Fifty Years of Folk
by Peter Zelchenko February 12, 2010

"Chicago should hope that the [University of Chicago] Folk Festival becomes a permanent part of the musical scene." --Chicago Daily News, 1961

The University of Chicago Folk Festival begins today.

In the 1950s, young Midwest urban pioneers -- that's right, our cultural ancestors -- were struggling to make some sense of the poverty that they were often exposed to on our city streets. They could look, they could try to help, but they could not quite touch, could not precisely feel. They accessed the feeling through folk art and music.

Accordingly, I was trying to reach Laroy Inman of Inman and Ira, the rare black performer at the first University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1961, to get an authentic black comment on this problem of alienation. But I couldn't quite touch him, either. I will keep trying.

Folk music was part and parcel, the artistic portion, of that fiery solidarity for plain folk that began with the Progressive Movement and has continued to this day.

I would have contacted Mike Fleischer, impresario of the venerable Flying Fish record label for comment on this, but he died in 2004. Mike was the original head of the University of Chicago Folklore Society and first chair of the festival. He persuaded Studs Terkel to emcee the first show. Mike was a great fixture of the Chicago music scene and he's sorely missed.

In the meantime, I was very happy to chat with J. Seymour Guenther, who is now in Austin Texas. Seymour came into folk as a student at U of C, and ended up working with Mike Fleischer at Flying Fish.

"That would have been about '85. I was head of the [folk festival] committee, a student at U of C. Mike wasn't there when I got involved in it. Bruce Kaplan (head of Flying Fish) remained involved in the festival. Meeting him through the festival, I then went on to work for him. Then Mike moved back to Chicago from Florida a couple of years after, got involved again both in the festival and Flying Fish."

What about this affinity to the poor? How did that influence folk, bluegrass, and so on?

"It's not just an affinity for the poor and needy. If you're at the U of C, you're butt up against the ghetto and it's kind of the home of one of the original streams of American folk music, with the blues around there."

There is a kind of dividing line, though. Black culture can come in, but it can't stay. And whites can't go out.

"The university did away with any kind of black culture in that neighborhood. There used to be music joints on 55th, but the university pretty much cleared all that stuff out, and so you had to go to Checkerboard Lounge or Theresa's to get your fix. It was like this adventure where you crossed the line.

"I remember going down to pick up the son of Howard Armstrong, there was this kind of house band in the early days of the festival, called Martin, Bogan & Armstrong. Howard had a son who played bass with him. I remember picking him up in this really derelict place under the El tracks on 63rd to take him to an interview on WBEZ, then onto the folk festival [at Ida Noyes and Mandel Hall]. Howard later moved to Detroit, and Ted Bogan lived in a senior project not too far from Hyde Park.

"It was kind of like all these people coming from all over the world, we pick them up at the airports, but these people in the adjacent neighborhoods we had to kind of like go get 'em."

"There've been a number of folk festivals like [this one], but it's the one that has endured. I'm just struck by how they've kind of kept to the same sort of concept, same sort of acts, how little has changed. There are other festivals that came out of folklore societies, like the Philadelphia Folk Festival, but for the time when folk music was a big deal, it is the surviving thing."

The festival runs through Sunday.

Update: Here's a good book on a related subject, Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs by University of Pennsylvania sociologist David Grazian.

Another Update: Here's a nice band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, that seems to understand the concept of tradition. They're named in honor of the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, made up of brothers Martin, Bogan & (Howard) Armstrong, who were a perennial hit at the early U of C folk festivals, as noted above.

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