From its inception, the Folk Festival is a Brandeis tradition that has amazed audiences and impacted the future of folk music while still honoring the past. The first festival in 1963 was at the Ullman Amphitheater, Brandeis’ outdoor theater that existed until the 1980s, and it included iconic performers like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, The Lilly Brothers — who were credited for bringing bluegrass to New England — the “Mother of Folk,” Jean Ritchie as well as other famous voices. This year’s festival happened in conjunction with the Create@Brandeis Craft Market at the Sherman Function Hall on The Festival of the Arts’ “Super Sunday” from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. As the musicians were playing, you could hear vendors discussing their products with customers and see children running around, playing on the colorful inflatable shapes set up for seating. The unity and love of the Brandeis creative community felt palpable in that room.

The festival began with the band “So Blue,” consisting of guitar player and vocalist, Devon Gardner and double bass player, Adam Gurczak, along with a featuring musician on the mandolin. “So Blue” embodied modern folk-pop music along the likes  of Noah Kahan and Gregory Allan Isaakov. They started with a cover of Nick Drake’s “From the Morning.” The combination of instruments really stood out, and they once again proved how underrated of an instrument the mandolin is. They then moved on to three songs from their recently released Extended Play “In Water and Waves.” Their first song, “Left too Deep” took inspiration from Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” featuring a jovial composition and showing off their musical prowess. “Milwaukee” was a slower song that featured an incredible mandolin solo, making me wish the mandolin was a permanent part of their band rather than just a feature. “Puzzle Pieces” included a beautiful bass solo that added a classical element to the typical folk song. Their discography included typical folk themes of love, heartbreak, and detachment. I would highly recommend giving their EP a listen if you are a fan of folk music. 

Tim Mann embodied classical folk from the 70s and 80s. He gave the audience a first listen to a lot of his unreleased songs that will be seen on his upcoming record. Some of his more energetic songs were reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, whereas his slower songs had some elements of the talking blues that Bob Dylan dabbled in. One of my favorite songs of his was described as a tribute to folk music with mentions of classic folk musicians and lines that discussed “stealing from Bob Dylan” and “plagiarism,” poking fun at the inspiration he took from other artists. His music can be found on Bandcamp and there will be new songs released soon. 

Brandeis alumni Lizzy Hilliard ’22, best known for her song “Thumbelina,” which amassed an impressive 230,000 listens on Spotify, added a soft, ethereal voice to this festival. She performed some songs from her newest releases which she first started writing during her time at Brandeis while living in the Ziv Quad. Her light and airy voice provided a beautiful contrast to the deeper, earthier sound of her guitar. Her second song was more mysterious and intriguing, showing her range in composition. She played a few songs from her new album, “growth vol. 3,” that can only be described as lovely. “if you were a worm (bonus track),” a song that is currently blowing up on Spotify with 90,000 listeners, was incredibly charming and romantic, a perfect song for the new love that spring brings. During one of the breaks between songs, Lizzy expressed her love for metaphors and this love is highly apparent in her creative songwriting. I’d highly recommend giving Lizzy’s album a listen and supporting the future of contemporary folk music. 

“Too Cheap for Instruments,” Brandeis’ female and non-binary folk acapella group, performed next. “Too Cheap for Instruments” actually sparked the resurgence of the Folk Festival 12 years ago after it went on a brief break. They began with the wholesome “Puff the Magic Dragon” where their voices blended beautifully together for the nostalgic song. The next song was “Téir Abhaile Riú” by Celtic Woman which was made more powerful by the chorus of female and non-binary voices. Both songs were fun and whimsical, full of adventurous spirit and beautiful high harmonies. Simon and Garfunkle’s “Scarborough Fair / Canticle” involved more complex harmonies, bringing in deeper registers and overlapping lyrics. They then went to more contemporary folk, featuring Olivia Rodrigo’s folk-rock song “Can’t Catch Me Now” from the movie “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” which demonstrated the current resurgence of folk music with its bluegrass songs that brought many people to the genre. The group truly showed off their composition skills in the ending section, leaving the audience impressed. 

Folk Festival
TOO CHEAP FOR INSTRUMENTS: Brandeis’ female and non-binary acapella group performs a series of classic and modern folk songs.

Pamela Means started with Dean Martin’s “Bésame Mucho” which included an incredibly pleasing guitar part with Latin-jazz-esque solo sections. Her soulful voice was an incredible compliment to the earthy guitar. The next song was prefaced with the Leonord Bernstein quote “music can communicate the unknowable” — an excellent introduction to a song that honored the folk tradition of political activism. Means wrote the song ‘with’ James Madison, America’s fourth president, who she quoted for the chorus. The lyrics included “the purpose of the government is to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority” and mentioned whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and current issues such as the overpopulation of prisons. It is highly refreshing to see the folk traditions being preserved and  repurposed for contemporary activism. This was followed by a happier song called “Provincetown” that Means had to “get out of the way” before getting back to business. The next song, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” by Emilie-Claire Barlow was the jazziest with great fingerpicking strategies. Means’ original song “Time to Tear it All Down” returned to the political messages, advocating for tearing down our corrupt systems and building something new and true while referencing the classic American song “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” which served as one of the defacto anthems before the adoption of the “Star Spangled Banner.” She explained that protest songs, marches and rallies are all based on love before playing her song “Color of the Skin,” inspired by race-based discrimination her father observed while growing up in the South during the Jim Crow laws. The next song “Sing for Love” repeated “I will fight for justice I will sing for love” while mentioning topics like white supremacy, gun violence, free breakfast for children, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., etc., not mincing any words or censoring herself on these pivotal and relevant subjects. The final song, “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong was a more overt message of love to end the show with a sense of hope.

