Catacombs' Folk Fest: An Oral History

"We sat on the hillside wrapped in quilts and sleeping bags, stocking caps pulled tightly down over our ears to keep out the intermittent stabs of wind. In the darkness we appeared as blobs of covered cloth unrecognizable to one another. Only on the microphone was there light: and the musicians and poets who stood before us to play bared every element of their being.”

So reads the opening notes from a 1999 liner for the “Roadside Folk Festival and Y2K Compliant Sale,” the first Catacombs Folk Fest.

“Folk Festival was our own answer for Burning at the Stage,” says 2002 alum Mason Wolf. “Nothing wrong with ‘Burning,’ but it was light on the sort of music we were listening to and making at the time.”

Folk Fest was the brainchild of Jade Alger and Tom Okie, but even they would never have guessed they were beginning a tradition that would continue to bring a community together for years to come.

Nearly every year since, current students living on the Catacombs dorm have organized an extended evening of performances inspired by the fringes of society. Past festivals have featured aspiring artists and popular local bands, folk, alternative, and original music, as well as comedic or theatrical acts, regular alumni performers, and often, a time of reflection and sharing of hall stories.

“Folk Fest has always had a life of its own, compared to other music or art events on campus,” says Joe Dodd, 2011 alum. “It’s not just a bunch of people getting up and playing acoustic covers.”

“Folk Fest gives students an unencumbered platform to share their work, to believe that the minutia of their lives matters,” says Calvin Cummings, a ’15 grad. “Folk Fest seemed actually genuine and everything else was so earnest it seemed inaccurate.”

That first show, held outside Sanderson, was recorded on CD. Over the years, one may come across the stray camera documenting history with snapshots, or that footage of that one song for YouTube and friends.

However, as time passes and performers graduate, start families, and move on, stories from past generations turn into legends.

“I only performed in one of the songs as a background harmonicist for Brian’s rendition of Last Dance with Mary Jane,” says Wolf. “...Jade sold candy apples. Fernando sang a song in Spanish about animals going to school...We all supported Tom by joining the chorus for We Are the Amish (And We Live on the Catacombs). It was a magical night.”

The festival was held in the old Art Barn for many years, but was moved to the “MegaBrock” 118 room in 2008 for safety concerns. Numerous alumni interviewed still vividly remember this detail, and that one raucous finale when the audience’s dancing actually warranted a fire code warning.

“It was definitely structural integrity,” says alum Chris Nystrom. “The festival was held in the top floor and if you went to get air on the bottom floor you could see the ceiling bend and dust flutter down. You couldn’t beat the atmosphere.”

“Yeah, I remember the floor of the art barn really bouncing during the Flavas set,” agrees alum James Harrison. “Nothing was the same after that.”

Dodd sees the development positively. “I think it felt like Folk Fest needed a venue space as unique as the event itself.”

“It was truly a festival, but it wasn’t for the performance,” says alum Stephen Freas. “It had the energy of a concert, without the drugs, and not for profit...I remember Tom Okie on guitar, Fernando’s comedy on the mic…Lucas Fitts performance of Phish, but I remember most the open atmosphere where you could talk to anyone that night and be joyful. We had the Spirit.”

As that first liner reads, "For music in any form is primarily a spiritual thing. It is not simply melody and rhythm...Music is where we sacrifice ourselves to one another, where we reveal our demons and revel in our glories. Where we give up our portion of the joy that is life.

"So as the light illuminated the details of our friends and lovers, their songs opened their souls and ours. It was not simple melodies and verses sprung from the minds of others we heard: it was our own lives...It was us. Telling our stories and singing our tales.

"Together one mind and soul. Voices raised to the funky grooves of acoustic guitars."


This year, Folk Fest will be held on March 9, in Sanderson 215, and will feature acts throughout the day from 4-11 pm. Admission is free.