In the spring of 1961, a Folksong Club emerged at the University of Illinois, organized by Dick Kanar and Vic Lukas. Students who attended the first annual University of Chicago Folk Festival, they walked away determined to found a club on campus to study, exchange, and enjoy traditional folk music.1
This student-inspired organization was unattached to academic departments, the Illini Union, or student government. As such, students were free to experiment with structure and techniques while founding the club. Occasionally such novelty include gauche behavior or odd humor, such as the conclusion to the first Autoharp newsletter: “Traditionally, when one is composing a first newsletter, there inevitably seems to be more paper than news. Autoharp, in accordance with its policy to present traditional material to you its reader endeavors to keep this tradition.”
Folksongs and concerts formed the core activities of the club, but Autoharp–their recently digitized newsletter–was issued shortly after its founding to keep members informed and to give them a forum for opinion and criticism. They offered regular jam sessions, folk-sing, as well as guitar and banjo lessons to interested students.
A folklore seminar series was also established in the spring of 1963 that brought lecturers to campus to compliment their concert-folk sing program. The list of musicians brought to Illinois is impressive, including, but not limited to: The New Lost City Ramblers, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Doc Watson, Curtis Jones, Jimmie Driftwood, George and Gerry Armstrong, Sleepy John Estes, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Ellen Stekert, Joe Glazer, and Big Joe Williams.
As a testament to the strength of this fledgling organization, the club issued a record featuring 18 folk songs by the Philo Glee & Mandolin Society to show that the club, despite being deprived of academic guidance in the folk arts, “could learn to recognize and appreciate traditional music and to make artistic judgments about it.”
After the successful release of their first recording in 1962, the club turned their attention to traditional musicians in Central and Southern Illinois. Club members met and worked with townspeople, exchanged songs and techniques, shared experiences, and eventually released Green Fields of Illinois, one of the first recordings of folk music in Illinois.
1. All information in this post taken from Campus Folksong Club Records, 1961-70, Record Series 41/65/1, Box 1, University Archives.