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Midwest Folklife Festival

MWFF CD coverIn late summer of 2006, 2009, and 2012, the historic community of Bishop Hill, IL hosted the Midwest Folklife Festival. In this idyllic setting of the town square, traditional folk and ethnic musicians from Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota presented an extraordinary range of styles reflecting the melting pot that is Middle America.

I had performed at the 2006 festival and was called upon to produce the live sound for the 2009 and 2102 events. Having been involved documenting the last of the pre-radio generation of musician’s in Illinois in the 1980’s, I suggested that we record the performances for archival purposes. After all, these were some of the finest performers in the Midwest sharing an incredibly wide array of Ethnic and Folk musics. It seemed like a no brainer.

A live festival always includes a few surprises. In both 2009 and 2012, the festival was moved inside due to rain, then moved back outdoors when the rain ceased. While juggling recording and sound equipment was challenging, some truly magical performances came out of the chaos. One, in particular, stays in my mind. We moved the Gypsy/Tamburitza band, T-Roma, to the old one room schoolhouse just as the rain hit. In order to make the situation work, the band offered to play with no amplification and was recorded only through a single large diaphragm microphone, old time radio style. Yet, the performance was amazing! There we sat, as the rain poured outside, hearing this lively, exhilarating music in a packed room exactly as the music had been played for generations. It was quite a moment.

As the dust settled after the 2012 festival, I got to thinking about something I had heard when I worked with the Library of Congress on the Schuyler Arts Folk Music Project. Joe Hickerson mentioned that boxes of tapes are worthless if they aren’t made accessible to the public. So early in 2013, I got together with Bucky Halker.(Company of Folk) who had produced the artistic side of the 2009 and 2012 festivals, and suggested we produce a live CD from the tapes we had made of the performances. Bucky immediately understood the value of such a project and we partnered with the Bishop Hill Heritage Association to apply for an Illinois Arts Council grant to produce the double CD set.

Producing the CD proved to be a daunting task as the 2006 festival only had very rough mono recordings with virtually no documentation while the 2009 and 2012 recordings were multi-tracked. The material was extensively reviewed and documented, tracks were selected, then I hit the studio, mixing through the spring and summer of 2013.

A total of 21 artists were included representing nearly every musical act at the event. The selection of music is breathtaking; from traditional Japanese music to Gypsy Jazz, American Folk, Middle Eastern, Honky Tonk County, Celtic Fiddle, Bluegrass, Chinese and Hawaiian to name just a few! Throughout the process, I was constantly struck by the sheer talent of musicians involved. Perhaps best of all, each of the selected performances represents a unique aspect of Midwestern diversity.

When it came time to decide on cover art, we hit upon the idea of using the circus banner noted artist Glen C. Davies had created for the 2012 festival. The circus theme was perfect for the “Greatest Folk and Ethnic Show on Earth” feel that the project had taken on and we were able to use various elements of the banner for the inside and disc artwork.

The Smithsonian Institution has called American roots music “the soundtrack of the melting pot that is America” and this project is a perfect reflection of that idea. These final recordings provide a beautiful documentation of the abundant and diverse musical traditions of Illinois and the Midwest. I hope you enjoy them!

Chris Vallillo

Click here to see pictures from the festival and information about the artists.

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Disc 1
Bohola: The January Man
Kiu Haghighi & Tooraj Morshref-Zadeh: Improvisation: Charmezrab Mahour
Lanialoha and Aloha Lives!: Kipahulu
Etherton Switch: Forked Deer
Dennis Stroughmatt and L’Espirit Creole: Ma Mere et Mon Pere
Yang Wei: Spring in Tien Mountains
Juvenato: La Plata
Bill Robinson and Friends: Son Shine
Chris Vallillo: Steel Guitar Rag
Katherine Davis and Brother John Kattke with Bucky Halker: Blues With a Feeling

Disc 2
The Hoyle Brothers: I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)
Bahri Karacay: Keyfim Yerinde
Doug and Bonnie Isaccson Miller: Balanced on a Rail
T-Rroma: Ramo, Ramo druze moj
Robert Bowlin and Wil Maring: Django’s Waltz
Lamajamal: Augusta Horo
The Gordons: Blackjack Davy
Tsukasa Taiko- Gintenkai Ensemble: Yatai Bayashi
Pop Wagner: Knockin’ Down Windows, Tearing Out Doors/Cincinnati Flow Rag
Plavi Dunav Tamburitza: Primorsko Kolo
Liz Carroll and Jim DeWan: The Ronan Boys/Ralph’s 2-3-5