U. of C. hosts 59th Folk Festival

The Price Sisters perform a bluegrass set Friday at Mandel Hall. (Photo by Spencer Bibbs)

By Marc Meltzer
Contributing Writer

Drawing lovers of folk music from across the city, the 59th annual University of Chicago Folk Festival featured old time, bluegrass, Cajun and other genres Friday and Saturday.

“We have some community members who helped organize the first folk festival who are still involved and they see this as something that’s not only incredibly important to Hyde Park and Chicago culture but important to keeping folk tradition and culture in the United States alive,” explained the university’s Folk Society co-president Isabella Martin.

The event involves a year-long effort, said co-president, Mahathi Ayyagari. “We usually start thinking about next year’s folk festival the week after the current one ends,” she said. Both are students at the university, which helps fund the event.

This year’s festival is the seventh attended by David Durstewitz of the McKinley Park neighborhood. He was attending the free workshops held during the day Saturday.

“The whole environment of musicians coming together and all of the spontaneous sessions that pop up around the building” is very special, he said. He also liked “the overall warmth of what’s going on this space.”

Durstewitz was listening to the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble, which plays the traditional music of East European Jews.

Unfortunately, according to the group’s clarinet player, Kurt Bjorling, the music’s popularity has waned, though he’s been playing it since 1984. “It’s wonderful music,” he said. “But it’s been severely hampered by the fact that so few people play it well….The most common reaction I hear from people is they’re surprised at hearing Klezmer music sounding like good music.”

A big crowd at the workshops gathered to hear the traditional bluegrass group, The Price Sisters, who hail from southeast Ohio. The twin sisters noted that the legendary Bill Monroe was a big influence on them.

“When Bill first started playing (in the 1940s), he was just on fire,” said Lauren Price Napier, who plays mandolin with her group. “Traditional bluegrass is making a big comeback,” she said.

When asked by a member of the audience what the difference is between a violin and fiddle, perhaps the day’s most humorous comment of the day came from Lauren’s husband and fellow band member Scott Napier who replied “The difference between a fiddle and a violin is a violin is a fiddle that hasn’t had beer spilled on it.”

Joan Rothenberg said she was attending the festival because her daughter bought her a ticket as a Christmas present. “We really didn’t know about it. I think we’ll come again,” she said.

Miriam Friedman Parks said she’s been coming off and on for 10 years. “I’m fine with pretty much all of it,’ she said of the variety of music presented. “We live nearby, it’s good music and it’s usually very close to my birthday.”