Folk Fest Reaches Beyond Genre’s Traditional Boundaries

Sydney Allen, Editor-in-Chief

Since its inception in 1999, community members and College students alike have flocked to Tappan Square for Folk Fest, an annual celebration of the genre featuring multiple live performances and events. Nineteen years ago, the inaugural concert featured a single headliner followed by student acts, but the series has since grown exponentially, drawing several touring acts each year and spreading to venues all over campus.

Organized by the Oberlin College Folk Music Club, this year’s Folk Fest kicked off today with a panel discussion around Women in Folk Music, moderated by Professor of Ethnomusicology Jennifer Fraser and featuring members of Isle of Klezbos, an all-women klezmer band participating in the festival.

The panel is just one part of a larger effort on the part of organizers to change the festival’s approach to music. Each of the touring acts this year will feature almost exclusively non-male performers, challenging folk music’s boundaries and bringing in a variety of international acts.

“To me, this is a very unique folk fest,” said Associate Director of the Student Union and Faculty Advisor for Folk Music Club Tom Reid, OC ’80. “There is much more of an international flavor. We’ve got a klezmer band, [a] mariachi band [and] a band that plays traditional Québécois music, so [we’re] reaching into different traditions than we sometimes have.”

College senior Eleanor Van Buren, who will be performing in the student and community showcase at the bandstand for the second year in a row tomorrow, said she appreciates the organizers’ creative new spin on Folk Fest.

“I think it’s neat that Folk Fest encourages a wider version of what folk is,” Van Buren said. “There are people that are bringing in … new influences … or just different instruments that you don’t necessarily associate with folk music to create a new musical experience.”

College sophomore John Schechtman-Marko, student liaison and vice president of the Folk Music Club, said that the group wanted to interpret the term “folk music” more broadly when it came to booking performers.

“We think there is … a perception out there of the folk musician as the ‘white dude with the guitar,’ which we wanted to sort of counteract,” he said. “We’re really trying to challenge the stereotypical notions of what folk music can be. The term is so broad and there is so much interesting music that falls under the umbrella … and music being made by people who aren’t usually associated with folk music, and we wanted to showcase a bit of that.”

Full of eclectic performances, the festival features The Pearly Snaps as they open for Isle of Klezbos at 7 p.m. tonight in the Cat in the Cream. The Pearly Snaps are an old-time fiddle and banjo duo with a traditional country and folk feel, featuring Steph “Pearly” Jenkins and Rosie “Snap” Newton.

Following The Pearly Snaps, the Isle of Klezbos will headline, adding a bit of eclectic flair with their unique, modern take on klezmer, a traditional Eastern European, Jewish sound. Having toured all over the world, the band is one of the biggest names on this weekend’s docket. As their website boasts, “Our soulful, fun-loving powerhouse all-gal sextet is most likely the only band ever to be heard on both ‘CBS Sunday Morning’ and [Showtime series] ‘The L Word.’” College senior Emma Rast will emcee the event and open.

Fans of The Pearly Snaps will have a chance to see them again at a harmony singing workshop at 10 a.m. tomorrow. The event is meant to draw more than just folk fans, with singers of all levels encouraged to come and practice with the duo.

Then comes a long-time Oberlin favorite, as students and community members take to the Clark Grandstand in Tappan Square, a nod to the first Folk Fest nearly 20 years ago.

Schechtman-Marko, who helped organize the event and will be emceeing, said this year saw an increase in talent and applicants, making it especially difficult to choose performers.

“One of the highlights is the process of auditioning … student acts and local acts … to play,” Schechtman-Marko said. “It’s always exciting to get touring acts to play here, but it’s also amazing just to see how much amazing folk music and … folk-related music is being made by people who live in Oberlin and people who go to school here. This year, we also had a very high number of applicants and it was very difficult — because they were all so good and so qualified — to decide who was going to make the cut.”

The bandstand will feature several performances tomorrow, including Oberlin groups such as Three Story Chicken House, Quartet Davis and Ukes of Hazard. In addition, Brendan Eprile, Jacob “Guitarman” Turner and Van Buren, among others, will be performing solo. The bandstand performances will begin at noon, directly after the end of the Big Parade, and will run until 5 p.m., featuring 11 different acts with 30-minute slots.

Van Buren plans to open with some of her original work, including “Cannon Beach” and “Up and up,” which some Obies might recognize from her frequent performances around Oberlin. In between her originals, she hopes to incorporate some covers of Patsy Cline. She reflected on the power of Folk Fest for Oberlin’s performance community, as well as for the audience.

“Anything that just brings the songwriting community together I think is really powerful,” Van Buren said. “Folk Fest is great because its more well-known and it has a tradition, so I think that’s … really vital. It’s funny because I feel like a lot of people might not know about Folk Fest but because it’s in such a public venue it draws them in and as soon as they hear the music, they want to come watch it.”

After the bandstand, the action will move to Finney Chapel at 7 p.m. with performances by Les Poules à Colin, a traditional Québécois group, described as “the new face of Quebec folk-trad,” and Flor de Toloache, a Grammy-nominated mariachi band, one of the only all-women mariachi bands in the U.S.

Finally, the weekend of festivities will come to a close Saturday evening with an open jam session in Tappan Square, starting at 10 p.m. The jam session will be open to all students and community members of any skill level.

All Folk Fest events are free and open to the public.