One City, Many Traditions: Chicago Folk Music

Chicago’s diverse ethnic history has been the basis for its complex and unique culture, and this is reflected powerfully in the city’s folk music traditions. Immigrant communities brought the music of their native countries to the different Chicago neighborhoods, where the music continues to thrive and evolve.

Celtic music is one of the most popular, filling the pubs of the far south and far north sides, as well as established venues like the Irish American Heritage Center and Gaelic Park. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Chicago Police chief Francis O’Neill began collecting Irish fiddle tunes brought by nineteenth-century immigrants of the global Irish Diaspora. His work resulted in an extensive collection of tunes still played today wherever Irish Americans congregate.

In the early twentieth century, Chicago’s proximity to the Paramount record company in Wisconsin and to Gennett in Indiana made the city a national center for Central and Eastern European immigrant musicians, and ethnic record labels developed rapidly. Greek musicians, displaced by the Turkish-Greek war in the 1920s, brought to the Greektown area the rembetika style of bouzouki playing. Polish, Czech, German, and Lithuanian newcomers brought the polka and built a local industry. Ukrainian culture, centered on the near west side, boasted its own intricate stage dance with energetic music to accompany it. Romanians, mostly on the far north side, established several popular mandolin orchestras.

With the Great Migration of African Americans from the South came the twin traditions of country blues and gospel singing. Blues hit the bars and eventually became electrified, but gospel was preserved in the churches, propelled by the creativity of masters like Thomas Dorsey and Sallie Martin, dubbed the "father" and "mother" of gospel music. Dorsey, a record producer, is well known for his seminal gospel hymn "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." Martin’s "Just A Closer Walk with Thee" is another significant gospel standard. Dorsey and Martin worked in a traditional style, but they were innovators as well, crafting a new musical vocabulary for spirituals and paving the way for popular Chicago gospel artists like Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker, and Dorsey’s niece, the composer and former Chicago Public Schools teacher Lena McLin. Their success helped make Chicago the nation’s gospel music capital, with more labels producing more gospel singles than anywhere else in the world.

Though Nashville would become better known for country music, and New York for the troubadour revival of singer-songwriters, Chicago was at the forefront of both before being surpassed. In the 1920s, National Barn Dance was broadcast on Chicago’s most important radio station, WLS, predating the more famous Grand Ole Opry. The variety show drew country music artists from across the country to satisfy its audience of southern migrants and rural Illinoisans able to receive the powerful AM signal. Its popularity waned by the end of the 1950s, around the time a young Pete Seeger disciple and New York transplant named Bob Gibson was gaining a large audience at a North Side club called Gate of Horn. His recordings and performances at Carnegie Hall and Newport Folk Festival made him nationally famous, but his home and most dedicated following was in Chicago. Steve Goodman and John Prine began their careers sharing the bill with Gibson at clubs like the Quiet Knight and Earl of Old Town. Their style retained Gibson’s troubadour tradition and generally eschewed the grittiness of Greenwich Village. Goodman and Prine both wrote more hits for other artists (most famously Arlo Guthrie and Bonnie Raitt, respectively) but their local following was immense. Goodman’s most enduring legacy may be the Cubs theme song "Go Cubs Go," still in use long after his premature passing.

Most of these artists studied, performed, or taught at the now venerable Old Town School of Folk Music. Founded in Chicago in 1957 by two Bob Gibson affiliates, Win Stracke and Frank Hamilton, the school has educated five decades of children and adults, amateurs and professionals, perhaps most notably Byrds lead singer Roger McGuinn. Its artistic benefactors today include two nationally renowned, Chicago-based singer-songwriters: Jeff Tweedy, the Grammy-winning leader of the band Wilco, and alt-country icon Neko Case.

Another longtime Old Town School affiliate, Ella Jenkins is something of an institution in Chicago. Deemed the First Lady of Children’s Music, Jenkins has been educating and performing for children for well over a half century. She has released dozens of albums on Moe Asch’s Folkways label (reissued on Smithsonian Folkways), and leads the company in CD sales. In 2004, she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy.

Chicago’s folk music roots run deep. However one defines the genre, by its relationship to the traditions of a particular culture or by its roots in the American folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, Chicago has played a role in its development.