Folklore Society Keeps Culture of the Past Alive

By Brack-Johnson, Ann | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

Folklore Society Keeps Culture of the Past Alive


Brack-Johnson, Ann, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Ann Brack-Johnson Daily Herald Correspondent

Back in the early days of American history, entertainment was participatory. You didn't just sit back to watch a television screen, you got involved. You played an instrument, composed a song, told tall tales.

You got up on your feet and danced with others from the community. You got to know people, shake hands and say "howdy" up close and personal.

As we approach the 21st century, preserving the history of American folklore and re-creating its entertainment and sociability is what the Fox Valley Folklore Society is all about.

Its members are involved in a variety of entertainment groups, including the music group, Storytellers Guild and dancing. They all collide in a folklore frenzy at Island Park in Geneva each year on Labor Day weekend for the Fox Valley Folk Music & Storytelling Festival. But through the course of the year, they meet and practice and share their talents with each other.

Juel Ulven of Aurora is the society's president and also was one of the founders in 1975. He said that the group's mission is both educational and social.

There are about 350 dues-paying members from about seven states, Ulven said. There also are 1,500 people on the mailing list and the organization has a Web site (search: fox valley folklore society).

* * *

The society's Storytelling Guild provides a place to tell stories and solicit comments of critique from other members. Both experienced and beginning "tellers" are welcome, Ulven said.

You can apprentice with other members in telling adaptations of children's stories, traditional folk tales such as the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, American Indian lore, personal experience stories, extended jokes or contemporary tales.

Members of this group range in age from 8 years old to 80. They meet at 7:30 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month at Bethany Lutheran Church in Batavia.

The society's old-time community barn dances, held at Fermilab's Village Barn, "tend to fall back to dance music of family celebrations," Ulven explained.

Many of the tunes have a history in ethnic gatherings such as weddings, funerals and holidays. They include English, Scottish, Croatian, Turkish, Norwegian and Cajun influences.

The old-time community barn dances are different from today's Western square dancing. They are a combination of traditional square and contra (line and circle) dances. Participants dress casually. Callers walk participants through each dance first, to welcome first-timers.

"Live music, always," Ulven noted.

The crowd tends to be mixed in age and people are very friendly.

"Contra is a very social dance," Ulven said. It was designed as a mixer.

"Through the course of the dance, you dance with everyone twice. After that, it's hard to say 'I can't dance with you because I don't know you.' It's the epitome of social dancing," Ulven said.

The society holds 16 dances each year, at 7 p.m. the second Sunday of the month, September through June, and at 2 p.m. the third Sunday of the month, November through April. Dances last about three hours.

The dances used to regularly draw participants from five states, and still often include people from neighboring states who are in town for the weekend.

* * *

Music brought the group together more than 20 years ago, Ulven said.

The musicians started meeting every Wednesday night in January 1975. Since then, they've shared songs and techniques with each other each week and have failed to get together only 20 times.

Sometimes only five or six members show. But it's not unusual for about 40 to be at Mack's Silver Pheasant restaurant on Route 25 in St. Charles.

Tom Curtin is a cabinetmaker by day and a guitar man on Wednesday nights. He got to strumming in a "sing around" with members at Mack's Silver Pheasant recently. …

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