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University Of Chicago Folk Festival Brings Back Longtime Fans

By Quinn Ford | February 16, 2014 9:04am
 The 54th annual Folk Fest is being hosted by the University of Chicago through Sunday evening.
University of Chicago Folk Fest
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HYDE PARK — During her college years, Anna Roberts-Gevalt left her Vermont home to move to Appalachia to learn to play the fiddle.

Trained in classical violin as a kid, she fell in love with the sound of folk music, and so she moved south and began "hanging out with old fiddlers and learning how to fiddle."

"I liked the informality of it, the way you could just play music where ever," she said.

That aspect of folk was on literal display in University of Chicago's Ida Noyes Hall on Saturday afternoon. Every room - even the coat room - was turned into a stage during the second day of the 54th annual Folk Festival in Hyde Park.

Professional musicians and amateurs alike brought their banjos, fiddles and mandolins to strike up impromptu jam sessions throughout the building.

University of Chicago Folk Festival Jam Session
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DNAinfo/Quinn Ford

Musicians also performed mini-concerts and gave lessons on things like singing harmony or Scandinavian dancing. Festival goers were free to watch or join in playing or dancing.

The laid-back atmosphere has always been a part of the event, said John Burnett, a musician from Indiana. Burnett, who attended the University of Chicago, began volunteering at the festival as an undergrad. This weekend was his 52nd year at the festival, he said.

"I just love the music," he said when asked why he keeps coming back. "It's part of my life, and now this festival is close to home."

Although Noyes Hall was crowded Saturday afternoon, Burnett said attendance is not quite what it used to be. Aside from contacting some folk musicians to perform in the main shows in the evenings, Burnett said most people hear about the fest through word of mouth.

One performance that drew a crowd Saturday was a trio that consisted of Roberts-Gevalt, Irish fiddler Dylan Foley, and Grammy award-winning bluegrass fiddler Bobby Hicks.

Hicks, who drove to the fest from North Carolina, said he hadn't been to Chicago since his days with the Ricky Skaggs band in the 1980s. The 80-year-old said he hadn't been to the city enough to make a judgment on Chicago's folk scene but said he was enjoying himself.

"What I have heard here, I like a lot," he said. "I've enjoyed it very much."

Robert-Gevalt, who is currently touring with her band Anna and Elizabeth, said it was an "honor" to play with an influential fiddler like Hicks.

"He's one of the greats," she said afterwards. "It's a really amazing thing about festivals like this where you can be at the beginning of your career and play with someone who has had a career already for forty, fifty years.

"To play with someone who's had that many hours thinking about your instrument, there's so much you can learn from someone like that."

The Folk Fest runs through Sunday evening, and tickets for evening shows can be purchased for $20 here. Sunday evening's performances are located in Mandel Hall. A complete lineup can be found here.