It’s a little bit of bluegrass and Celtic, with a touch of country and Cajun, and a pinch of contemporary, and it’s all about telling the stories of everyday people. Jon McGinty looks at the roots of American folk some talented performers.
Do you like music that greets your ears but doesn’t pound your body? Do you enjoy songs in which words still count? Do you enjoy acoustic guitar licks, harmonica wails or foot-stomping fiddle music that makes you want to get up and dance or sing along?
If so, you’re probably already a fan of folk music, whether or not you know it.
What is Folk Music?
This worldwide genre encompasses Celtic to bluegrass, country to Cajun, traditional to contemporary.
“It’s music that occurs from the bottom up, instead of the top down,” says Joe Jencks, 40, a Rockford native and folk singer/songwriter who performs throughout the country, either solo or as part of the trio Brother Sun. “Traditional folk music arises organically out of communities, then finds a voice in the larger culture. It speaks to peoples’ needs. Pop music, on the other hand, is a top down process. It’s contrived somewhere, then put out there to be consumed by a mass audience.”
Contemporary U.S. folk music arose in the 1930s and ’40s, during a revival of traditional songs by musicians like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who also composed their own songs commemorating events, telling stories or celebrating the struggles of common folks. Guthrie’s songs about the Great Depression earned him the nickname “the Dustbowl Balladeer.”
Seeger joined with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman in 1947 to form The Weavers, which popularized traditional and contemporary folk songs, especially those with political protest themes. Their politics led to their first break-up in 1952 during the McCarthy era.
The folk music revival peaked in the mid-’60s, with artists like Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul & Mary. TV shows like the “Smothers Brothers” and “Hootenanny” also popularized the music and performers.
Today, the tradition continues with modern singer/songwriters who recall the old songs and add their new interpretations and creations to the mix. Folk venues, festivals and networks still abound in our region, offering live performances and opportunities to enjoy this musical heritage.
You Don’t Have to Be Bob Dylan
“I gave a report on Bob Dylan when I was in high school,” recalls Mark Dvorak, 50, a folk singer/songwriter from Riverside, Ill. “It led me back to the roots of traditional music. I soon got a guitar and started to teach myself how to play.”
A turning point for Dvorak occurred when he signed up for guitar lessons at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music (OTSFM) in the early ‘80s. “That experience convinced me you didn’t have to be another Bob Dylan to have music in your life,” says Dvorak. “I thought maybe I could get good enough to come back there some day and teach.”
That very thing happened in 1986, when the program director at OTSFM called Dvorak in for an interview.
“I was the 25th teacher they hired,” says Dvorak. “I worked part-time in the evenings, prepared my lessons in the morning, slept for a few hours, played in the afternoon, then headed into the city to teach, all while maintaining a performance schedule. It was a rugged existence.”
In the 1990s, Dvorak made connections with some folk music icons, deepening his appreciation for the historical roots of his craft. One summer he visited the grave of Lead Belly, the famous folk/blues musician and 12-string guitar instrumentalist of the 1930s and ’40s, in Morningsport, La. At the concert commemorating the 40th anniversary of Sing Out! Magazine in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall in 1991, Dvorak joined Pete Seeger on stage, and later met Win Stracke, co-founder of the OTSFM.
“Stracke was the most impressive man I ever met,” says Dvorak. “He knew Woody Guthrie, all the folk music pioneers. He had the vision of what Old Town School could be – a musical patchwork quilt of united nations – and pulled people together to make it happen.”
In 1998, Dvorak joined fellow musicians Tom Dundee and husband/wife Michael Smith and Barbara Barrow Smith to produce Weavermania, which resurrected the music of The Weavers. After Dundee’s untimely death in 2006, Chris Walz joined the quartet, which still performs occasionally throughout the area.
All About the Story
In any good folk concert, the stories told between the songs are as interesting and important as the music, especially when the performer is as grounded in the history of his craft as Dvorak.
“Originally, it was my way of calming my nervousness,” says Dvorak. “Now I try to look for things that have roots – a personal story or a traditional idea. Everybody’s music comes out of their direct experience. I tell stories about my mentors, like Win Stracke or Big Bill Broonzy. Even if I don’t play any of their songs that night, those people are still with me. I feel like my music represents a piece of Chicago. Songs have become the way I tell the world who I am and what I’m thinking. That’s how folk singers get through the world – we write about it, we sing about it. In the theater, the actor puts on the mask of a character. In our music, we take the mask off.”
