and the annual festival, which began in 1977. Members meet every Wednesday evening in North Aurora for sing-arounds and occasional business meetings. With a mailing list of about 1,800 people, the Society garners nearly 150 experienced volunteers from a dozen states each year to run the festival, which has no paid staff for production, including Ulven. Daily attendance is estimated to be more than 4,500. FVFS pays festival expenses with the nearly $40,000 it raises each year from individuals and businesses.
“Lots of other festivals have come and gone, because they followed the latest singer/songwriter or brought in a ‘big name’ to try to draw an audience,” says Ulven. “We try to maintain a combination of traditional musicians and contemporary singer/songwriters that have good ties to identifiable roots traditions. Their performances usually center around story songs, or songs that teach lessons on surviving the transitions in our lives.
“We also have a very fair fee structure. All artists make the same money here, based on the size of their group and the number of workshops or performances they do. Many performers schedule their national or international tours just to include our festival.”
The only permanent structure on the island is a pavilion, used during the festival for instructional workshops in which folks can see unusual instruments, learn performing styles, ask questions or try out the instruments. The other stages are held in open-walled tents, since the festival takes place rain or shine. All stages are within easy walking distance of each other, and listeners are free to roam from one venue to another. The partly wooded island is a city park, and the beautiful setting encourages jam sessions and lots of socializing among performers and attendees.
Warren, from WFMT’s “Midnight Special” show, also participates in the Fox Valley event.
“For the past dozen years, Rich has featured live performances by artists from the festival on his radio show in the studio during the same weekend,” says Ulven. “Now we have a live feed from the local Unitarian Church in Geneva, so Warren can produce a live broadcast from the festival itself on Saturday night, 7 to 9 p.m., WFMT, 98.7. The show is also streamed online at http://midnightspecial.org/.”
This year’s performers include fine folk musicians such as Brian Bowers, Lou and Peter Berryman, Cindy Mangsen and Steve Gillette, Lee Murdock, Mark Dvorak and Joel Mabus. To learn more, call (630) 897-3655 or visit foxvalleyfolk.com.
Residents in our region are fortunate to have many good opportunities available to enjoy folk music and participate in its rich heritage.
Old Town School of Folk Music
Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music (OTSFM) was founded in 1957 by musicians Win Stracke and Frank Hamilton. During its 55-year history, the world-renowned institution has become a symbol of the Windy City’s musical heritage.
“Chicago has a great claim to call itself ‘Music City USA’,” says executive director Bau Graves. “This is the town where Louis Armstrong became famous, where Thomas A. Dorsey met Mahalia Jackson and invented gospel music, where [radio station] WLS broadcast the National Barn Dance and put country music on the map, and where McKinley Morganfield plugged his guitar into an amp and renamed himself Muddy Waters. And no place in town quite embodies this heritage as well as the Old Town School of Folk Music.”
The School has always been a place of musical instruction and performance, but with a focus on participation at all skill levels. Bob Gibson, John Prine, Jim Post, Bonnie Koloc and Steve Goodman all studied there in the 1960s.
In 1968, the organization moved from its North Avenue location in Old Town to the Lincoln Park neighborhood on Armitage Avenue. It expanded into a second location in 1998, the long-abandoned Hild Library in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, an art deco building that eventually included a two-story, 400-seat performance hall.
When Graves became executive director in 2007, the OTSFM embarked on a major development campaign that resulted in a new facility across the street, which opened this January. Old Town School-East adds 16 classrooms, three dance studios and a 150-seat performance space to the mix.
Among its three facilities, OTSFM serves about 7,500 students weekly, with nearly 800 class offerings. Each year, about 17,000 individuals take at least one eight-week session, including private instruction on 27 different instruments – everything from claw-hammer banjo to Irish tin whistle.
“We also provide musical instruction for infants and toddlers and their parents through a program we call Wiggleworms,” says Graves. “Our philosophy is that music is for everyone. We give people the tools to make their own music – young or old, beginner or advanced.”
OTSFM has presented such folk music icons as Pete Seeger, Josh White, Fred Holstein, Odetta, Joan Baez and Holly Near.
“We’ll produce about 350 events this year alone,” says Graves. “We’re also changing our annual Folk and Roots Festival this summer, moving it from Welles Park to the street out front [4500 block of Lincoln Avenue], which will be blocked off. We will have two outdoor stages, two inside and a microbrewery tent in the parking lot. We’re also renaming it the Square Roots Festival, and it will take place from July 20 through July 22.”
The exterior of the new Lincoln Avenue building is highlighted with three concrete panels by Chicago artist Margaret Derwent Ketcham that depict the word “music” in 28 languages.
“It’s a reminder that people from various cultures and traditions can come together here to create music and learn from each other,” says Graves. “That was a part of Win Stracke’s vision.”
Where to Find Folk Music
Summer 2012 Festivals
DeKalb Folk Music Fest – June 16
Historic Gurler House – 205 Pine St., DeKalb Ill.
Contact: Joe Pourroy (815) 753-8473 or gurlerhouse.org
Bring your chairs and blankets for an afternoon of music and Chicago-style hot dogs. The first round of performances starts at noon. A half & half raffle benefits the Gurler Heritage association.
