Fred Holstein: 1943-2004

Chicago's Troubadour

Fred used to tease inattentive members of the audience by saying: "I suppose some of you were brought here by an over-zealous date. You're thinking, 'folk music, how quaint, or is he going to sing Kumbaya.'" Once Fred launched into song he captured the audience's attention and held it fast. The newly initiated adjourned convinced that folk music was more vital than quaint.

I first heard Fred on The Midnight Special sometime in the mid-1960s and first heard him live in the WFMT studio on New Year's Eve in the first hours of 1968. On June 30, 1969 I hoisted my Tandberg tape deck and a couple of Shure microphones on my back and bummed a ride to North and Wells to record Fred and Bonnie Koloc at the Earl of Old Town. It was the first of many recording I made at the Earl. Fred was pleasantly surprised that someone wanted to record him. I was in awe of Fred and Bonnie. Watching the reels turn, I thrilled in capturing memorable performances of stars of the Chicago folk firmament. I had arrived in folk heaven.

Later that summer, on July 20, I shared a very auspicious occasion with Fred. He performed in a folk festival at Second City along with his brother Ed, Bob Gibson and other notables, that I recorded for WFMT, even though I did not work for the radio station at the time. Afterwards, we repaired to the outdoor garden at the Tap Root Pub along with Ray Nordstrand and his family to celebrate the success of the festival over lobster and watch the astronauts land on the moon. As the door of the lunar lander opened, Fred turned toward the sky and began singing what had become his theme song, The Man Who Sings which contained the line "I'm the man who sings songs to the moon." That indelible moment etched itself into the memory of all present.

Over the years, I recorded Fred many more times in many more venues. Fred always found a new song to share. His voracious appetite for good songs kept him seeking sources, attending concerts, recording The Midnight Special, scrutinizing the recording song by song, and asking fellow Chicago performers, such as Steve Goodman for new songs. He would often call me at WFMT and ask about a new song or artist played on The Midnight Special. It wasn't enough for him merely to learn the song; he wanted to know its background. His repertoire ranged from Jacques Brel to Bob Zentz.

Fred, like a painter, approached a song as if it was an outline to be filled in and colored. He never copied from the composer or the tradition. He never sang by number. He took a song apart and reconstructed it in the way he thought it would most move the listener. A song absolutely had to resonate in him before he would sing it.

During his career Fred must have performed a thousand different songs. He introduced Chicago listeners to Gordon Bok, Eric Bogle, Malvina Reynolds, Ralph McTell, Utah Phillips, Bob Zentz, and many others, including a little known songwriter named Ken Hicks, who wrote a song, entitled All the Good People. Fred heard Bok and Zentz perform it together in concert at the Old Town School and knew without hesitation he had to learn it. I gave him a copy of the tape. It ultimately became his theme song. It fostered that image of a painter: "All the good people who touched up my life."

Fred touched all of our lives and left us with music in our minds that time cannot fade. I last spoke with Fred on December 30, 2003. He was supposed to perform at our New Year's Eve gala for The Midnight Special's 50th anniversary. He called me in great distress to apologize for being very ill and not being able to perform. He promised he would perform the following New Year's Eve.

While Fred won't physically be on stage next New Year's, his spirit will be in the music. He changed and uplifted the Chicago folk scene and influenced the musicians from whom he learned, those who performed alongside him, and those who watched and learned from him. No venue can contain his spirit, it lives in all of us who love this quaint and vital music which Fred so passionately lived to share.