Brandeis Roots Music Ensemble drew the biggest audience of the day, starting their performance with “God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds” by The Hayes Family featuring the solo voice of the bassist and the harmonies of the entire band. The mandolin, guitars and double bass were heavily featured in this upbeat classic gospel song with a bluegrass twist. The next song was a classic country song from the 1950s, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” by Kitty Wells that shares the important maxim of “Too many times married men think they’re still single / That has caused many a good girl to go wrong” and that “It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women,” lines that the women in the crowd seemed very much to agree with. Throughout many of the songs, cellist Natalie Greenfield played solos that lent an air of elegance to the songs of the common people. The next song, “Big Sciota” by Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas and Russ Barenberg bounced the melody from violinist Helen Croteau to cellist Natalie Greenfield to guitarist Lance Rothchild and finally to the mandolinist, Prof. Taylor Ackley (MUS), before all coming together to form an interweaving consolidation of instruments. The group introduced Ackley’s mentor, bluegrass musician Buddy Meriam, to the stage to perform Grateful Dead’s “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.” Lance Rothchild showcased his incredible vocal ability, sounding exactly like a recording you would hear from the 1950s. Buddy Merriam had a breathtaking mandolin solo and Ackley switched over to playing the banjo, adding to the classic American vibe of the song. The final song, “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone” by the Carter Family began with a beautiful acapella section, demonstrating the vocal prowess of the entire group on top of their incredible musicianship. The Brandeis Roots Music Ensemble is by far my favorite group I’ve experienced at Brandeis, and I would highly recommend checking them out this Friday, April 12 at 8:00 p.m. in the Slosberg Recital Hall for their “Roots Music Ensemble Concert.”

The final performance of the day spanned generations with Buddy Merriam on mandolin, his student, Ackley, on mandolin and banjo and his student who is currently working on his PhD at Brandeis, James Heazlewood-Dale, on double bass. Merriam and Ackley both showcased the mandolin’s capabilities and entire expressive range with their mastery of the instrument throughout the performance. They played many bluegrass standards like “Body and Soul,” “Honey You Don’t Know My Mind” and a collection of other songs that truly embodied the bluegrass genre. Buddy recounted some memories with his own mentor, Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass who created the name of the genre from his band, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys — named after the grass in Monroe’s native Kentucky. Monroe gave Merriam the song “Frog and a Lily Pad” to record before Monroe himself recorded it. Merriam and Monroe met at a festival and on the same day of their meeting, Merriam was struck by a bolt of lightning, leading him to lose his hearing for months. “Frog and a Lily Pad” was an impossibly fast song supported by the deep bass, which was incredibly quick in its own right. It was a joy to hear and a feat of musicianship seeing their fingers fly across the fretboards with inhuman speed. They then explored bluegrass jazz with David Grisman’s “E.M.D” standing for “eat my dust” which Grisman described as “dawg music.” The bass led the jazz section and the mandolins kept the bluegrass spirit in a fun and energetic combination of genres. Ackley’s powerful, old-timey vocals summoned a nostalgia for a different time in American music history throughout his two performances. They honored Brandeis’ history by playing some of the songs that were featured in the first Folk Fest such as Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright” and a song from Don Stover who played with The Lilly Brothers. After the trio finished with a Monroe song, “Big Mon” and a Merriam song, “Monroe Special,” the audience began chanting for one more song, and the musicians gracefully obliged. For the final song from Ackley’s new album, Ackley’s wife, and his son, Calvin, joined the trio on stage. Two-year-old Calvin stole the show with his dancing, the audience breaking out in cheers when he climbed up on stage. With Ackley’s wife harmonizing with him on the last chorus and the audience clapping along, we are reminded of the tradition of folk music being passed through families and small social groups and in that moment, we all felt like we were a part of the Brandeis folk social group, made to carry the tradition of folk through our lives both in and out of Brandeis and reminding us of the magic of music to form community.

In general, this year’s Folk Festival was chock-full of talented musicians. Many of the performances featured the mandolin, making the festival feel a bit like a love letter to the mandolin, a highly underrated instrument. I’d like to sincerely thank the Director of Arts Engagement and Communications, Ingrid Schorr, Blair Lesser Sullivan and all of the staff behind the Festival of the Arts for their work in creating this incredible week celebrating the arts at Brandeis. I would highly recommend everyone check out some of the remaining events of the festival happening through Sunday, April 14. 

— Editor’s Notes: Justice Editor Grace Doh ’26 is a member of “Too Cheap for Instruments” and did not contribute to this article.