Letters to the editor:
I would like to clear up some misconceptions about my views of folk music and the history of the Old Town School. If my friend Win Stracke were here he would nip this whole controversy in the bud. Here is what I wanted to say in Mara Tapp’s article of July 23, 1999, entitled, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Peter, Paul, and Mary are fine popular artists. I respect them and their work. I don’t share the view Peter, Paul, and Mary have watered down anything but have contributed to the popular music scene by offering quality entertainment. I have nothing but the highest reverence for my friend and source of inspiration Pete Seeger. He is a great popularizer of American and international folk music, and the country is better off for his wonderful performance abilities. I loved Frank Sinatra’s singing, but if I had a choice I would attend a Pete Seeger concert.
Win Stracke was a wonderful person, a visionary, and a fine singer and performer. In response to Studs Terkel’s reply on August 6 to Mara Tapp’s article, it must be said that Win Stracke, Dawn Greening, Gertrude Soltker, and I cofounded the Old Town School of Folk Music. It would not have been possible if any one of us had not been there to do it. Win had an idea but not the means to execute it. Win and I drew up the original mission statement for the school together, and we worked well as a team. Dawn and Nate Greening provided support, warmth, openness, and inclusion. We had an interracial, intercultural, and varied student body at the beginning, pretty much as the school has now.
Fictional accounts of how the school was started can be dispelled by reading Win’s statements in “Biography of a Hunch.” Win did not just hire me to be the first teacher because we have articles of incorporation that show the original cofounders as Win Stracke, president, me as vice president, and Gertrude Soltker as the treasurer. Our roles were succinct. Win would promote the school and help in the development of the mission statement. He would act as administrator, officiate at school functions, and be the general spokesperson. I was head of the teaching program and devised and applied the curriculum. Together Win and I worked out innovative concert programs, the traditional Second Half, the instruction books, and the general philosophical direction of the school. In the very beginning stages, before we hired more teachers, no one else was around to help us do this day-to-day work except for the dedicated efforts of Gertrude Soltker, who kept us out of the red, and Dawn Greening, who I would characterize as the “heart” of the school. Win was a popular figure in Chicago, and it’s entirely understandable why. He was not only personable, open, warmhearted, and intelligent but was a great entertainer and popularizer of American folk music. He gave joy to young and old and should be remembered as a Chicago treasure.
Traditional folk music is a different animal than popular music or the popularization of folk music by professional entertainers. The meanings of the songs emanate from cultural traditions that span decades, if not centuries. There is nothing wrong with people popularizing folk music or reinterpreting it any way they like, nor is there anything wrong with popular music per se. The same goes for folk music also. Not every folk song or singer is necessarily “good” and not every pop song or performer “bad.” Popular music and traditional folk music are different. There is very little crossover. Folk music transcends individual personalities because it’s about tradition, the lore of the people, the heritage and natural resources of our country, and it thrives today regardless of what anyone does about it. We don’t need to have infighting as to whose music is better or worse. It’s time for the “personalities” to step aside and let the music flow.