Chicago Folk Festival and Unique Folk Traditions

This weekend is the 54th annual Chicago Folk Festival, hosted by the Chicago Folklore Society. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, folklore includes “includes legends and stories, folk speech, names and expressions, material culture, foodways, traditions, beliefs, and folk arts.”

Chicago has a long line of folk history going all the way back to the origins of its name “Chicago” and more famously Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that was once said to have started the great Chicago fire of 1871. Of course, we have exonerated this scapegoat, or cow rather, but the folklore legend will live on in our stories, both written and oral.

chicago folk festival winter traditions parking spaces dib
Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

Beyond oral traditions, Chicago shows its folk pride in other ways. One of my favorites this time of year is the folk custom of “dibs.” Chicagoans shovel and then claim their parking spot for the duration of the winter with a hodgepodge of household items. “Dibs” veterans even make homemade contraptions specifically for each winter.

Another Chicago folk tradition that is going on its 54th year this weekend is the Chicago Folklore Society’s annual Folk Festival that highlights some of the best in folk traditions. From music to poetry to dance, the Folk Festival is a special celebration of folklore events which brings together mostly musical traditions from all over the world with a focus on American music. The Chicago Folk festival also has a longstanding history here.

Founded in the early 1950s, the Folklore Society began and is still run as a student organization at the University of Chicago and had its first annual Chicago Folk Festival in the winter of 1961. This first festival included folk and jazz legends Elizabeth Cotton, Ralph and Carter Stanley, the New Lost City Ramblers and even Willie Dixon–who we share some Chicago history of on our Jazz, Blues and Beyond tour. Often considered the father of modern Chicago blues, Muddy Waters even graced the stage at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall, where the festival has successfully taken place each year since 1961.

chicago folk festival University of Chicago jazz and blues
Photo credit: University of Chicago Folklore Society

One of the nation’s longest-running traditional music festivals, this year’s Folk Festival boasts a Grammy award-winning bluegrass fiddler, traditional Irish music at its best, and some “razzle dazzle” from a master of Piedmont Blues. Performers include Bobby Hicks and Friends, Paddy Homan, Ari Eisenger, Bigfoot, the Yanks, and more. In addition to the music you can partake in other special events, like free dance lessons, storytelling events and workshops.

The University of Chicago Folk Festival is a three-day celebration of traditional music held Feb 14th-16th this year in one of my favorite neighborhoods, Hyde Park. You can listen to some amazing Chicago folk music, learn a dance move or two, then explore the neighborhood with delicious cheap eats and beautiful architecture, such as the Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright. Don’t hesitate to reach out and commission our University of Chicago Campus Architecture Tour if you’re so inclined!

–Jenn Harrman, Tour Guide


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
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