Today’s Tradition: A Look at the State of Chicago ...

Today’s Tradition: A Look at the State of Chicago Folk Music

In the far north neighborhood of Rogers Park, the Red Line Tap came alive one Tuesday night in late January. Around 9 p.m., musicians slowly but steadily began appearing and joining in with the performing ensemble by the front door.

First, a couple played fiddles together at their setup by the front window of the bar and were joined by a third fiddle and mandolin after a song. The Red Line Tap has a small stage for its other acts that perform each night, but the folk musicians opted for the smaller performance space by the entrance that night. A guitarist and cello player walked in, introduced themselves to the other musicians for the first time and proceeded to bring bar stools to the corner where the musicians were jamming.

This is Old Lazarus’ Harp, an ensemble of young folk musicians meeting for a jam at the Red Line Tap, a dive bar adorned with murals and signs. One reads “Support Local Wildlife.” Old Lazarus’ Harp is not a folk band per se, but rather a folk collective started by Daniel McDonald and Evan Collins who met while studying at the Chicago School of Violin Making. Instead of a band with an official members list, Old Lazarus’ Harp is composed of like-minded folk musicians, many of whom incorporate music in their professional life.

By 10 p.m., the ensemble was in full swing.

A voice called out from the bar, “Brendan, play your mandolin, man!”

“I will in a bit,” he called back, and grabbed his guitar instead.

“Are you gonna play Margaritaville?” the same voice joked. After the group finished one upbeat, lively tune, one of the guitarists suggested a slower one. They decided on “The Wind and Rain,” and the cello player led the ballad both vocally and instrumentally. He crooned each melancholy lyric while the rest of the ensemble listened attentively and colored in the harmonies where appropriate as they echoed, “Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.”

The folk music scene subtly pulsates in pockets of Chicago, and Old Lazarus’ Harp is just one instance of this. Musicians of all talents and experience levels can find ways to encounter folk, whether through renowned educational institutions like the Old Town School of Folk Music or through close-knit ensembles found at various pubs and restaurants.

Brendan Carson is the organizer of these jams at the Red Line Tap, which were scheduled monthly until recently.

“Unfortunately the Red Line Tap jams are going on hiatus as the Tap gets a facelift and rebranding over the next two months,” Carson said. “The original sessions were at the Innertown Pub in Wicker Park, and after a year and a half long pause they restarted there a month ago.”

Attached next door to the Red Line Tap and run by the same owners is the Heartland Cafe, where Old Lazarus’ Harp used to perform until the cafe was restructured and could no longer provide space for the collective.

While some members of Old Lazarus’ Harp may work full time at Old Town School of Folk Music or as professional performers, Carson is a scientist.

“Other than helping me maintain my sanity, folk music isn’t part of my livelihood,” Carson noted. “But as a biologist I see a lot of the same patterns that are present in biological evolution in the transfer of folk music melodies and rhythms across time and space as people have migrated and cultures interact.”

Carson especially enjoys how folk forms through an “organic process, rather than the prescribed engineering that characterizes classical music.” The Old Lazarus’ Harp jams incorporate elements of old-time folk music, which developed in the Americas and varied regionally. The organic process is natural like the movement of people and art through time and history. And just as these musicians in the past traveled, the collective continues to travel to venues across Chicago, southwards to Wicker Park next.

Prominently located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood in the North Side of Chicago, Old Town School of Folk Music is an institution dedicated to the instruction, performance and celebration of folk tradition. Walking through the hallways of the school on a Thursday night inevitably leads to a grab bag of ear candy – jazz rock trios in one practice room clash with a solo trumpeter’s rehearsal in a way that does not produce dissonance. Instead, music surrounds every corner.

In the lobby, a group of about 25 men and women meet and play at Old Town School of Folk Music’s weekly Folk, Rock, and Roots Jam. The crowd that frequents this jam varies in age and expertise levels, with teachers and students playing alongside each other.

