"It took me a long time to learn it's not about me.” -- Fred Holstein

Just Plain Folk

By Rick Kogan

August 5, 2001

Everybody loves Fred Holstein, or at least that's the way it seems. Whenever his name is mentioned, people of a certain age with a fondness for folk music will react with a smile and a "How is Fred?" Such is the result of a lifetime spent singing and sharing songs.

"I'm a ballad singer," Holstein says, standing in Sterch's, the Lincoln Avenue saloon where he works and where, in the photo, he's being hugged by the bar's owner, Bob Smerch. "What I really like is the sing-along stuff. You hear the audience come back at you. It can be magical."

Magical, too, was a place called Holsteins. A few blocks north of Sterch's on Lincoln, it was, from 1981-88, arguably the best folk music club in the country.

Operated by Fred and younger brothers Ed and Alan, native South Siders all, it was a cozy and creative place, and on the night it closed for good, the final song was played by Fred. It was a sing-along version of "For All the Good People."

That song--recorded live at the time--is among more than 30 tunes available for listening (and remembering) on a new two-CD release titled, with charming simplicity, "Fred Holstein: A Collection."

It's his first CD. He cut a record in the 1970s and another in the 1980s but nothing since, and some fans have played the vinyl so often that the records have just worn out.

It's a remarkable work that combines remastered tunes from the two LPs, songs from the archives of WFMT-FM, and even snippets of interviews Holstein gave over the years. It is available at the Old Town School of Folk Music and at Sterch's.

Holstein performs rarely these days; there just aren't enough hospitable venues. But the CD will evoke such bygone places as the Earl of Old Town, Mother Blues and Holsteins. It will evoke an era.

"It took me a long time to learn it's not about me," says Holstein, who adds that he never could "get the hang" of writing his own songs. "I'm an interpreter and what I do is about the songs, about the art, about the work. What I do is entertain people, and I use folk music as my way to do that. I see myself as a conduit."

Icy word, conduit. How about treasure?

Copyright (c) 2001, Chicago Tribune