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Fest celebrates fine art of communicating

Katie Moritz Bill Robinsentertavisitors with hammered dulcimer duet. | Photos by Denise Linke~For Sun-Times Media

Katie Moritz and Bill Robinson entertain visitors with a hammered dulcimer duet. | Photos by Denise Linke~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 4, 2013 6:18AM

GENEVA ­— The Fox Valley Folk Festival seemed to have everything Sunday: sunny weather, gentle breezes, great music and happy spectators. Though most visitors didn’t know it, one thing was missing from the 37th annual event: founder and director Juel Ulven, who was hospitalized for exhaustion and dehydration after working on festival setup during last week’s heat wave.

“Juel puts so much work and energy into this festival every year that it finally caught up with him,” said volunteer coordinator Cheryl Joyal. “We’re all pitching in a little more, so the festival is running great, but it’s just not the same without him here. Some of the volunteers are calling him from in front of the main stage so he can hear the music through their cellphones.”

Varied venues

Thanks largely to Ulven, festival visitors had no trouble finding interesting things to see and do. Workshop Stage 2, for instance, featured four singer/songwriters explaining to a full tent what inspires them to compose their own songs. “I was home sick once ­— so sick I couldn’t get out of bed — and my dad was so cruel to me,” recalled Virginia musician Jeni Hankins. “He kept playing Woody Guthrie’s song ‘1913 Massacre’ over and over, so when I got better I had to write a song with a similar tune, just to get it out of my head.”

Sometimes songwriting can be an intellectual challenge. “I wanted to write a ballad about a murder, because there’s not enough of them out there,” said American-born British singer Zoe Mulford, tongue-in-cheek. “I tried to write it so the listener learns one new clue with every line.”

Meanwhile, at Island Park’s brick pavilion, Wisconsin ukulele star Lil’ Rev led a few dozen novice ukulele players through some basic and not-so-basic playing techniques, with a little instrument and music history thrown in. “With all the different varieties of ukuleles,” he said after showing off five types and describing several more, “there’s no excuse not to play one, because everyone can find a ukulele out there that’s just right for him.”

Sounds Like Music instrument store and lesson studio was ready and waiting for Lil’ Rev’s class to let out, with a booth filled with ukuleles and guitars for converts to try.

“We’ve talked to a lot of people already,” said violin and piano teacher Trish Brock as she helped a new customer pick out an autoharp. “The atmosphere here is so great that we’re going to have a booth here every year.”

Even non-musical people could find something besides the rippling Fox River to appreciate. Lots of children — and more than a few adults — clustered around Ben Jimenez as he used strings and sticks to produce single huge soap bubbles and clouds of smaller bubbles. “This is so cool!” said 13-year-old Andrew Smith of Normal. “You could be 63, but while you’re watching these bubbles you can act like you’re 6.”

“I’ve come here and done this for free for the last few years, just because it’s so great to be here,” said Jimenez, a professional bubble artist from Evanston. “I know the drawing power of this particular art form, and I love doing it for a crowd of families. It never gets boring for me.”

Other performers said they feel the same way about the festival. “It’s always great to get together with other like-minded people,” commented Cajun Strangers band member Brian O’Donnell.

“A lot of times we perform and people get this blank look on their faces because they don’t understand why we’re doing something they feel is corny and old-fashioned. Here, people really appreciate what we see in this kind of music.”

The festival concluded on Monday.

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