Art Thieme, longtime Chicago folk musician, dies 5-26-2015
Arthur “Art” Thieme earned a reputation as a master of the American folk ballad, often
playing the six-string guitar or
nine-string banjo. He died Tuesday at the age of 73.
By Tony Briscoe
Chicago folk music staple Art Thieme dies of complications related to multiple sclerosis. Arthur "Art" Thieme, a Chicago folk musician who took his intimate style of storytelling and humor across the country while remaining a mainstay at local venues for nearly four decades, has died, his son said Wednesday. He was 73..
Thieme died of complications related to multiple sclerosis Tuesday night in Crystal Lake, where he lived with his wife in a
nursing home, said his son, Chris Thieme.
"His music, the way he could take an entire auditorium of people and make them feel like they were in his living room, he
just had that way about him," Chris Thieme said. "He was a great person, a great man."
A Chicago native, Thieme grew up playing the guitar as a teenager, frequenting the beatnik clubs of the late 1950s and
early 1960s. He later became captivated by historic stories while working as a manager at the Old Town School of Folk
Music. He incorporated many historic stories into his music, like his 1986 performance of "Mr. Garfield," a sung-and-spoken
piece about the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield.
"He loved traditional songs, stories from all around country, all around America," Chris Thieme said. "He primarily was a
folklorist. He loved the idea of preserving parts of American history that otherwise would be lost." The school is also where Thieme met his wife, Carol. Shortly after the couple married and traveled the country, they returned to Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. Thieme gravitated to the coffeehouse ambience and creative crowd at the Rogers
Park establishment No Exit Cafe, a venue he played every Thursday for much of his career — including Thanksgivings.
"He had been in the folk scene, and so it had been germinating at that point whether he wanted to do it full-time," Thieme
said. "When my mom told him she was pregnant with me, he walked to Lake Michigan and thought and said, 'Let's make a go of it,' and he never looked back."
In 1977, Thieme released his first of seven albums, "Outright Bold-Faced Lies." Chris Thieme said his father's favorite was "On the Wilderness Road," released in 1986.
Art Thieme passed the music bug along to Chris, who performed his father's songs as recently as two weeks ago at a Lake
County venue. Thieme lost his playing ability in the mid-1990s, around the time he was diagnosed with MS. He still released a collection of his live performances in 2006, "Art Thieme Live: Chicago Town & Points West."
Thieme is also survived by his brother Richard and five grandchildren.
1977 - Outright Bold-Faced Lies
1980 - Songs Of The Heartland
1983 - That's The Ticket
1986 - On the Wilderness Road
1988 - On The River
1995 - Live At Winfield
1998 - The Older I Get, The Better I Was
2006 - Art Thieme LIVE: Chicago Town & Points West
Arthur "Art" Thieme (July 9, 1941 – May 26, 2015)
Yesterday we lost one of the truly great ones. Art Thieme was the real deal, a consummate teller in song and story, and an
icon of Americana. Furthermore, he was a beautiful person, a real mensch.
My husband Sandy met Art in Chicago in 1960 or ’61. Sandy was selling folk records in a big store downtown. As I recall,
Art was in high school then, and working part time at another music store nearby. He’d come by on breaks, and he and Sandy “walked each others’ minds” (to quote Rosalie Sorrels). It was a lifelong bond.
We’re grateful that Art’s music lives on in his many recordings, including three on Folk-Legacy. We send our condolences to
Art’s wife Carol, his son Chris, and all his extended family.
May 27, 2015
GOING WITH THE MUSICAL FLOW
by Lynn Van Matre
The year was 1959, and Americans were humming the chorus of "Tom Dooley," the Kingston Trio hit that catapulted folk music to the top of pop charts a year earlier. In Chicago, the urban folk scene was in full flower, with clubs like the Gate of
Horn and Mother Blues drawing standing-room only crowds and prompting countless would-be troubadours to take up guitar or banjo.
One of those budding musicians was teenager Art Thieme, who hung out at clubs with other young hopefuls like David Crosby and Cass Elliot. The fledgling folkie made his performing debut that December at a coffeehouse in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. "The admission was $1, and the deal was that I got 25 percent of the door," Mr. Thieme recalls. "I went home with 25 cents." The fad for traditional folk songs eventually ran its course; by the mid-1960's the Beatles had invaded America and rock reigned supreme. Young performers like Crosby and Elliot left Chicago and the traditional scene to join folk-rock pop groups such as the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas.
But Art Thieme had fallen in love with the old tunes, songs from the American experience that told what he calls "the
camaraderie and hopes and dreams and tragedies of real folks." Over the next four decades he would perform the ballads he
loved at venues throughout the Midwest and beyond, forging a reputation as a topflight interpreter of American traditional
music and a captivating storyteller with a penchant for puns.
Today, at 64, Mr. Thieme qualifies as something if an elder statesman the traditional folk scene, and he keeps his hand in
on several fronts. His column, "The Unreconstructed Folksinger," appears on the Plank Road Music Society Web site
(www.plankroad.org), maintained by Chicago area folkies.
