By examining folk music activities connecting students and local musicians during the early 1960s at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this article demonstrates how university geographies and musical landscapes influence musical activities in college towns. The geography of the University of Illinois, a rural Midwestern location with a mostly urban, middle-class student population, created an unusual combination of privileged students in a primarily working-class area. This combination of geography and landscape framed interactions between students and local musicians in Urbana-Champaign, stimulating and complicating the traversal of sociocultural differences through traditional music.
Members of the University of Illinois Campus Folksong Club considered traditional music as a high cultural form distinct from mass-culture artists, aligning their interests with then-dominant scholarly approaches in folklore and film studies departments. Yet students also interrogated the impropriety of folksong presentation on campus, and community folksingers projected their own discomfort with students’ liberal politics. In hosting concerts by rural musicians such as Frank Proffitt and producing a record of local Urbana-Champaign folksingers called Green Fields of Illinois (1963), the folksong club attempted to suture these differences by highlighting the aesthetic, domestic, historical, and educational aspects of local folk music, while avoiding contemporary socioeconomic, commercial, and political concerns. This depoliticized conception of folk music bridged students and local folksingers, but also represented local music via a nineteenth-century rural landscape that converted contemporaneous lived practice into a temporally distant object of aesthetic study. Students’ study of folk music thus reinforced the power structures of university culture—but engaging local folksinging as an educational subject remained for them the most ethical solution for questioning, and potentially traversing, larger problems of inequality and difference.