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U. of C. Chicago Folk Fest is more than just acoustic guitars

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February 08, 2013|By Erin Vogel @eringejuice | For RedEye

If you didn't know the University of Chicago hosted a three-day folk festival every year, you're about 50 years late to the game--but you can catch up this weekend at the 53rd Annual University of Chicago Folk Festival, held Friday through Sunday.

The festival is more than just a showcase of traditional folk musicians--over the years it has expanded to include performers as diverse as blues guitarists, banjo and fiddle players, Cajun musicians, Gospel singers, bluegrass bands and bagpipers. This year's lineup includes local musicians from Chicago including blues guitarist Elmore James Jr. and Minnesota-based lumberjack music duo Brian Miller and Randy Gosa.

On top of the nightly shows, some of the performers will be teaching free workshops Saturday and Sunday at Ida Noyes Hall, in topics ranging from Irish guitar, to the history of Chicago blues, to Oriental dancing.

The student-run University of Chicago Folklore Society organizes and manages the festival every year on a shoestring budget that covers only the cost of paying and feeding the performers. The festival also receives a lot of support from the Hyde Park community, said U. of C. alum and Folklore Society advisory group member Kate Early, with some families even offering their homes to out-of-town performers who need a place to stay over the festival weekend.

"It's rare to see a lot of people that are completely not in the UChicago community at UChicago events," said student festival coordinator Rachel Atlas, a 20-year-old physics major. "It's great to see UChicago students interact with people outside of the university, which is sometimes really hard to do."

But it also isn't easy to get University of Chicago students to come to the festival in first place. Folklore Society co-president and 20-year-old astrophysics major William Cramer has been his dedicated traditional folk music fan since he was six years old, after his parents took him to see the traditional Irish band the Chieftains, but he's well aware that most of his fellow students don't share his enthusiasm for the genre.

Although the festival is well-attended by Hyde Park residents and families who have been festival regulars for years since its inception, attracting students can be a bit of an issue.

"It's always a source of frustration that a lot of students don't actually show up for this event," Cramer said. "My personal theory is that a lot of students go to events with groups that they recognize the names of, and unfortunately with the folk festival, unless you're really clued into the folk scene, you won't really recognize the names of the people."

Atlas also blames some of the low student turnout on the fact that the festival falls around midterms-- she's hoping to get most of her studying done before the festival--and that sometimes it can be difficult to encourage UChicago students to go out instead of study.

"I think it's hard to get UChicago students to come to anything," Atlas said. "I just don't think there's much of a culture here of doing that much outside of doing the work for your classes."

Then there's the fact that a lot of people don't know what a folk music festival even is.

"We had a student organization fair at the beginning of the year, and one guy came up to our table and said, ‘Oh, I'm only coming if you have Mumford and Sons,' " Atlas said.

Despite the low student turnout, though, Cramer is optimistic once he gets the students in the door, he'll have a new batch of folk music converts.

"From the students that have actually gone, I've only ever heard positive things," Cramer said. "Once we get them into the concert hall, they'll love it. I just need to get them into the concert hall to one concert, and they'll understand why I get so excited about it every year."

For information visit http://www.uofcfolk.org/.

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