New book traces 100 years of folk and country music in Chicago
Mark Guarino is a child of Oak Park and has been a writer since high school, his work appearing in a vast and varied number of publications, on stages of theaters in plays he created and now, finally, between covers in a spectacular book dedicated to the musicians of Chicago.
He loves the sounds of this city and has spent the last decade researching, interviewing and writing about the people who make music, promote music, own places where music is played, and those who sit and listen.
The book is titled “Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival” (University of Chicago Press). The handsome jacket illustration is by Jon Langford and the snappy foreword by Robbie Fulks, both of them from other places (Wales and Pennsylvania, respectively) but both popular and influential on the local music scene that Guarino so artfully captures.
These two are part of a huge and colorful gang that populates the book, which traces 100 years of country, western and folk music here.
There have been other books that tackled parts of this compelling story. Here is the first complete tale and it is far more than a tour through your record collection. It is also the story of this city in all its complexities and inequities, informing us why “Chicago played such an important role in the early development of country and folk music (and) later served as a place where the music entered new sonic realms. ”
We were, as Guarino puts it in print, “an unusual hothouse for creativity,” and he explains the reasons why and where, which was mostly in small taverns and clubs.
Having personally and professionally been a small part of this scene, many of the people and places are familiar to me and so I can tell you with a bit of authority that Guarino knows the territory in all its forgotten heroes and nuances.
At 53 years old, Guarino is too young to have witnessed firsthand much of what he wrote about, but he hears and appreciates the echoes and has been able to find the threads that connect through the decades.
The stories excite and he puts the reader into action, then and now.
He was not, for instance, alive when a young man, on his way to New York and a new life as Bob Dylan, showed up on the University of Chicago campus carrying a guitar, harmonica and his given name, Robert Zimmerman.
There he met Elvin Bishop, later an original member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who describes him, during an interview with Guarino as, “Little chipmunk-faced guy with a flat hat and peacoat on. I said, ‘Oh, this poor bastard seems like a nice guy but he’s never going to make it. Listen to that voice.’ His harmonica playing was useless too.”
To bring to life the past Guarino interviewed — “in living rooms, nursing homes, everywhere I could find them,” he says — hundreds of people who shaped and shared our musical scene. He mines the past and finds gems.
He chose, wisely, to begin his book with these words from Win Stracke: “Chicago has no entrenched cultural traditions like New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Los Angeles. An idea can grow here without being required to conform … Oh, I’m not suggesting that we don’t have enthusiastic cultural organizations here, but by and large a great section of Chicagoans are able to view a new cultural movement without prejudice and with a healthy curiosity.”
Never heard of Win Stracke?
Guarino brings him vividly to life, this troubadour to whom “music was a pursuit that had dignity,” who was hounded by the FBI and believed that musicians were “necessary to remind people where they came from and who they could become.” He founded the Old Town School of Folk Music, which taught and inspired generations of music makers.
To meet Stracke is worth the price of the book but there is so much more. This city nurtured Bonnie Koloc, John Prine, Fred and Ed Holstein, Mike Bloomfield, Michael Smith … So many more. They found their voices in the taverns and small clubs that persisted, sometimes struggling to survive. Especially true of the country performers and venues, dubbed “hillbilly” by the press and politicians, and marginalized and even demonized.
As Guarino writes, this book “is about Chicago’s defining role in these kinds of improbable exchanges among artists who freely reinvented country and folk traditions, and their empowerment by a series of gatekeepers, some of them radical idealists and other hard-knuckled hustlers.”
There is John Lair, the brains behind the WLS “Barn Dance” program, which from the 1920s through World War II was the “nation’s commercial heart of country music,” and made him millions. There is Al Grossman, a tough West Sider now best known, if known at all, as Dylan’s manager. Read the reason why Guarino rightly labels him “folk music’s most notorious impresario,” and about his Gate of Horn, “the first folk nightclub,” with his performers dressed in suits and ties and his audience drawn for the suburbs.
More pleasant encounters come when you meet Earl Pionke, who made a mecca of his Earl of Old Town and became the father figure for a generation of folk talents. And there is the unforgettable Richard Harding, whose most famous club was the Quiet Knight and who, over 20 years at various places, gave such performers as Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen on their first Chicago stages, but also doted on local talent. The city eventually shut him down and the last time I saw him, before his death in 2012 of cancer, he was driving a cab.
The book overflows with such characters and wonderful, sometimes sorrowful stories. Many of the people here are fascinating, some are flawed, some are fragile. Here’s a fun story: The already quite famous Paul Simon called the grand talent Bonnie Koloc and asked if she might show him around the city’s folk club scene. She did and later invited him to hear her perform at her home base, the Earl. “Simon showed up,” Guarino wrote, “but Gus Johns, the doorman, turned him away because the room was beyond packed and Simon was just another fan.”
There is not a page in the book where one cannot sense Guarino’s enthusiasm and passion. But this is not a polemic. It’s too wildly entertaining for that. As Guarino writes “The idea of Chicago as an incubator for creative movements might sound preposterous, considering its tough character and harsh climate, but that’s what it was because the artists who took root there knew how to survive with what they had.”
The book will thrill any music fan but it is something more than that. It gives readers a greater appreciation of the heart and resilience and creativity of this city and its ability to sustain and nurture those talented to persevere. If you can make it here …
He is especially passionate about the current scene, which he sees as a direct reflection of past booms. The performers are here. The stages are here. It’s a good time to be alive and listening and reading.
The beat goes on.