Celebrating 60 Years
The Old Town School of Folk Music not only attracted an impressive faculty of professional musicians, but saw many of its graduates and associates begin successful careers as recording and performing artists. Dave Prine's little brother John won a 1987 Grammy award for his album "German Afternoons." Bonnie Koloc is ever in demand as a solo artist. Roger McGuinn, of course, founded the Byrds. Stephen Wade continues to thrill audiences with the banjo playing he learned from Fleming Brown. And Steve Goodman, who died of leukemia in 1984, left behind numerous recordings - and the sounds of his "City of New Orleans" still ring through the halls of the Old Town School today.
I remember Steve Goodman first as a gifted 16-year-old impatient guitar student sporting an impish grin. He already had a clean clear guitar style that was developing with the speed of sound. He used to spend afternoons at the School using the library and its Sing Out! collections.
Steve had not been performing very long when I asked him to do a benefit concert for the School. We rented the Francis Parker auditorium and we sold all 700 seats. Steve put on a fabulous show.
Steve really liked the ambience at the School. Sometimes during the supper break when I locked the door to have my sandwich, he'd pull up a chair to my desk and sing one of those soft songs of his. I told him he had a special way with a soft song. I was lucky; I was there. If only we could play back those walls.
I was hanging out at the Earl of Old Town while this short, nearly balding kid was on stage singing. He sang some of the same Steve Goodman songs that Bonnie Koloc had recorded. I complimented him at the end of the set and asked where he had learned those Goodman songs. He sort of smiled and said, 'I am Steve Goodman.' My jaw dropped because I had heard he only had a few days to live when Koloc had recorded his songs. He grinned that 'Aw, shucks' smile....
Goodman loved performing benefits. Not only did he enjoy giving of himself, but benefits provided a chance to jam. he starred in many Old Town School and Come for to Sing benefits. You can hear Harry Waller, Larry Rand, Mike Jordan, John Prine, Martin, Bogan and Armstrong, Ken Bloom, Jim Post, and even Pete Seeger among the many people caught in the act on his concert tapes. Provided the cause was reputable, Goodman would be there.
The Old Town School provided a springboard for Goodman's career, from the days when he was a kid trying out at the old No Exit in Evanston. He never forgot those early days, or the School. We all hoped, beyond reason, that Steve would be around to sing that song he co-authored with John Prine, 'The Twentieth Century is Almost Over,' at the 1999 MIdnight Special New Year's Eve party. He would be in his early fifties. But you can bet that if there's an afterlife, he's up there improvising the lyrics for the next ten centuries, with one hell of an angel band.
Bonnie Koloc often led the Sunday sings at the School in the '70s, after her recording career had taken off. She remembers the School as a musical haven for a young woman from Iowa unfamiliar with the local scene.
I came here in 1968.... I went down [to the School] and just visited because I didn't know anyone in town. It was wonderful! The first time I ever walked through the doors of the School, I felt immediately at home. I felt connected because here were people who loved and appreciated the music like I did.... I didn't take classes at that time but sort of hung around and got to know some of the people, like Steve [Goodman]. Later I signed up for a class because I wanted to learn barre chords; I really was playing very simple stuff....
When my first album came out in 1969 we had a record-signing party here and Studs was the emcee. Everyone wsa just so supportive.... One of my really memorable experiences here was a strumalong-singalong. [The strumathon fundraise on Navy Pier, where students collected pledges for each hour they played.] I got up and I had all these people playing along and singing along and there was something about it - it was one of the highlights of my career. It was just thrilling.
I always looked at the Old Town School as a place where they could teach you how to play guitar without music. -John Prine
John talked about the School to a Chicago Tribune reporter the day he received his Grammy nomination.
When I was 12 or 13, Dave [Prine] took me [to the School] just to sit and watch what they were doing. They put me in a class and I learned some different styles. I took classes for two semesters and then went into the Army. When I got out, I got interested in guitar again and went back down when I heard Ray Tate was teaching bluegrass classes.
You didn't have to read music and could teach you.... It gave everyone a different corner to hide in until they learned how to play chords. It stopped being so complicated and without that, I don't think a lot of people would've continued on. That's what I thought was great about the School.