folklore dancers - July 16, 1971

Folk Arts and the Political Stage

The recently formed Folk Music Club presents its first campus concert. This event coincides with a noticeable folk trend that permeates student-run arts groups during the late 1950s and early 1960s. For instance, the Folk Music Club sponsored a Pete Seeger concert on April 8, 1960, a Folk Singers Festival from May 11-13, 1962, and a Joan Baez concert (co-sponsored by the senior class) on March 4, 1963.

At Stanford, as in the case of many university campuses during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, the politicization of the arts in the United States channeled the voices of students within a larger realm of discourse. In a 1969 Steering Committee report on the study of Education at Stanford, the author expounds upon the shifting manifestation of student extracurricular activities: “It should come as a surprise to no one that the meaning of the term ‘extracurriculum’ has changed significantly in recent years. It no longer pertains to athletic, social, and recreational activities alone. Recently, there has been a development of interest among students in activities, which might be called ‘extensions of the classroom,’ that give students the opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to specific social, economic, religious, and political problems existing around them – often as close as the communities immediately surrounding the campus… Moreover, new trends in the arts, particularly an expansion of creative possibilities and a closer linking of the arts, especially drama and film, with socio-political issues have increased further the seriousness of many so-called extracurricular activities. The campus has become a locus of activism, which takes many forms…The desire of today’s students to study relevant subjects is a good example of this trend. Students are keenly aware of contemporary problems and want to apply classroom studies to solutions for them. Many find, in extracurricular activity, a kind of immediate applicability of themselves and their studies to such problems, one answer to the cry for relevance. Others find in this work a career training ground, an opportunity to apply themselves to different problems and to acquire new skills.”

The folkisms of the 1950s and 1960s morphed into a theater of feminism and social activism during the 1970s and 1980s. The History Department and Residential Education co-sponsored a women’s film series “Women’s History Films” on January 31, 1979, whereas students organized film screenings documenting innovative women, including Frida Kahlo. Numerous female artists visited the campus and further inspirited students’ feminist fervor; among them were Mothertongue Readers Theatre, gay comedienne Pat Bond, and black poet, novelist, and essayist Alice Walker. Chicano students initiated the request for their own cultural center in 1979, and African American students organized an African American Dance presentation in 1980. A feminist student publication entitled Aurora circulated pro-active content among the student body. Students organized concert series to fundraise the Everywoman Newsletter. Tresidder Union hosted Women’s Music Night during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a few of which received publicity in the Stanford Daily.

Stanford V-Day poster, 2011


More recently, Stanford V-Day, a campus campaign to stop violence against women, has carried the torch of activist arts.  With support from Stanford’s Women Community Center, V-Day puts on productions of the Vagina Monologues each year to raise funds for local organizations that assist abused women and girls.

Featured image: dancers of Folklore group, July 16, 1971.  Stanford Historical Photograph Collection