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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

UChicago Folk Fest Returns Fully In Person This Weekend For 1st Time During Pandemic

Folk artists rooted in traditions from Bulgaria to the Midwest will perform Friday and Saturday evening.

Geraldine Gay and Gregory Donald Gay perform at the 2007 University of Chicago Folk Festival. That year's festival drew few visitors as it coincided with the Super Bowl, so organizers invited attendees onstage for a more intimate performance.
Paul Watkins
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HYDE PARK — Folk artists will gather in Hyde Park this weekend to perform and pass on the musical and cultural traditions of Bulgaria, Mexico, the Smoky Mountains and beyond.

The University of Chicago Folk Festival features two concerts Friday and Saturday on UChicago’s campus. Seven ensembles and solo musicians will perform 10 sets at the festival, which is organized by the university’s Folklore Society.

Both concerts take place at Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St. General admission tickets are $30. Tickets for older people are $20, and student tickets are $5 with school ID.

To buy tickets, click here. The livestream for Friday’s concert is here, while the livestream for Saturday’s concert is here.

Friday’s concert starts at 8 p.m. The lineup:

  • Balfa Toujours, a traditional Cajun band founded by Christine Balfa, the daughter of late fiddler Dewey Balfa. The five-piece band will play traditional songs from Louisiana and original tunes.
  • Donka and Nikolay Kolev, a husband-and-wife duo who have performed songs from their native Bulgaria across the United States and Europe. Donka sings while Nikolay plays the gadulka, a bowed string instrument.
  • Juan Rivera, a fiddler in the Pilsen-based Sones de México Ensemble and teacher of Mexican music in Chicago Public Schools. Jarana jarocha player Carlos Garcia and huapanguera player Esteban Martinez will join.
  • Fiddler Henry Barnes and country musician Conner Vlietstra. Barnes is an Ohio native who draws from the traditions of his home state, West Virginia and Kentucky. Vlietstra is an Eastern Tennessee State University student studying bluegrass, old-time and roots music.
  • Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, a bluegrass band from eastern Tennessee that was named Emerging Artist of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Awards in 2018.

Saturday’s performances start at 7:30 p.m. The lineup:

  • Henry Barnes & Conner Vlietstra.
  • Tim Britton, John Williams and Katie Grennan, a trio of traditional Irish musicians. Britton plays the Uillean pipes and wooden flute, among other instruments; Williams’ talents include the accordion and bodhrán drum; and Grennan is a fiddler and instructor at the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance in Lakeview.
  • Po’ Ramblin’ Boys.
  • Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a multi-instrumentalist and acoustic blues musician who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in New York City. Jazz musicians like Fats Waller and Lonnie Johnson blues musicians like “Blind” Lemon Jefferson and Bessie Smith are among his influences.
  • Balfa Toujours.

“Our performers are all united in having a real passion for historical preservation,” said Nora Schultz, the Folklore Society’s publicist and a third-year UChicago student.

“A common story for our performers is they grew up learning this music from their parents or their grandparents and are trying to carry on past traditions into the present. That’s a common thread, even when we have artists who sound very different.”

Free workshops in dance, quilting, puppetry, storytelling and other folk traditions are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday at Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St. Some workshops will be livestreamed on the Folklore Society’s YouTube channel.

This year’s festival is the first time the workshops have been held in person since the start of the pandemic. The workshops are largely run by local folk artists, giving Chicagoans an opportunity to explore interests among likeminded neighbors, Schultz said.

Local musicians Kathy Whisler and John Wohlers will lead a sea shanty workshop 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday. The genre became a social media sensation in the first year of the pandemic, and though its popularity has relatively waned, Schultz said she’s especially excited for her first chance to sing shanties “in a big group.”

“Part of the spirit of the Folklore Society is to encourage some of that fad interest, but to preserve it as well,” Schultz said. “Things like sea shanties go viral on TikTok, but we’re sort of there to keep that tradition going when [the mainstream] sort of gets bored of it.”

Legendary author and historian Studs Terkel was emcee for the inaugural festival in 1961, while Ken Burns’ documentary series “Country Music” profiled numerous artists who performed in the festival’s early years.

For more information, visit the festival’s website.

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