Discovering roots in the community

Originally published online by SmilePolitely.com on November 7, 2014.

By Amanda Wicks

The Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival isn’t your average music festival. Sure, like most such events, it exists first and foremost to promote the music and musicians involved. Yet, in addition to that emphasis on folk music exists an equally important emphasis on community. “A lot of festivals do shows,” says organizer and local musician Brenda Koenig. “We do more than that. We do jams, workshops, sing-a-longs, and storytelling. The idea is for people to come and join in with the musicians.” Treasurer Nancy Livingston describes it best, “It’s a community-based festival that focuses on live performances of exceptionally good music.”

From the jams to the dancing, the organizing committee aims to provide a wealth of events and activities to engage families, students, and anyone in the community looking to expand their musical horizons. “Folk music is something that speaks to a wide variety of ages,” says Koenig. “We cast a really wide net because we have so many types of venues. We basically take over the entire Urbana Public Library, which is a venue that’s all ages friendly. And then we have the Rose Bowl. So there are so many different types of things.” It might seem like a broad reach, but everything works together to craft a diverse idea of folk music. These activities are at once tangential to the music yet equally essential to the festival experience, since they allow people to become more involved than simply standing and listening.

Six years ago, Koenig got a hankering to showcase the Champaign-Urbana folk talent that tended to go unnoticed. “Often these musicians fly under the radar,” she says. While she could have organized a show, Koenig had a bigger idea. She wanted to start a festival. Such an undertaking couldn’t come to fruition with one person, though, so Koenig sent out a meeting notice to the folk community. The response revealed that her hankering had tapped into a large need. About thirty people showed up for that initial meeting. As they continued getting together to refine their ideas, the initial group pared down to what Koenig saw as the “core steering committee.” Ed Hawkes, who has been on the organizing committee since its instantiation, describes how the committee has changed over the years, “We’ve brought in new members since the beginning. It’s nice to have new ideas and a fresh perspective on things.” While the organizing committee shifts each year, its members promote the festival’s underlying community spirit. As Koenig explains, “No one here is getting paid.”

That volunteer spirit extends to running the festival itself. As much as the festival uses folk music to bring the community together, it also relies upon the community in order to support the folk music. It’s a two way street that would fall apart without people’s involvement. Hawkes says, “If everybody wants a folk festival then the community has to support it.” That support comes by way of money and sponsorship, of course, but also extends to people’s time. At the heart of the festival are volunteers who ensure that the festival runs smoothly each year. Scott Dossett, the committee’s secretary, puts it bluntly but cheerfully, “We are totally dependent upon the volunteer spirit in this community. If Champaign and Urbana want a folk festival then people need to get directly involved. Or it won’t happen every year.”

It’s that emphasis on music within the community and the community’s role in fostering that music that makes the C-U Folk & Roots Festival something unique for the area. “We’ve increased our collaboration with other community organizations,” adds Hawkes. From departments within the University of Illinois to the city of Urbana to other area organizations, the committee strives to form partnerships that will encourage the area’s folk music scene. “We like the idea of the community doing something that everyone can be involved in.”

In terms of music, the committee seeks out local, regional, and national talent to expose audiences to a wide array of musicians and styles. This year brings Cincinnati-based band, The Tillers; bluegrass duo Billy Strings and Don Julin; and Cajun Strangers, a Cajun band all the way from Madison, WI, to name just a few. Livingston explains the way the committee seeks out acts, “We start by finding some up-and-coming headliners and we sort of work backwards and make a big effort to have a lot of local people.” Hawkes comments on the local emphasis, “We want to present the amazing local talent we have in town.” They especially look for musicians doing something original, be it an original take on a cover or their own music.

Koenig is all too aware that musical genres carry with them an idea about who plays that type of music, as well as who listens to it. The word “folk” may evoke images of singer-songwriters, lone musicians on the stage with a guitar in hand, singing stories, feelings, and the like. That’s one thing the festival aims to unravel. “I love it when people ‘discover’ types of music that they have never heard or seen before,” she says.

Even while the festival emphasizes folk music, it also encompasses other styles. Festival attendees find that the music they hear often breaks the generic bounds surrounding folk music. The committee is quick to explain that the festival encompasses a great deal of music beyond that image. “We have a wide variety of music,” says Hawkes, referencing the “roots” part of the festival’s name. “It’s jazz music, it’s blues music, it’s Klezmer music, it’s Cajun music, so it’s not just folk.”

From the festival’s sounds to its community emphasis, C-U Folk & Roots Festival brings something special to the area. For one weekend before the temperatures really start to dip, residents can gather to participate in C-U’s flourishing folk scene, and celebrate a musical tradition that emphasizes community and collaboration.

The event will take place November 7th and 8th. For more information, check out www.folkandroots.org.

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