In the middle of a carpet, a man who leads each song sat surrounded by rings of musicians. Banjoists, several guitar players, accordions, harmonicas, mandolins and ukuleles dotted the crowd and each added a layer to “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles. Each song performed generally consists of two sung verses and choruses, a solo by an instrumentalist, and a final chorus. Books of music were scattered over the floor by the musicians’ feet, but no one felt the need to look at them. Rather, the musicians watched and waited for each others’ cues.

Sitting beneath the staircase towards the back at this Thursday night jam was a couple, Neil and Nora Wickman. Neil has been taking banjo lessons from Old Town since June, and Nora has been learning ukulele even more recently. During the jam, Neil’s banjo was packed away and beside him while Nora followed along with a banjolele – a petite looking banjo that echoes the sunny sound of a ukulele.

“The really cool thing about this place is that it’s much more than just folk music,” Nora said. “There’s dancing and theater here. I run a small theater company and they even let us rehearse here.”

“It’s an open community attitude,” Neil chimed in.

At Old Town’s jams, everyone is welcome to join free of charge and regardless of enrollment status. However, the jam sessions can act as a sort of check up for those students like the Wickman couple who want to measure their progress.

“I went from being able to basically play nothing to being able to play along and pick up each song,” Neil said.

Nora especially appreciates the dynamics in the classroom at Old Town School of Folk Music. Classes are taught in groups and not just one on one, which allows for the students to ask each other questions and to condition themselves to playing in a group. Nora’s ukulele teacher will walk around and make sure each individual student is getting their chords right.

“They also have scholarships here,” Nora said. “We are fairly broke artists. I do theater, he does animation, but we’re able to take lessons here because we have scholarships.”

This weekly Thursday night jam is not the only one of its kind held at Old Town. On Wednesdays, the Great Americana Songbook weekly jam happens from noon to 2 p.m., and a new jam takes place later that night at 8:30. Each is located in the same lobby as the Folk, Rock, and Roots Jam.

At their Armitage Avenue campus, Old Town also holds a weekly Saturday jam geared towards children, and it features the Kid’s Music Programs. After each eight-week bluegrass class session, Old Town concludes the class with the Sunday Bluegrass Jam, located across the street from the Lincoln Avenue lobby at the Jim & Kay Mable Gallery. These jams are open to the public and free of charge, though donations are welcome from attendees.


Sam Kunkel’s apartment overlooks the CTA Red Line tracks just south of the Jarvis Station in Rogers Park, Chicago.

“I was extremely fortunate to move into this apartment,” Kunkel said after cuing up some folk songs to play from his laptop. Bluegrass fiddle player Brittany Haas’s album filled the room with a lush background of rapid violin notes and flowering guitars. Her self-titled album played from beginning to end.

“My first roommate whom I moved in with was a Swedish fiddle player, and an extremely talented one at that,” he said. “And my downstairs neighbor was an old-time fiddle player. It was serendipitous. I couldn’t have been luckier, honestly.”

Kunkel is a student at the Chicago School of Violin Making. He plans to become a luthier after he graduates, someone whose craft involves building or repairing stringed instruments.

“It’s funny, there’s a nexus around this block of Sherwin Avenue that brought the fiddle players and the violinmakers together,” Kunkel said. A train rolled by behind him. The living room offers a comfortably close view from anywhere on the couch. On clear days, the Chicago skyline is visible towards the end of the tracks.

In his free time, Kunkel finds himself attending one of the many folk jam sessions. Kunkel does not play on the instruments he creates. Instead, he typically opts for his mandolin.

“Oh! There’s one happening tonight,” Kunkel consulted his phone. “But I can’t make that one. Damn, and I’ve wanted to.” He often finds himself jamming and hanging out with Old Lazarus’ Harp. According to Kunkel, if he could estimate, there could be anyone from 20 to 100 people involved in some way. Anyone is free to walk in and join a jam session or a square dance, granted they can match the pace and skill levels of fellow performers.

“They’re a really cool, interesting group of people,” Kunkel said. “Lots of them used to live in Rogers Park, but now everyone moved to Bridgeport. They even have a Christmas album now.”

