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Folk fest shares joys of audience participation, and ‘crankies’

Local musicians get together for jam sessifolk music festival GenevSunday Sept. 02 2012. | Donnell Collins~For Sun-Times Media

Local musicians get together for a jam session at the folk music festival in Geneva on Sunday, Sept. 02, 2012. | Donnell Collins~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 4, 2012 6:06AM

GENEVA — It’s possible to attend the Fox Valley Folk Festival and do nothing but sit and listen to the endless parade of musicians and storytellers entertaining on the festival’s eight stages.

But it’s more fun to help make the entertainment — and many performers gave their audiences the chance to do exactly that.

“Folk music is not a spectator sport,” asserted folksinger Debra Cowan, who led a workshop on sing-along songs with fellow musicians Matt Watroba and Mark Dvorak. The three took turns teaching song choruses to a 100-person-plus audience, then encouraging that audience to belt them out as if they, too, were on stage.

“It’s too important to leave to the professionals,” Watroba quipped.

Many spectators Sunday did belt out the choruses with gusto. For Mary Nugent Twigg, a former Wheaton resident now living in Champaign, the experience was especially joyful.

“I always loved singing. I grew up singing while I worked in the backyard,” Twigg said. “Then I became deaf, and I missed hearing music so much.” While her first cochlear implant failed, a second procedure last year brought back about 70 percent of her hearing, she said. “To be able to hear someone sing and sing along is such a blessing, it’s a very poignant experience for me,” she stated, brushing away tears.

Even other professionals savored the chance to sing along outside of the spotlight. “I don’t normally get to sing along with someone else, and I don’t normally perform this type of music, but I love it, so this was a real pleasure for me,” declared professional singer Barbara Hollek of Oak Park.

At the storytelling tent, Jasmin Cardenas was elevating audience participation to new heights — literally. The bilingual storyteller was not only coaxing spectators to shout out what came next in her stories in English, Spanish and “chicken,” she encouraged them to stand up and reach for the sky to illustrate how fast farm animals grow and how high the Big Bad Wolf had to climb to reach the Three Little Pigs’ brick chimney. “I need you to help me tell this story,” she appealed. “Stories are so much more fun when we tell them together.”

Elizabeth LaPrelle and Anna Roberts-Gevalt also encouraged spectators to sing along with their British ballads. But their main goal was to convince people how fun and easy it is to create a Victorian-era “crankie” — a series of still pictures that illustrate a ballad, painted on long strips of fabric or paper, then rolled into a scroll that an operator cranks across a wooden frame while singing the ballad. The two took turns cranking and singing, while spectators oohed and aahed over the quilted, appliqued and block-printed images.

“The crankies are compelling because they’re physical objects, not digitized, electronic or virtual,” said Loyola University philosophy professor Hugh Miller of Skokie. “Being in their presence, seeing them move, sag and crinkle makes them more vivacious. The performance is not just vocal — it’s visual and physical, which gives it that much more impact than if I were seeing it on a screen.”

On Monday, Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle were scheduled to host a crankie-making workshop at 2 p.m. on the teaching stage, in the brick shelter at Island Park. “We’ll bring a blank scroll and lots of crayons, then we’ll pick a song or a story and have people draw different scenes from it on the scroll,” Roberts-Gevalt said. “Then we’ll put it in the frame and watch it. It’s always so much fun to do that because we all did it together.”

The Fox Valley folk Festival will continue from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday at Island Park. Because the Route 38 bridge and path to the park are closed for construction, visitors must access it from the old railroad bridge near the Kane County Complex at the corner of First and Third streets. For more information, visit the Fox Valley Folklore Society’s webpage at

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