Plans call for a retrospective CD to be released later in 2006 by Folk-Legacy records (www.folklegacy.com), home to two
earlier Thieme CDs. Most recently, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. contacted Mr. Theime about acquiring for their archives – and possible display – hundreds of pictures the amateur photographer has taken of folk performers over the years.
But the longtime Chicago folk fixture no longer performs in public due to multiple sclerosis, diagnosed in the mid-1990's.
The disease causes him problems with mobility, short-term memory and manual dexterity. Mr. Thieme acknowledges that dealing with MS is far more challenging than the difficulties he encountered in decades on the road.
"It's frustrating as hell to not be able to play my instruments," says Mr. Thieme, who accompanied himself in performances
on guitar, banjo, and musical saw. "I miss that more than I can ever say. But I go forward day by day. "The calluses on my fingers are gone because I can't fret my instruments, but my hide is thicker and tougher," he adds. "I can take more now than I could in earlier times, because I'm learning to take what comes rather than always trying to control the uncontrollable." Mr. Theime spends part of his days taking care of Carol, his wife of 38 years, who has battled severe depression for more
than a decade.
"I take care of her and she takes care of me," he says. The couple shares an apartment in Peru, Ill., where they moved in
the 1980s to provide better schooling for their son, Chris, now grown. "With me being a folksinger, we couldn't afford to live in the Chicago suburbs that had good schools," Mr. Thieme says. "So we came to Peru, which was a good move. I was on the road a lot, and Carol stayed home to raise our son." In addition to playing clubs and festivals, Mr. Thieme performed in Chicago-area schools for more than 20 years as part of the Urban Gateways arts education program. His summers often were spent on the Mississippi River, playing for passengers on excursion boats running between Le Claire, Iowa, and Galena, Ill. His days on the riverboats taught him a number of things, not the least of which was patience. "Our boat would go through locks twice every day," Mr. Thieme explains. "If we got to the locks with no tows ahead of us, we would lock through in maybe 30 or 40 minutes. But if we were behind a 'double tow' – we had no choice except to wait while they broke the barges in two parts and put each half through separately." 'Another lock delay' "It took me a couple of years to realize it wasn't in my best interest to get ticked off at the fickle finger of fate. After that, (during delays) I just looked around and gloried in the beauty and serenity that was all around me. So now, I try to remind myself that it's just another lock delay – time to look around and see what amazing floats are coming along in the never-ending aquatic parade. All of us have our own private river that is our personal Grail hunt, our personal adventure.
"I wish I could see it that way all the time," Mr. Thieme adds. "I can't; none of us can. We all have plenty of times we
can practice, though."
Longtime Appalachian folksinger Jean Ritchie recalls hearing Mr. Thieme the first time in the late 1960s and being
impressed with the youthful performer."My husband, George Pickow, and I were doing a cross-country tour (that included) a booking at a coffeehouse in Milwaukee," says Ms. Ritchie. "I was kind of nervous, but my host said, 'Oh, are you lucky! One of our most treasured local folks has requested that he be on the bill with you tonight.' He ushered me into the little artist's-lurking-room and there was a big bunch of garden flowers, and Art Thieme standing beside it, grinning.
"It was a wonderful evening for me. Art did the opening spot, doing a few songs I knew and several I had never heard
before but liked a lot, and then he told a long, funny story. By the time I went onstage, my nervousness was all gone. Art
radiates warmth and fun."
By the mid-1970s, Mr. Thieme had begun recording, first for a California record label called Kicking Mule and later for
Connecticut-based Folk-Legacy. In addition to the retrospective "Chicago and Points West," Folk-Legacy founder Sandy Paton says the label plans to release a CD of Thieme's shows aboard the Mississippi riverboat the "Julia Belle Swain."
"I can think of no one in the so-called 'folk revival' more capable of holding an audience spellbound with his presentation of traditional ballads and songs," Mr. Paton says. "If we can help Art receive even a part of the national recognition he deserves, we are willing to work hard to do so."
Mr. Thieme enjoys recalling stories from his early days on the folk scene, including the time author Nelson Algren bought
the fledgling troubadour a beer. "It was the first beer I ever had in a bar," Mr. Thieme says. "It was at the original Second City, on Clark Street. I would hang out there drinking Cokes and listening to the cool conversations. Algren kept after me to have a beer, but they wouldn't serve me because I was too young. So one day he slid his beer down the bar to me and winked at the bartender, who just turned around, exasperated."
Mr. Thieme , whose early influences included the New Lost City Ramblers, Odetta and Chicago street musicians Blind Arvella Gray, says he believed – and still believes – that the main job of a true folksinger is to explore and preserve the past.
"Modern singer-songwriters look at today's personal dramatic situations and traumas," he says. "Some of today's songwriters will become legends, but from where I sit, most of them will not become folksingers. It's only when songs are a result of looking at people of the past, and studying how they chronicled their lives, that they're real folk songs. That's what it comes to, in a nutshell, to me. I considered myself a folksinger about 60 per cent of the time – maybe a little more, I hope."