Smile Politely

“Folk” is more than a genre at C-U Folk & Roots Festival

A lively jazz band is performing in a dimly lit restaurant. The band consists of a saxophonist, a guitarist, a bassist, and a cellist. The guitarist and bassist are playing their instruments, while the cellist is tuning theirs. The restaurant has wooden walls and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. In the background, people are sitting at tables, enjoying the music. The atmosphere is intimate and full of life.
CU Folk and Roots on Facebook

When I connected with Cody Jensen on Zoom, I expected to learn about the stellar music lineup at this year’s Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival, taking place October 12-14 in Urbana. But what struck me most was discovering the “folk” in this folk and roots festival goes far beyond the music itself.

At its core, C-U Folk & Roots Fest is about gathering community — quite literally. In the Spring of 2008, over 25 members of the folk arts community met at Techline Studio to discuss the possibility of a folk festival in our town. From that initial meetup of impassioned locals emerged the festival’s mission statement, still guiding the event today.

That mission focuses on promoting community, inclusivity, showcasing diverse artistic forms, fostering quality social interactions, and energizing downtown Urbana. Lofty goals for a humble Midwest music festival, no doubt. Yet thanks to abundant community goodwill and some strategic planning, C-U Folk & Roots has spent 15 years bringing its mission to life.

Jensen highlights the festival’s many interactive, non-musical offerings as examples of its mission in action. Alongside evening concerts, Saturday features free workshops, open jams, storytelling, and activities for all ages. Jensen insists that “having performances for different age groups, for people with different tastes in music…that’s really what we’re going for.”

A group of people are gathered in a room adorned with a colorful “Happy Anniversary” banner. Some individuals are seated on chairs and the floor, while others stand. One person, wearing a hat, raises their hand. A guitar hangs on the wall next to a window. The atmosphere is festive and cheerful.
CU Folk and Roots on Facebook

He notes that touring artists often lead these workshops when they aren’t on stage, helping break down barriers between audience and performer. Jensen recalls renowned saxophonist Eddie Barbash mingling with attendees across the festival last year in between his own sets, often with saxophone in hand.

This welcoming, collaborative spirit permeates the entire event thanks to its community roots. When I asked Jensen about the festival’s legacy, he shares one of his favorite traditions from the festival, the whimsical Musical Mayhem Parade winding through downtown Urbana that has likely occurred since the very first year. Though planning has formalized over time, these quirky community traditions endure, even the year it rained and the parade was routed through Lincoln Square Mall.

Yet the lifeblood keeping this homegrown festival flowing is its volunteers. “The festival doesn’t work without those folks volunteering and putting in the time throughout the weekend,” Jensen emphasizes. Attendees can get involved too – volunteering for just two 4-hour weekend shifts earns you a free pass to the festival.

Jensen affirms the experience is rewarding, with veteran volunteers providing training and support. All of the volunteers allow them to produce 80+ events despite having a modest budget. “It really wouldn’t be possible without such a strong local music scene, and the people that donate their time and effort,” he notes gratefully.

That generosity extends across the entire C-U community. With ticket sales covering only 20% of costs, Jensen reveals the festival couldn’t happen without donors, either. Yearly, over 100 individuals donate through the website, PayPal, or sending checks, and this doesn’t even count the many attendees who toss additional bills into donation buckets on site.

Add corporate sponsors, grants from the Urbana Arts Council, and in-kind support from the City of Urbana and Urbana Park District, and you have a festival buoyed by community goodwill. “They are our biggest supporter…we’ve been really fortunate,” Jensen says of the city of Urbana. He hopes this wide net of sponsors and donors allows them to maintain accessibility, like keeping almost all Saturday programming free.

With so many contributors involved, I asked Jensen how he curates a diverse musical lineup aligned with the festival’s mission. He admits programming is a team effort, relying on collective tastes and connections. From old-time music to more modern, all varieties of “folk and roots” are represented, and then some.

Yet Jensen also takes care to spotlight beloved local artists and traditions, providing them a platform to shine for larger audiences. As both festival director and performing musician, supporting C-U’s scene is personal for Jensen. “I love to give local musicians a [bigger] platform to perform,” he shares.

In previewing this year’s festival, Jensen radiates gratitude for the community that has sustained it. The music promises to wow as always, with favorites like Dom Flemons and Eddie Barbash returning, and the incredible Adeem the Artist making their CU Folk & Roots debut. But even if you can’t make it to a show, Jensen hopes you’ll feel the welcoming spirit of a festival created by locals, for everyone.

After all, that collective spirit is the true heartbeat of C-U Folk & Roots Fest. While the genre-spanning music lineup attracts crowds from across the state each October, the festival stands apart thanks to the diverse, passionate community who breathe life into it year-round. Jensen and his team have masterfully channeled that energy into an inclusive, interactive event that stays true to its original vision.

So come ready to dance, jam, and immerse yourself in three days of phenomenal music in idyllic downtown Urbana. Yet also expect to experience the power that arises when artistic expression is treated as a means for human connection – not an end for profit or prestige. It’s a chord that resonates deeply here in C-U, and we should be proud to call this extraordinary festival our own.

For more news and information visit the CUFRF website, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts. Also be sure to check out their playlist on Spotify.

C-U Folk & Roots Festival
October 12-14
$40 or volunteer for free passes

Music Editor

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