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The CHIRP Blog

Tyler Clark presents: Local Mythologies writesTop Five Chicago Folk Artists Who’ll Make You Stick to Your New Year’s Resolution

We're three weeks into January, and New Year's resolutions are already dropping faster than a lapsed gym membership. If you're reading this blog, it's safe to guess that "learn a musical instrument" has appeared somewhere on your list in the last 20 years or so. Worry not, CHIRP listeners: this is the year you finally pick up that guitar/trumpet/mountain dulcimer, and we've got the inspiration to help. Five kinds, actually, all provided by musicians associated with Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. It may take more than a year to catch up to John Prine, but with this list, you'll be equipped to power through.

1) Steve Goodman

The lion of Chicago's folk music scene stood only 5'2", but his voice extended far beyond his slight frame and the city where he sand. Steve Goodman wrote "City of New Orleans" when he was just 23, turning the sights and sound of a downstate rail trip into a hit for Arlo Guthrie and a coming-out party for his own massive talent. Stricken with leukemia for most of his professional career, Goodman embraced the fun side of folk, becoming known for witty, insightful lyrics that nonetheless often contained a little politcal bite at their center. He also looked swell in that cowboy hat, as the video above proves.

2) John Prine

Back in December, I hosted a Christmas sing-along party for a bunch of friends. While everyone's song turned out great, the one that hit me the hardest emotionally was "Christmas In Prison," sung in an aching tenor by my friend Cody. I didn't realize it was by John Prine at the time, but when I found out, I wasn't surprised. Coming up in the same cohort as Steve Goodman, Prine had a knack for the same kind of winking jokiness, but was always able to turn things serious when the mood required. His '70s output stands tall amid the accomplishments of any other American singer-songwriter of the era, an accomplishment that makes his leisurely release schedule of the past few decades all the more forgiveable.

3) Bonnie Koloc

In an alternate universe somewhere, Bonnie Koloc is just as famous as Joni Mitchell. All of her Ovation records from the 1960s and '70s are still in print, and young women put songs like "My Aunt Edna" on mixtapes for their artsy crushes. In our universe, Koloc remains a local secret, known only to the Chicago folk faithful and those from out of town who were smart enough to listen the first time. She still pops up in Chicagoland for concerts, if you know where to look, showing off the delicate songcraft and powerful voice that earned her recognition as the equal of Goodman, Prine, and anybody else in Illinois who happened to own a guitar. I'd keep an ear open, if I were you.

4) Bob Gibson

Bob Gibson had plenty of famous friends. During his days on the folks scene in the 1950s and '60s, he helped discover Joan Baez, palled around with Shel Silverstein, and built a house with Pete Seeger. When he wasn't socializing, Gibson spent his time championing the old-style traditional folk still sung at music circles and hootenanies today. Gibson might be called Chicago's answer to Dave Van Ronk, a powerful musician sometimes overshadowed by the more famous names that he influenced. Still, if that's the worst thing you can say about a guy, his legacy's in a pretty good place. 

5) Big Bill Broonzy

All of the previous artists on this list studied at the Old Town School of Folk Music, but only Big Bill Broonzy taught there. Although his tenure was brief (the school opened in the winter of 1957, and Broonzy died in the summer of 1958), Broonzy's acclaimed folk blues added an air of legitimacy to the school's opening year. The job was the natural culmination for his dedication to folk, and to Old Town School founder Win Stracke; in the 1940s, Broonzy lent his voice to Stracke's I Come For To Sing, a touring revival show narrated by fellow Chicago legend Studs Terkel. Although commercial success often eluded him during his lifetime, Broonzy bridged the gap between the singers of the country blues tradition and the younger artists who were listening to that work on old 78s. His impact can still be felt in the folk songbook today, and in every rock guitarist who ever decided to rip off a blues riff. 



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