His cat, dusty gray and without a name, jumped from the CD and the cassette rack on the wall. Miraculously, nothing fell.

Kunkel is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and moved to Chicago in 2014 to start school. When he was 15 years old, he started taking music classes on Saturdays at Riley School of Irish Music in Cincinnati.

“It’s about eight teachers who come in early in the morning, you take classes for an hour, there’s jams, you hang out in the church basement and you play tunes,” Kunkel said. “And then you eat soup for lunch and talk about the news in the Irish music world.”

The first music group in Chicago that Kunkel found himself a part of was a group called the $tudent Committee, a group whose last official count was 14 people and most of whom were instrumentalists. That group recorded and mastered an EP, but the group dissolved due to organizational issues before releasing it.

After witnessing the dysfunction of a large band that was too casual with commitment, Kunkel began playing for another group named A Penny Shy – a great group, he recalled, even though he did not play with them long.

“I was the only instrumentalist,” Kunkel said. “Three fantastic vocalists, one of whom was an excellent songwriter. He was a great, great, great singer. I was so impressed which is why I enjoyed playing with them so much.” However, once the other band members hit their senior year at DePaul University, other priorities led to the fall of A Penny Shy before the group could record or gig.

Meanwhile, Kunkel is focusing on finishing school. He is in his third and final year at the Chicago School of Violin Making, and has reached the part of the curriculum where he is completely crafting full instruments. Kunkel has woodworked casually since he was eight years old and has played music for as long as he could remember.

“College wasn’t all that attractive for me,” Kunkel said. Instead of studying arts at a high price, he decided to become a luthier. His decision to take an alternative path after high school was influenced by a friend from Cincinnati who chose to enroll in a technical program instead of a college. His friend chose to go into a technical program after high school, and that move influenced Kunkel to take his own alternative path.

“It can be a lucrative profession,” Kunkel said, “if you’re good and play your cards right.”

Sam Kunkel plays a mandolin in his apartment (Michael Schmidt, 14 East Magazine)

Sam Kunkel plays a mandolin in his apartment (Michael Schmidt, 14 East Magazine)

“What’s interesting is that when I think of Chicago music, folk doesn’t quite come to mind first even though some of my first Chicago music experiences were centered upon folk,” Helen Kinskey acknowledged after a moment of thought. “I think of jazz, but I think of a little bit of everything. The city’s totally big enough that you could find everything.”

Kinskey and Kunkel were friends in high school before the two moved to Chicago from Cincinnati in the fall of 2014 to attend DePaul University and Chicago School of Violin Making. Since then, the two have attended jam sessions at Old Town as well as the Heartland Cafe back when Old Lazarus’ Harp met there regularly.

Kinskey does not play an instrument relative to folk music, but will join along singing when she knows the tune.

“I find myself in a room full of people with great talent, and I can’t help but wish I could participate in some form,” she said. “I’ve definitely looked up how much lessons cost.”

Regardless of genre however, Kinskey considers it important to support local music communities than to ignore it. In Cincinnati, she frequented DIY punk shows and especially enjoyed how the shows were oriented towards the community itself, and that she could point out and recognize band members as her friends.

“These shows would have mosh pits in basements with amps that were way too loud and floors with too much dirt,” Kinskey recalled, “but it truly had a charm to it.”

Filmmaker Julie Ivers is also familiar with the same punk scenes as Kinskey, but Ivers describes the folk scene as more comfortable, homey and welcoming as opposed to the high-energy mosh pits in Cincinnati and Chicago.

She once filmed a jam session at the Heartland Cafe, and especially enjoyed how the bar setting allowed for her to enjoy the music without feeling pressured to play or sing along.

“People were just drinking, having their casual Thursday night,” Ivers recollected. “I remember there was a little bit of chatter around the bar too.”

Ivers does not claim to be a musician or singer of any sort, though she wishes she were. “I have a lot of appreciation for the improvisation aspect of it,” she said. “They’re not just typical musicians at these jams, they truly know their instruments and they’re always on their toes listening to each other.”

