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Scott Alarik

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Art Thieme Comes Home

Scott's note: Art Thieme passed away in May, 2015. He was a real hero of mine. One of the first stories I wrote for Sing Out! The Folk Music Magazine was about the legendary banjo-picker, traditional singer and raconteur, back when I was just learning the rules of the road for what Utah Phillips' called "Alarik's Journalism Ruse." Reading it now, 20 years later, I still feel Art in it, his love for folk music and all the people who loved it with him. He was a gem.

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Art Thieme comes home
Chicago in 1960 was an exciting place for a young boy falling in love with folk music, but as Art Thieme strolled the downtown streets, it all started eating at him again. The stuff he was hearing on records and at the coffeehouses was great, but he knew something was missing. He wanted to know where these folk songs came from.
Ever since his girlfriend had dragged him to the Gate of Horn to see “something called an Odetta,” Art had been hooked. He remembered listening to country music on the WLS Barn Dance radio show and, as he listened to Odetta, he could tell that those hillbilly songs were somehow connected to the tough field hollers and tender Scottish ballads that Odetta, this sophisticated young black woman, was signing. But how?
He started going to the hootenannies at the Gate of Horn and the Old Town School of Folk Music. Anybody who was in town was likely to drop by - Bob Gibson, Joan Baez, Peter LaFarge, Earl Robinson, Pete Seeger. He heard more and more songs; there was no end to them. He had devoured the folk music section at Rose Records, where he worked; but he knew there was something missing. These were real songs, about real lives; songs about slavery and tall ships, cowboys and queen’s daughters. But the people singing them were mostly young city kids like himself. The more he heard, the more he wanted to know.
Thinking over all this, Art turned the corner and, as he stood in front of Kroch’s and Bentano’s, billed as “The World’s Largest Bookstore,” a frigid gust of wind whipped in off the lake, forcing him to turn into the doorway. In the back of the store, holding a huge pile of records, was a fellow Art had seen singing at the hootenannies. He always had a new song, and he seemed to get them from everywhere. His name was Sandy Paton, and he had just been hired by Kroch’s to build up a folk record section for them.
“He must know something,” Art thought, and wandered in. As he spilled out his frustrations and desires, his fruitless search for the real stuff, Sandy began to smile. It was a warm smile, with just a trace of “spider-to-the-fly” to it; a smile many people over the years would see just before Sandy answered their questions in a way that often changed their lives. Sandy Paton was just beginning a career as one of folk music’s real missionaries; he always had time for a young kid who really cared, as Art obviously did.
Sandy answered Art’s questions carefully, showing him some of the records he was buying for Kroch’s; odd little records on labels Art had never heard of: Topic, Tradition, Folkways. Sandy explained to him about field recordings, how collectors would go to the mountains and prisons and sailing ships where working people made their own music and passed it along from generation to generation. Sandy suggested a few albums, smiled that smile again, and urged Art to come back any time.
Over the next few months, Art spent most of his lunch hours pestering Sandy about this collector or that field recording. He knew he was finally finding the real stuff, songs sung by actual miners and sailors, weavers and cowboys - and he knew it was starting to take over his life.
Art had started playing guitar and banjo, and Sandy urged him to sing more and to look around for songs himself. One day, though Sandy told Art was losing his new teacher. He and his wife Caroline were moving to New England. They wanted to do some of their own collecting.
“Before you go, Sandy,” Art said, almost in a whisper - he was blushing furiously. “I’ve been thinking of becoming a folk singer. How do you do it? Where do you start?”
Sandy gave him that smile again. Twenty-five years later, he still remembers what he told Art. “We’d been doing all this talking about records; talking about folk music in the middle of the world’s largest bookstore, for God’s sake. I said, ‘Take your guitar and get out there; go across country, meet the people, get a sense of them, learn their songs, learn how they live.’ I told a lot of kids that back then, but Art’s the only one I know who actually did it.” He chuckles and says, “I wonder if he’s ever forgiven me.”
They said goodbye, and would not meet again for 17 years. Sandy and Caroline Paton moved to New England where, within a year, they started Folk Legacy Records. From North Carolina field recordings to younger singers like Bill Staines and Gordon Bok, no record label has most consistently representing what the Patons call “the continuing tradition;” the blending of old and new, authentic and revivalist, which for many defines contemporary folk music.
As for young Art Thieme, he took Sandy’s advice. First, he tried a cross-country trip, retracing the Dust Bowl journeys of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie. The learning got hard in a hurry.
“A friend and I headed for California to meet the Okies working in the Salinas Valley lettuce fields,” Art remembers, his face grim at the memory. “God, we were idealistic. We expected to meet Doc from Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row,’ maybe Tom Joad out there organizing the workers. We did find Cannery Row: there was a coffeehouse, six bars, give antique shops, and 200 places selling salt-water taffy. We went down to Salinas, but the only thing that was there from Woody’s days was the incredible poverty. That was everywhere. I realized the America I was looking for was gone, except in the songs.”
The trip only deepened Art’s desire to look back into those songs.
“When I got back to Chicago, I started digging.” Art’s memories get softer now, and he begins to smile. “I’d record streetsingers, go to the old churches to hear the hymns, read pioneer journals, go back to the field recordings. I started learning where to look for the history behind the songs; how to connect them to real people. And this wasn’t Woody’s America or Steinbeck’s. It was mine; Illinois, Lake Michigan, Chicago.”
