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University of Chicago Folk Fest: Musicians Skip Hotels, Stay with Neighbors

By Sam Cholke | February 14, 2014 6:28am
 Bobby Hicks headlines the first night of the University of Chicago Folk Festival at 8 p.m. Friday at Mandel Hall.
Bobby Hicks headlines the first night of the University of Chicago Folk Festival at 8 p.m. Friday at Mandel Hall.
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University of Chicago Folk Festival/Paul Watkins

HYDE PARK — As the University of Chicago opens its campus for the annual Folk Festival Friday, Hyde Parkers are opening their homes as part of a long tradition of putting up the musicians.

“They’re very interesting because they’re very different from the people one normally runs into as a Midwestern middle-class person,” said Mary Gugenheim, who has boarded a bluegrass band for the weekend in her home every year for the past eight years. “They regard themselves as musicians first, but rarely make their living as musicians.”

Gugenheim said the first group she hosted at her home at 52nd Street and Dorchester Avenue was a trio called the Rock Island Rounders.

“They had retired from very regular middle-class jobs,” Gugenheim said.

She said it was fascinating to listen to the guitar player’s story about leaving a job as a civil engineer to run a Christmas tree farm and play music and the banjo player’s life raising six children on a dairy farm in Maryland.

For Gugenheim and others, it’s a way to participate more intimately in the festival as non-musicians — and sometimes get a private concert.

“I have a piano and they usually play and sometimes practice a few things,” said Vreni Naess, who has hosted musicians in her home near Everett Avenue and 55th Street for 25 years. “I highly recommend it to others.”

Naess, who immigrated to the United States from Switzerland, said her most memorable experience was an intimate conversation with an Irish fiddler player from Boston about pulling up roots and moving to a new country.

She said the experience has always been positive with the musicians, even if they didn’t immediately hit it off.

“In the early days, the organizers tried to find really authentic individuals and a couple of them were really rough,” Gugenheim said of a trio from the South she hosted in the 1980s. “They were kind of hard scrabble, and one said he still hopped trains to get places.”

The University of Chicago Folk Festival opens at 8 p.m. Friday with performances at Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St., by The Yanks; Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth Laprelle; Sheryl Cormier and Family; Paddy Homan, Dennis Cahill and Teresa Shine; and Bobby Hicks and Friends.

The festival continues on Saturday and Sunday at Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St.

Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on both days, there are a series of free workshops, mini-concerts and lessons throughout Ida Noyes, including spontaneous jams that literally spill over into the hallways, stairways and even coat rooms.

Saturday features a workshop on Scandinavian dancing, a lesson on the hurdy gurdy and a barn dance at 3 p.m. with Bigfoot. Bigfoot will headline the Saturday evening concert in Mandel Hall.

That performance, as well as the other evening shows, cost $25 on Friday and Saturday and $20 on Sunday. A weekend pass cost $55. Tickets can be purchased online at uofcfolk.org, which also has a full schedule of events.