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Folk Hero

Fred Holstein/Unplugged from day one

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The scene: Rudi's, the French restaurant and wine bar on Ashland, late on a weekday evening. Among the few diners, a couple, getting on in years, amiably celebrates the man's birthday with what seems to be a smattering of adult children, in-laws, and an elderly mother. As the evening wanes, the restaurant nearly empties. Finally a heavyset man, his expressive face slightly covered by a lumpy hat, sits down to exchange greetings. A minute or two later he pulls out a guitar and begins playing.

The folksinger's voice is clear and strong, sensitive and nuanced. And the songs he sings are not trifles, but somber ballads redolent with meaning for his intended audience, a man in his 60s:

Old devil time

I'm going to fool you now

When I'm feeling low

My lovers gather round

They help me rise

To fight you one more time.

The weary defiance of the song, the reflectiveness of the tiny audience, the silence of the restaurant--all combine for a memorable moment of emotional stillness. The singer, I find out later, is Fred Holstein, one of the most respected fixtures of the Chicago folk scene in the 60s and 70s. While never nationally renowned, he was the popular house act at the Earl of Old Town for years; later he ran bars as well, among them the much-loved Holsteins on Lincoln Avenue, with his brother Ed, another folksinger.

He started playing as a kid. "I always loved to hear the guitar," he says. "The guitar was my thing. Some people heard trumpets; I heard guitars." Pete Seeger, whom Holstein first saw as a teenager in Orchestra Hall in 1959, remains his hero. "One guy by himself captivating an entire audience--he had an incredible personality."

Holstein began playing around town before there was a Chicago scene. "We didn't have a lot of coffeehouses," he notes. "And the bars were tough rooms. It was a good training ground, but my first job was on a bowling machine."

Wait, a what? "A bowling machine: one of those bowling games you see in a bar."

You mean you had to play over the sound of it? "No, on it. I had to sit on top of one of them."

The lucky serenadee that night in Rudi's, it turns out, was another key member of the folk circuit: Ray Nordstrand, the former chief of WFMT, a perennial folk lover (he still helps host the station's Saturday night program, the Midnight Special), and a longtime friend of Holstein's. "He was the first person to play me on the radio," Holstein says.

Those who dismiss folk music for its rural heritage and sometimes hokey accoutrements should remember that it was certainly the most intellectually diverse of the several strains of music that came together to create the cataclysmic rock of the 1960s; specifically, folk's advanced lyrics drew rock 'n' roll away from the moon-spoon-June variants of the time. "Most American pop music is about one thing: the relationship between men and women," Holstein says. "Folk is about a lot of things: work songs, war songs, lullaby songs. There are songs of requited and unrequited love, but there's such a rainbow there. I love the humanity and vision of it. I'm with what Pete Seeger said: 'I'm a professional singer of unprofessional songs.'"

Just a week or two back, Holstein made one of his infrequent official appearances (don't look for another before fall), this time at the Abbey Pub, where he was funny and personable, drawing on three decades of performing. Holstein hit the stage wearing baggy jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo for Sterch's, the Lincoln Park tavern where he tends bar. He took an affec-tionate crowd back into the past effortlessly.

Modern rock fans would blanch in horror at the sight of the 50-something performer and his audience chiming along to lyrics like "Inch by inch / Row by row / Won't you help my garden grow?" Holstein gave a nod or two of understanding to the reluctant dates brought along for the show:

"Hey, we're going to go see a folksinger!" Long pause. "Great."

The rest of the show gave a sense of the power of his voice and simple stage presence. He performed "Streets of London," one of his signature songs from the old days, a pretty amusing novelty number called "Waltzing With the Bear," another lovely run at "Old Devil Time," and a closing duet with pal Bob Smerch of "Goodnight Irene," in "the people's key of G."

Afterward Holstein made no apologies for the sing-alongs--"I love to hear the audience sing"--nor for his voice, which while occasionally wavering was more often clear and strong and affecting. "I like it better than I did 20 years ago," he says. "There's a resonance and maturity to it. Pablo Casals once said that the best musicians know what not to play. Now that I'm in my 50s I think I know what to do and what not to do."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Brad Miller.

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