Every Tuesday night, John Williams leads an Irish music session at the Celtic Knot Public House in Evanston, a cozy bar and restaurant with deep red walls and candlelight. Williams has performed around the world – from Chicago to North Carolina, Bermuda to Spain. He has provided free live music at the Celtic Knot for about a year and a half, alternating from accordion, flute, guitar and singing on a given night.

“Chicago is a crossroads town – any music scene can ebb and flow,” he said, simultaneously playing accordion alongside his friend who fiddled along. “You just have to know where to go, even in Ireland.”

“In Chicago, I would say that it is word of mouth that drives the music scene,” Peter Bucci said. “Someone invites you to a small show or open mic maybe, and you sort of find yourself wrapped up in it after that.”

Bucci first attended Old Town School of Folk Music last year for their Folk, Rock, and Roots jam when his friends brought him there. He is a vocalist and guitarist whose experience in music has been defined by group performances, whether through his theater involvement in Chicago and his hometown of Wakefield, Rhode Island, or through his role in the DePaul a cappella group InterChorus.

“There’s always something new to learn from my fellow group members everyday,” he said. “From what I’ve seen here in Chicago, musicians of any genre or performance type are always looking to shake up the norms. It’s a humbling thing being a part of a community or family – Old Town, a cappella, anything – and I think many musicians can relate to that.”


Kunkel’s unnamed cat brushed her tail against his glasses and settled on his lap. He grabbed his mandolin and began strumming.

“Bridgeport is awesome!” Kunkel admitted about the Chicago neighborhood where some of his musician friends have relocated. “But I don’t want to live in Chicago, though.”

Despite the people he has met and the weekly jams he attends, Chicago may not actually be the place for folk today. At least not like it used to be. Austin, Texas, New York City and the West Coast are the places to be now, but not as much as Nashville, Tennessee, which Kunkel describes as the mecca.

“Ending up in Nashville for me, as a luthier who wants to work with fiddles and guitars and mandolins and as a traditional musician, would be like, I don’t know,” Kunkel pondered, “ending up in Alabama as a football player, or ending up in Brooklyn as a noise rock guitar player barista. It just makes sense. That’s the connection for me.”

Nashville is where the professional musicians act like regular people who drive cars and own houses, according to Kunkel. But he fears it will get the “Portland treatment” as happened in Oregon. Everybody realized the appeal of Portland, moved there, and in turn the rent and prices of everything skyrocketed. Right now, however, Kunkel says the Tennessee city is still a cheap city to live in.

Even with all that Nashville has to offer to someone like Kunkel, he is not necessarily seeking to settle there. First he has to graduate.

“I’m looking to find a job. I’m looking to find work in my field,” Kunkel said. “That could mean getting a job at Lyon & Healy Harps in Chicago. Or if it means moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, so be it.”

The computer played “The Blackest Crow” by Brittany Haas, a slower and pensive track off the album. The unnamed cat fell asleep in Kunkel’s lap.

“The endgame for me is building and playing music. Both.”


Folk Jams in Chicago

  • Innertown Pub, 1935 West Thomas St. Old Lazarus’ Harp’s jams on the first and third Tuesday of each month.
  • Old Town School of Folk Music, multiple locations. Concert venues, lessons and music shops are just some of the features of this institution. Great American Songbook Jam, New Jam and Folk, Rock, and Roots Jam at 4545 North Lincoln Ave. Saturday Jam at 909 West Armitage Ave. Bluegrass Jam at 4544 North Lincoln Ave. Free.
  • Celtic Knot Public House, 626 Church Street. Evanston pub that features live country, roots and bluegrass music every Monday night and Irish music sessions every Sunday and Tuesday.
  • The Galway Arms, 2442 North Clark St. Irish bar and restaurant that features live Irish music every Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
  • The Grafton, 4530 North Lincoln Ave. Pub next door to Old Town School of Folk Music that schedules ensembles, jams and Sunday weekly Irish sessions led by Old Town professionals.


Header image by Michael Schmidt. Video courtesy of Julie Ivers.