Fred Holstein, stalwart of Chicago folk scene,
dies at 61

By Tom McNamee
Staff Reporter

January 14, 2004

On a good night at Holstein's, a cozy folk club on North Lincoln in the 1980s, the singer onstage often was one of the owners -- Fred Holstein.

Between cigarettes and sips of beer, Mr. Holstein would sing "Dona Dona" and "Hobo's Lullaby" and "I Remember You." He would sing sailing songs and train songs. And eventually, on a really good night, he'd work his way up to "Streets of London," a gently poignant song about loneliness in the big city.

A perfect hush would fall over the room, and the woman tending bar off to one side would sing out harmony on the chorus.

Forget the jokes about folk music. This was, to use one of Mr. Holstein's favorite words, a moment of "magic."

Fred Holstein, a kid from South Shore who moved to the North Side and became the anchor of Chicago's folk scene for more than 30 years, died during stomach surgery Monday night at Swedish Covenant Hospital. He was 61.

"Fred had this innate ability to interpret a song, to really make them his own," Jim Hirsch, former executive director of the Old Town School of Folk Music, said Tuesday. "When he performed, you could see this absolute love of music. It was like rays of sunshine coming out of his eyes."

Mr. Holstein made his name as the house act at the venerable Earl of Old Town music club from 1967 into the early '70s. When the club's owner, Earl Pionke, had nobody else booked for the night, Mr. Holstein took the stage. He had a fine baritone and he was available -- at a time when folk music already was fading and so many troubadours, such as Roger McGuinn, were running off to folk-rock bands.

Mr. Holstein and his brother Ed, also a folk singer, went on to co-own and perform in two classic Lincoln Avenue clubs, Somebody Else's Troubles and Holstein's. The clubs folded, but Mr. Holstein kept on singing. At the time of his death, he was tending bar -- and occasionally singing -- at yet another Lincoln Avenue bar, Sterch's.

A two-CD compilation of his music, "Fred Holstein: A Collection," was released in 2002.

Holstein never quite gained the fame of contemporaries such as Steve Goodman, John Prine and Michael Smith, but he was praised Tuesday as the true heart of this city's folk music scene.

"I always considered Fred the catalyst of the folk scene in Chicago," said Ray Nordstrand, co-creator of "The Midnight Special," the weekly folk music program on WFMT-FM (98.7). "Every benefit, he was there. He was not a songwriter, like Goodman and Prine, but he had an uncanny way of selecting the right songs and interpreting them perfectly."

"Midnight Special" host Rich Warren added, "Fred Holstein was Chicago's troubadour. He opted not to join the crowd of singer-songwriters, but rather to interpret traditional and contemporary folk songs with a depth and passion rare on the national folk scene."

Mr. Holstein was the oldest of three sons of a pharmacist. He fell in love with music at a young age and liked to go to the House of Music, a record store then at 79th Street and Michigan Avenue. The store's owner, George Silas, knew a music lover when he saw one and urged the visitor to broaden his tastes.

"George would say, 'Here, you gotta listen to this,' " recalled brother Ed. "One day, he gave Fred a promo of this record by Bob Gibson, 'Offbeat Folksongs,' and said, 'Here, this guy's made another record -- and he's kind of got a little following here in Chicago."

Mr. Holstein was hooked. He bought a guitar at Lyon & Healy in the Loop and, in 1961, started hanging around the Fret Shop, a store in Hyde Park.

"You'd walk into the Fret Shop and there'd be people like Mike Bloomfield playing guitar," Ed said. "It wasn't a club, but the owner would let you sit there and play guitar all day long."

That led to Promontory Point on Lake Michigan in Hyde Park. "It was blanket-to-blanket people in the summer, and there were all these guitar players and banjo players and congo players," Ed said. "And from Hyde Park, naturally, you'd gravitate further north to where all the clubs were. Fred, Elvin Bishop, Paul Butterfield -- they all went north."

Mr. Holstein took guitar lessons at the Old Town School (he later taught there off and on) and joined a folk group, the Frets.

Mr. Holstein opened Somebody Else's Troubles in the early 1970s with his brother Ed, Pionke, Goodman and Bill Redhed. When that partnership dissolved, Mr. Holstein and his two brothers -- Ed and Alan -- opened Holstein's. Alan managed the club. Ed booked the acts. Fred -- once again the house act -- sang.

Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert described Fred and Ed as "the big hearts at the center of the Chicago folk scene in the 1970s." And the club Holstein's, Ebert recalled, "was more like a nightly reunion of friends than a retail enterprise."

Mr. Holstein developed a reputation for being a serious folklorist. "He knew the music -- the background and the folk roots," said Frank Hamilton, one of the founders of the Old Town School.

Tributes to Mr. Holstein are being planned at both WFMT and the Old Town School of Folk Music. They will be musical tributes, of course, and chances are they'll end with everybody singing Mr. Holstein's signature song: "For All the Good People."