Country and Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival (Starred Review)

Journalist Guarino took a decade to write this comprehensive history that draws on hundreds of interviews and mountains of archival material. Guarino’s passion for Chicago country and folk music, which is overlooked in favor of Nashville’s glitter and New York’s glamour, ensures that this is packed with riveting stories and surprising details. Readers will learn that the iconic Chicago radio program, Barn Dance, not only preceded the Grand Ole Opry but provided the blueprint for it and served as the prewar incubator for the county music industry.

Guarino tracks the history of Chicago’s Appalachian community, the driving force behind an explosion in honkytonk bars showcasing traditional music, and pays close attention to the Gate of Horn, where the careers of Odetta, Roger McGuinn, and Joan Baez were launched, and the Old Town School of Folk Music, the breeding ground for legends like Steve Goodman and John Prine.

Chicago’s distance from the Nashville industry has allowed for creative freedom that continues with the insurgent country of Bloodshot Records artists Ryan Adams and Robbie Fulks and the “old weird” charms of Americana darlings Neko Case, Andrew Bird, and Kelly Hogan. With an epic scope, gorgeous photographs, and useful discographies, this is a vital contribution to the history of American music and required reading for country and folk music fans.

— Freda Love Smith, Booklist

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Guarino’s richly textured cultural history is informed by his instinctive sense of the sounds and lyrics that originated in Chicago’s small taverns and clubs that were an “unusual hothouse for creativity,” crucial to the reinvention of country and folk music. Guarino captures the improvisation of balladeers and troubadours, and their music shaped by the century’s gyrations of immigration and industrialization. Among his most memorable characters is Studs Terkel’s friend Win Stracke, co-founder of the Old Town School of Folk Music, musician, and activist, hounded by Hoover’s anti-communist FBI, who observed: “Chicago has no entrenched cultural tradition like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. An idea can grow here without being required to conform.”

— Elizabeth Taylor, The National Book Review

Chicago’s Central Role in Shaping Roots Music

Describing Chicago, Saul Bellow once wrote, “Provinciality is not altogether a curse, we gain from our backwardness.” Chicago wears the mantle of the Second City, taking a back seat to New York in almost every category including theater, cuisine, and music. Chicagoans see the phrase as a tongue-in-cheek description, often stressing that Chicago’s music scene or theater scene shines more vibrantly than New York’s scenes (or LA’s or Nashville’s). As Bellow points out, though, being provincial has its promises, and there’s a freedom in such locations that can’t be found in larger, less provincial cities.

In his monumental new book Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival, music writer Mark Guarino tells a riveting story of the central role that Chicago has played in the development of country and folk music. Every chapter of the book features stories of people (like Patsy Montana, Lily May Bedford, The Coon Creek Girls, Ella Jenkins, Steve Goodman, Jeff Tweedy), places (the Gate of Horn, the Quiet Knight, the Old Town of Folk Music), and events (the WLS Barn Dance, the National Folk Festival) that have made Chicago home to a growing and vibrant music scene.

Before the Grand Ole Opry became a staple of WSM in Nashville, WLS (which stood for “World’s Largest Store,” a nod to station owner Sears, Roebuck, and Co., based in Chicago) first put the Barn Dance on its airwaves on April 19, 1924. The station director, Edgar L. Bill, looked for “‘old-time fiddling, banjo and guitar music and cowboy songs,’ the kind of entertainment that he felt a farm audience would appreciate, just as they appreciated the agricultural news and market reports broadcast throughout the week,” Guarino writes. Bill’s hunch paid off —the show was a success. George Hay, who would eventually move to WSM, played a pivotal role at the station, injecting “folksy humor into the Barn Dance that would continue long after his exit,” Guarino writes.

The Barn Dance grew in audience and stature, drawing musicians from rural areas in the South and Midwest to Chicago and launching their careers, but it had waned and finally went dark by the end of the 1930s. As Guarino points out, “Even though the Barn Dance had served as the prewar incubator for what would become the country music industry, by its end Chicago was establishing itself as a global headquarters for professional services … regionalism took over, and the sound, themes, and down-home culture of country music started to sound more comfortable nestled in the South than in the sleek skyscraper canyons of Chicago.”