Joe Jencks grew up in Rockford, and announced his intention to become a folk singer at an early age – 10!
“My mom thought it was cute, but my dad was a bit more skeptical,” recalls Jencks. “Yet he never missed a show I was in until he died.”
Jencks went on to pursue music in college, eventually deciding that his formal training would best be put to use as a folk musician rather than as a classical singer. His early mentors and inspiration included feminist and singer/songwriter Holly Near and folk artist John McCutcheon.
“The stories roped me in,” says Jencks. “Their songs told me about a bigger world out there, filled with people who struggled as immigrant workers, civil rights activists, revolutionaries or reformers.”
Jencks also became aware of music as a powerful tool for transformation.
“I see it happen almost every night on stage,” he says. “I watch people walk into a concert hall with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Then, in response to an idea, a sound, harmonies, a voice – maybe a good joke or story between songs – I watch it lift. They sit a bit straighter, notice their neighbors and come into the present moment.
“Any time our awareness is transferred from all the things we are constantly thinking about into the present moment, it has the potential to be transformed …We all then go back into the world with a little bit more to give.”
Both Jencks and Dvorak acknowledge the dynamic nature of the folk tradition, the constant evolution of words and music to express the thoughts and feelings of both our history and our times.
“Some songs get into circulation that seem not quite finished,” says Jencks, “but that’s part of the folk process. If I manage to write a song that’s timely enough, that speaks to peoples’ experience, then somebody else might pick up that song and carry forward its essential parts, even if they change some of the words.”
“We’re all looking to participate in our own music again,” Dvorak reminds us, “to find out what it means to sing and play together. What a concept!”
Old Town School of Folk Music
Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music (OTSFM) was founded in 1957 by musicians Win Stracke and Frank Hamilton. During its 55-year history, the world-renowned institution has become a symbol of the Windy City’s musical heritage.
“Chicago has a great claim to call itself ‘Music City USA’,” says executive director Bau Graves. “This is the town where Louis Armstrong became famous, where Thomas A. Dorsey met Mahalia Jackson and invented gospel music, where [radio station] WLS broadcast the National Barn Dance and put country music on the map, and where McKinley Morganfield plugged his guitar into an amp and renamed himself Muddy Waters. And no place in town quite embodies this heritage as well as the Old Town School of Folk Music.”
The School has always been a place of musical instruction and performance, but with a focus on participation at all skill levels. Bob Gibson, John Prine, Jim Post, Bonnie Koloc and Steve Goodman all studied there in the 1960s.
In 1968, the organization moved from its North Avenue location in Old Town to the Lincoln Park neighborhood on Armitage Avenue. It expanded into a second location in 1998, the long-abandoned Hild Library in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, an art deco building that eventually included a two-story, 400-seat performance hall.
When Graves became executive director in 2007, the OTSFM embarked on a major development campaign that resulted in a new facility across the street, which opened this January. Old Town School-East adds 16 classrooms, three dance studios and a 150-seat performance space to the mix.
Among its three facilities, OTSFM serves about 7,500 students weekly, with nearly 800 class offerings. Each year, about 17,000 individuals take at least one eight-week session, including private instruction on 27 different instruments – everything from claw-hammer banjo to Irish tin whistle.
“We also provide musical instruction for infants and toddlers and their parents through a program we call Wiggleworms,” says Graves. “Our philosophy is that music is for everyone. We give people the tools to make their own music – young or old, beginner or advanced.”
During the past 55 years, OTSFM has presented such folk music icons as Pete Seeger, Josh White, Fred Holstein, Odetta, Joan Baez and Holly Near.
“We’ll produce about 350 events this year alone,” says Graves. “We’re also changing our annual Folk and Roots Festival this summer, moving it from Welles Park to the street out front [4500 block of Lincoln Avenue], which will be blocked off. We will have two outdoor stages, two inside and a microbrewery tent in the parking lot. We’re also renaming it the Square Roots Festival, and it will take place from July 20 through July 22.”
The exterior of the new Lincoln Avenue building is highlighted with three concrete panels by Chicago artist Margaret Derwent Ketcham that depict the word “music” in 28 languages.