Blaine Folk Fest – Sunday, June 24
Blaine Methodist Church – 7200 Blaine Road, Poplar Grove, Ill.
Contact: Ben Doetch at (815) 222-9161 or the church at (815) 765-0367
Now in its 33rd year, this festival begins with an Old Time Revival Service at 9 a.m., followed by outdoor open-mic stage performances from noon to 6 p.m. Home-cooked food, handcrafted items sold. Bring lawn chairs.
Woodstock Folk Festival – Sunday, July 15
Historic Woodstock Town Square – Contact: woodstockfolkmusic.com
Held here since 1986, in the same location as the 1993 film Groundhog Day! Performances from 12:30 to 6 p.m. by Anne Hills, Joe Jencks, Kat Eggleston, Small Potatoes and Tom Paxton, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement award. Paxton also performs at the Woodstock Opera House the night before the festival.
Willow Folk Festival – Aug. 10 to 12
Willow United Methodist Church – 6522 S. Willow Road, Stockton, Ill.
Three days of camping, food and music on the church grounds, about 20 miles west of Freeport. The campground is a cow pasture across the road. Open mic, outdoor stage on Saturday and Sunday.
Two Rivers Bluegrass Festival – Aug. 22 to 25
Northern Illinois Coon & Fox Club – Harrison, Ill.
Contact Vivian Gaines at [email protected]
Four days of camping, food and music – all kinds, not just bluegrass. Open mic stage under lots of trees between the Sugar and Pecatonica rivers. Good comfort food made and sold on the grounds. Bring chairs.
Fox Valley Folk Music & Storytelling Festival
– Sept. 2 & 3
Island Park in Geneva, Ill.
Contact: (630) 897-3655 or foxvalleyfolk.com
Illinois’ largest folk festival, held every Labor Day weekend since 1977, takes place on a 13-acre island in the middle of the Fox River. It consists of two days of continuous music on eight stages, with more than 30 featured acts, plus hands-on workshops, folk dancing and storytelling. Food available, but bring your own chairs.
Here’s a short list of spots to hear good folk music, with brief descriptions of what you will find when you get there. Best Bet: call ahead or visit websites to confirm prices, dates and times.
Unity Spiritual Center – 225 W. Calhoun St., Woodstock, Ill.
(815) 337-3534 or unitywoodstock.org
Friends of the nearby Mast House sponsor an open mic night each first Saturday of the month in this revitalized church, and showcase one featured performer. A Wednesday afternoon jam group includes musicians, singers and folk fans.
Stage Left Café – 125 W. Van Buren St., Woodstock, Ill.
(815) 338-4212, woodstockoperahouse.com or offsquaremusic.org
Off-Square Music sponsors open-mic nights on second and fourth Fridays in this cozy café inside the Woodstock Opera House. A featured artist performs midway through the evening.
Two Way Street Coffeehouse – 1047 Curtiss St., Downers Grove, Ill.
(630) 969-9720 or twowaystreet.org
Located in the First Congregational Church building, this is the home of the Plank Road Folk Music Society, which has produced live entertainment since 1970. Scheduled performances are every Friday night, informal singarounds are first and third Saturday afternoons, and there’s a Bluegrass Jam on fourth Saturdays.
One Eleven Main – 111 Main St., Galena, Ill.
(815) 777-8030 or oneelevenmain.com
Local folk music icon Jim Post still tours the Midwest and can be seen regularly in Galena at One Eleven Main restaurant. He performs his “Mark Twain and the Laughing River” show Thursdays through Sundays during the summer, starting in late May.
Café Carpe – 18 S. Water St., Ft. Atkinson, Wis.
(920) 563-9391 or cafecarpe.com
This is a favorite stop on the Midwest show circuit, thanks to attentive audiences, great food and an excellent performance room that seats about 60, cabaret-style.
“We have a nice stage with good lighting, a really good sound system and a minimum of distractions,” says Bill Camplin, co-owner and operator with wife Kitty Welch. The funky bar/restaurant in front serves sandwiches, but Chicago-style pizza is the house specialty on Fridays, as is jambalaya on Saturdays. Because the performance room is intimate, some artists don’t use the sound system at all, and move around the room.
“We tend to book people who have one foot in the folk music world, and the other in their own personal stories,” says Camplin.
Just Goods Listening Room – 201 7th St., Rockford
(815) 965-8903 or justgoods.org
This intimate listening room is sandwiched between two storefronts filled with fair trade merchandise from all over the world. The proprietors host a weekly Friday night concert, mostly featuring area musicians, although touring artists drop in occasionally. There’s no cover charge, but donations are gratefully accepted. Performance bookings are made by local folk artist Ron Holm. Refreshments include Kate’s Piehole Pies.
Severson Dells – 8786 Montague Road, Rockford
Contact: Don Miller at (815) 335-2915 or seversondells.org
Monthly concerts in a room with seating for about 90, inside a nature center in a 369-acre nature preserve southwest of Rockford.