Guarino observes, though, that country music never left Chicago completely, continuing to thrive in the hillbilly bars and dives of Uptown. But by the 1960s, the music scene in Chicago reinvented itself once again with the city’s folk revival. Before there was a club or coffeehouse scene in Chicago, Pat Philips, “a young woman just a year out of Northwestern University,” decided to become a concert promoter because at the time “the music she was drawn to did not have a respectable home.” Eventually, Philips joined “an underground circle of radical thinkers, left-leaning college students … at their gathering place, the College of Complexes, … Folk music found a home at the College before a club scene for it existed.”

Guarino explains, “a catalyst for folk music’s development in Chicago was ‘I Come for to Sing,’ a successful and long-running folk revue featuring Big Bill Broonzy, actor and radio host Studs Terkel, folk singer Win Stracke, and tenor Larry Lane. The revue presented traditional folk and blues songs and Elizabethan ballads … it marked the first significant event in the postwar era of Chicago folk music.” Folk music clubs soon stared to appear, chiefly the Gate of Horn, run initially by Albert Grossman, who would manage Peter, Paul, and Mary and Bob Dylan, among others. Stracke, with Dawn Greening and Frank Hamilton, opened the Old Town School of Folk Music in 1957, offering a blueprint for future classes: “The method of instruction …was designed to produce music for the sake of personal enjoyment as opposed to shaping future stars,” Guarino notes.

Guarino’s rich history moves from the early folk revival up through “Chicago’s second folk boom” — out of which emerged John Prine and Steve Goodman, among others — and the “insurgent country” of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, the Sundowners, The Waco Brothers, and Robbie Fulks. As Guarino points out, the Old Town School stands as a fitting image for the enduring, and still developing, legacy of country and folk music in Chicago. When the Old Town School opened in its new location in 1997, with an expansion in 2006, it embodied “Win Stracke’s vision: his imagined utopia where ordinary people met outside the demands of their lives’ routines to make music together, in one spot, for no reason but to strengthen a connection otherwise unattainable amid the noise from the other side of the door. The longevity of the Old Town School … made it a vehicle for country and folk music in Chicago as the music grew and transformed over decades and through generations.”

Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of country and folk music.

— Harry Carrigan, No Depression

New Book Captures 100 Years of Folk and Country Music History 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 writes 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 the 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 chooses, wisely, to begin his book with these words from Win Stracke: “Chicago has no entrenched cultural tradition 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 entrenched 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 others 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 audiences drawn for the suburbs.

More pleasant encounters come when you meet Earl Pionke, who made a mecca of his Earl of Old Town and become the father figure to 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 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 if sometimes sorrowful stories. Many of the people here are fascinating, some are flawed, some 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 writes, “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.

— Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune

Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival, by Mark Guarino

Nashville gets all the attention, but Chicago was sometimes as vital to the development of what’s still called—for lack of a better word—country music. As Mark Guarino shows in Country & Midwestern, the WLS “Barn Dance” program was, at least before 1939, a more widely heard channel for county music than the “Grand Ole Opry.” And just as Chicago’s Chess Records took a leading role in propagating urban blues, the Windy City’s Kapp Records was a prominent exponent of “hillbilly music” (as country was once called). Because of its many industrial job opportunities, Chicago was a magnet for poor Southern whites as well as poor Southern Blacks.

The distinction between “folk” and “country” remained unclear until after World War II, but the increasingly separate genres were both rooted largely in the rural South and broadcast to the wider world through Southern migrations to Northern cities. During the 1950s and ‘60s Chicago was second only to New York in providing platforms for folk musicians, including nightclubs, festivals and the Old Town School of Folk Music. Guarino, a Chicago correspondent for the New York Times and Washington Post, follows developments through John Prine and the “insurgent country” of Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, demonstrating the Windy City’s ongoing vitality as a music mecca.

— David Luhrssen, Shepherd Express (Milwaukee)