“It’s a reminder that people from various cultures and traditions can come together here to create music and learn from each other,” says Graves. “That was a part of Win Stracke’s vision.”
Charlotte’s Web Celebrates 40 Years
Probably the most venerable folk music institution in our region is Rockford-based Charlotte’s Web, now in its 40th year. It opened in 1972 on First Avenue in the former Swedish Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1876.
Co-founder Stephen Powers named the place after his late sister, who had recently perished in a car accident. A direct descendant of the 1960s boom in folk music, the Web quickly expanded to include country, blues, classical, jazz, rock – even dance, theater and comedy. When Powers left in 1974 to start a recording company, co-founders Bill and Karen Howard stepped up to keep the venue in operation.
Lani Richardson, the Howards’ youngest daughter and current executive director of Charlotte’s Web, remembers her unique experiences growing up in the Howard household.
“The Web was booking acts for five nights in a row back then,” she recalls. “The touring musicians stayed at our house. My sister Jennifer and I would do all the ‘maid’ stuff, so we got to hang around the artists. After dinner, the piano in the living room would become the center point for music and the whole house would fill with glorious sounds. It was the most magnificent, magical experience I can imagine. I wish everyone could have experienced it. There would be a lot more peace in the world.”
By the time the location closed in 1986, Charlotte’s Web had produced more than 3,000 shows, including performances by Utah Philips, Dizzy Gillespie, Henny Youngman, Johnny Hartford, Koko Taylor and Cheap Trick. It also had produced live broadcasts for public radio, 10 live albums by national recording companies, and first performances by New American Theater and the Black Theater Ensemble.
Some not-for-profit groups sponsored events in those hallowed halls during the 1980s, but by 1989, the bank that owned the building was ready to throw in the towel and demolish it. A small group, including the Howards, came forward to save the Web from the wrecking ball. They formed non-profit Charlotte’s Web for the Performing Arts (CWPA), to manage the facility and produce events. They also started a capital fundraising campaign to restore the building, but by 1991 decided they’d rather spend funds on performers than renovations.
“That’s when we went ‘portable’,” says Karen Howard, “and took our shows on the road. It actually gave us greater flexibility, since we could book venues for different-sized audiences.”
Richardson joined the CWPA board in 1998, and today performs all organizational duties, including booking performers. Her dad, Bill Howard, has been recording live performances of all Web acts since its inception: audio cassettes and reel-to-reel recordings until 1985, then video tape until 2002, when he “went digital.” The archive now amounts to more than 15,000 hours of recorded musical history. Richardson’s husband, Josh, continues Bill’s work, adding recordings to the collection.
With sister Jennifer, Richardson started Snapshotmusic in 2006, for the purpose of digitizing and making available to the public all accumulated performance material on CD. The process has since been taken over by talented volunteers.
In summer 2011, to consolidate CWPA activities, the organization moved into Emerson House, a former mortuary on North Main Street. The structure includes office and production space, a small-audience venue and archival storage space for the extensive audio-video library. Richardson also initiated “Concert Conversations,” a series of individual performances which Josh records live and edits for later broadcast on local cable channel Comcast-17 on Sundays at 6 p.m.
“What these artists are doing is valid and worthy of respect,” says Richardson. “We give each artist a comfortable setting in which to perform, field questions, and interact with the audience more than they might do during a regular performance.”
For the Web’s 40th, Richardson is taking a “huge leap of faith.” She raised production costs nearly 500 percent, booking more expensive performers and buying more advertising, “to elevate audience expectations to the level of a performing arts concert series, as opposed to a college coffeehouse or church basement series,” she says. “We keep telling people, ‘This is not your parents’ Charlotte’s Web.’”
CWPA now seeks corporate sponsorships instead of public grants to cover the additional costs.
“It’s time to bring Charlotte’s Web to the level where it can continue to exist, with or without the 24/7/365 devotion of my entire family,” says Richardson. “After 40 years, the Web is an institution, the likes of which are few and far between.”
The anniversary bash includes an art show and concert at Kryptonite on June 1, and concerts and workshops at Emerson House and Mendelssohn PAC Campus on June 2. The Web also sponsors three free Saturday evening concerts at the Sinnissippi Park Band Shell. This summer’s schedule includes:
June 30: Toronzo Cannon – Chicago blues
July 14: (Bastille Day) Cajun Strangers from Madison, Wis.
July 28: Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues Band