Rose Records got smaller and smaller for him. Pop music was so full of what Art calls “me songs.” The deeper he got into folk music, and the lives behind them, the harder it got to sell Top-40. One day, he “got disgusted and just walked out.” He decided if he believed in folk music so much, he should start singing for a living. It was not an easy transition.
“When i first started performing, I was serious beyond belief,” Art recalls, grimacing and chuckling at the same time. “I just used to stand up there and sweat. It was grim.”
Seeing Art Thieme perform today, it is hard to picture that. He is one of the most engaging and, to all appearances, natural performers of traditional songs in folk music today. He fills the stage, a big man, 40 years old, with a long graying beard and a physique midwesterners forgivingly call “healthy” (“It is little comfort to me,” he often quips, “to know that a Douglas fir with my circumference would be 80 feet tall.” )
He might be an intimidating figure were it not for the soft twinkling of his blue eyes, seeming always to be announcing some mischief, and a smile that testifies to his real affection for the songs he sings. And there’s that voice, that incredibly gentle, deep voice. “There’s a very soothing quality to Art’s voice, “Caroline Paton says. “On a sad song, it sounds like a sob; and on a funny song, it sounds like a chuckle. But it’s the same thing.”
Art tends to string songs together, continuing to pick his guitar or banjo while he sets up the next song or launches into his endless repertoire of folk humor and one-liners: “They say suicide is the sincerest form of self-criticism,” or “If we are what we eat, why am I not tall and slim - like a Twinkie?” This style makes every show he does unique and delightfully unpredictable.
“Art is hands-down my favorite folk singer,” says Tom Martin-Erickson, co-producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Simply Folk” program. “He really is the one who got me excited about folk music. I’ve seen him more than any other performer, and he always surprises me. He finds songs that really speak to me, and he doesn’t let anything get in the way. His humor keeps everything moving, and he’s got so many songs. I saw him string together a half a set of insect songs once - and it was great.”
Becoming a performer was a very deliberate process for Art; it took a long time. First came the music. He tries to keep an active repertoire of 500 songs.
“I think of a song as a story that just happens to have a tune,” he says. “If it’s a good tune, all the better. But I’ll let a song go if it’s got a phrase that doesn’t ring true, that is not something someone would really say. That ruins it for me.”
Then came the humor. Bruce “Utah” Phillips, the great songwriter and raconteur, once told Art, “You’re not just on stage for the time you’re making music; you’re up there for the whole show. What you say in between songs is just as important as the songs.”
From then on, Art says, “I tried to use humor to keep people interested. I want to fill those moments between songs in a way that keeps people in the world I want them in, whether it’s for a Robin Hood ballad or a cowboy song. There’s a whole wonderful world of folklore and folk humor to help me do that.”
Art put himself in front of every audience he could, from the Chicago club scene, where the late shows were described by Chicago Magazine as “most closely resembling the bar scene from ‘Star Wars,’ to quiet coffeehouses (he played Thursday nights at the No Exit Coffeehouse for 15 years); from protest rallies and folk festivals to churches and grade schools.
“These songs transport me to other times,” Art says, his eyes glowing. “It’s like sweeping the scum of the present off the top of the pond and letting us look down into the depths of history.”
He stops, looks surprised, clears his throat. He prides himself on simplicity, so when the poet in him slips out, he blushes. “Where was I? I try to show that in the schools, and wherever I play for people who may not know this music as well as I do. These songs show us our kinship with other times.
“Whether it’s a folk club, a school, or a father-and-son Cub Scout troop, I know I cam make people like these songs if they’ll let me.”
Art is very serious now, leaning forward, eyes bright. “For whatever reason, these songs have become my cause. I’ve seen them go from popular entertainment to almost museum pieces. But I don’t care. I’m willing to present these songs any way they’re accepted. And when people say, ‘We didn’t know we’d like this so much,’ that’s when i know I’ve done my job.”
In 1978, with two find Kicking Mule records to his credit, Art was invited to a folk festival in Connecticut. With his passion and puns in full flower, he brought the house down. After his first song, Sandy and Caroline Paton, who were hearing Art for the first time, looked at each other and nodded. When his set was finished, Sandy approached Art, holding out his hand. On his face was smile Art had not seen for 17 years, but that he remembered very well. Uh-oh. What now?
“You should be on Folk Legacy Records, Art,” said Sandy.
It was Art’s turn to smile now. “I’d love to, Sandy; it’s about time.”
With the release of his second Folk Legacy album, “The Wilderness Road,” Art Thieme is doing the best work of his career. From canal-digging songs and loggers’ laments to standards like “Wabash Cannonball” and contemporary ballads like Si Kahn’s “Spinning Wheels of Home,” Art’s easy command rolls the tunes together into one long, sweet song.
Even the humor nestles in gently, seamlessly. “I had a cow, she slobbered bad,” he sings in “Down in Arkansas.” What other could make that line sound pretty? That he might be the only singer who would want to is not the point. A lifetime of respect for these songs, and for the folk humor he calls “jokelore,” is the tie that binds; and it eloquently makes the case for the Patons’ “continuing tradition.”
Perhaps it is working again with Sandy Paton, feeling his own past brought into the present, that is shining through in his music. As Art Thieme sings his chorusses into the Folk Legacy microphones these days, a warm and familiar smile from the man behind the mixing board welcomes him home.
Originally published in Sing Out! The Folk Music Magazine. Used by permission.