For one weekend every spring, Oberlin students and residents gather for Oberlin Folk Festival, which includes performances from famous folk headliners as well as student and local acts. This year marks the 17th annual Folk Fest. The festival is organized by Oberlin Folk Music Club and its faculty advisor Tom Reid ’80, associate director of the Student Union.
Oberlin’s rich history with folk music began with the creation of the Oberlin Folk Song Club, Oberlin’s original folk club, founded in the mid-1950s by Joe Hickerson ’57. The club put on festivals called “hoots” in the ’50s and ’60s. According to Reid, the watershed moment for the folk movement at Oberlin was when legendary folksinger Pete Seeger performed here for the first time in 1954. Seeger had been blacklisted from performing in many places for his alleged communist sympathies. The Oberlin concert reinvigorated his career and started the tradition of folk music concerts on college campuses. Seeger returned to Oberlin in 1955, and played “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” for the first time. Hickerson wrote two verses to the song (the verses that begin “Where have all the soldiers gone” and “Where have all the graveyards gone”).
The club and its festivals waxed and waned over the years, but both made a triumphant return in 1999 when the club and festival’s current incarnations, Oberlin Folk Music Club and Oberlin Folk Festival, were cofounded by Josh Ritter ’99, now an acclaimed singer-songwriter, and Ellen Stanley ’01.
Since 1999, headliners have included Loudon Wainwright III, Dar Williams, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (twice), David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Odetta, Anaïs Mitchell, Lucy Wainwright Roche ’03, and Lake Street Dive. Ritter has headlined the festival three times.
Reid says he remembers being moved by Odetta’s 2008 performance. The aging singer arrived in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank, but, according to Reid, “When she started to sing, it was very clear that whatever was taking a toll on her body had not done anything to her voice. She was belting it out like the old days.”
Oberlin Folk Music Club begins searching for Folk Fest’s headliners during fall semester and starts enlisting student and local acts in the spring leading up to the festival. Meghan Mette, a junior and cochair of Folk Fest, says that when creating the lineup, the club selects acts with varying sounds, and seek a balance of solo acts and bands. Mette, who is a fiddler, takes the Folk Fest stage for the third time this year, performing with her band Sweet Potato Spoon, an American folk/roots group, for the second consecutive year.
For the past few years, Folk Fest has shared a Saturday with the Big Parade. “The vibe is so fun,” says Mette. “You can just go and hang out on the grass and listen to music in Tappan Square. It’s so fun to be performing because everyone’s just so happy and excited to be listening.”
Catch the 17th annual Oberlin Folk Festival in Tappan Square, Finney Chapel, and the Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse on May 1 and 2. Headliners include Tom Paxton and Kimya Dawson. Check out the full lineup on the Folk Festival website.