Fred Holstein

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Fred Holstein
Born (1942-12-12)December 12, 1942
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Origin Chicago, IL
Died January 12, 2004(2004-01-12) (aged 61)
Genres Folk
Occupation(s) songwriter
Instruments Guitar, banjo
Years active 1970s–2002
Associated acts Pete Seeger, Bob Gibson, Steve Goodman, Woody Guthrie

Fred Holstein (December 12, 1942 – January 12, 2004) was an American folk music singer. Holstein was a prominent figure in the Chicago folk music scene in the 1970s. He owned a sequence of clubs in the Old Town and Lincoln Park neighborhoods. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was not a songwriter, but his talent for singing with his resonant baritone and arranging was well recognized.


An anchor of the Chicago folk scene and a contemporary of Steve Goodman, John Prine, Bonnie Koloc. Holstein owned or co-owned several folk music clubs in the Old Town, Lincoln Park, and New Town/Lakeview neighborhoods, including Somebody Else's Troubles and Holstein's.[1] Holstein was known for his knowledge of several hundred songs and "instant recall," as well as being able to accompany himself on guitar, banjo, and twelve string.[1] Holstein was an admirer of ballad singers like Woody Guthrie and Utah Phillips. He would remind aspiring musicians to "Understand the song. It is a lot more important than you are."[2]

Holstein was born on December 9, 1942, and grew up in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood. After seeing a Pete Seeger concert he decided he wanted to study folk music.[3] Fred took lessons at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music starting in 1960. He had a long relationship with the school afterward, even working in the Folklore center music store.[3] Of the Old Town School Fred said:

"I headed east on North Avenue, looking for 333 West North, only to pass it by several times. In my mind's eye, I was looking for a school, an institution, with a big lot, columns and pillars, monkey bars, etc. I didn't realize it was possible to have a school on the second floor of an old meeting hall.

"When I found it, there was Frank Hamilton leading the second half, singing 'Welcome Table,' using what I was to find out later was a bass run on the guitar; Dawn Greening being gracious and wonderful serving homemade cookies; the Clancy Brothers dropping by to do a few songs; and I knew Fleming Brown, the great banjo player wasn't far away - I was in heaven!" [4]

Holstein began playing around Chicago in the 1960s, first at places like the Old Town Pub and a bar in Morton Grove called Scot's Cellar. At Scot's, Holstein first met and began mentoring younger fellow musician Steve Goodman. He briefly tried making a living as a performer in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York City, but soon returned to Chicago.[3]

Holstein's fame did not extend much beyond Chicago, as he did not tour or record much, but within Chicago he was well known. He was a resident musician at the now defunct Chicago clubs "Somebody Else's Troubles" and "The Earl of Old Town". Holstein first played at the Earl in 1966.[3] Fred had an easy-going stage presence, routinely tailoring set lists to friends birthdays or requests, but would not tolerate a disruptive audience and tell them to "shut up".[1] Fred loved to constantly share new songs with his audience as soon as he could, he would attempt a new song as soon as he could stumble through it.

Holstein's, located on North Lincoln Avenue, marked the twilight of the Chicago folk music scene. Holstein and his brother Ed would regularly open shows at the club, and sometimes headline them. The club closed in 1987. In his later years, Holstein performed two or three times a year at the Abbey Pub, an Irish bar on the Northwest Side of Chicago, often with Ed as the opener. In his final years, Holstein suffered from various illnesses and was unable to perform at the annual New Year's Eve concert at WFMT on December 31, 2003. He died of complications from surgery on January 12, 2004.

Proceeds from sales of his album Remembering Fred benefit the Fred Holstein Scholarship Fund at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

"Fred Holstein is from Chicago, and with any kind of luck, he'll end up there. Not because he's some kind of outcast from legit folkie circles. Let's face it, Chicago without Fred Holstein would still be Chicago, but Fred Holstein without Chicago would be Mel Torme. The love for Chicago is there, but it takes the form of a comfortable pride as if to say, "You can live in Chicago or someplace else--so why not Chicago?"...

Fred knows songs. And the song Fred doesn't know hasn't been written yet. Sure, it's a camel filter, make-a-buck-world where if you don't write you're on the corner with a tin cup. But what about the guy who can sing Goodnight Irene to a packed house and make them believe he made it up on the spot? That's Fred. And we need him. You know why? Because the most radical idea in America is the long memory. School bussing in Chicago? Fred sings "If you can't find me in the back of the bus--" and there you are. The past and present become one and the future is yours to choose.

So all you walkers and talkers, singers, humdingers and all-night flingers standing by on the ramp with your thumb out and a mouth full of words-a little piece of advice: sometimes the song's not enough. There's the craft, see? The sitting down and earning your money part. Well, tilt your thumb Fred's way, because there's craft you won't find in any college or book or cowboy fantasy. Sitting in a Fred Holstein audience is like going to school, and if this is your trade, listen and learn. Better finish off before I sober up and get sentimental."

Utah Phillips 1977. Liner Notes from Fred Holstein's "Chicago and Other Ports."


  • Remembering Fred - A Tribute to Fred Holstein, 2004 Old Town School Recordings
  • Fred Holstein, A Collection collected works 1977-1983, self-produced
  • Fred Holstein, Live at the Earl of Old Town, 2008 (recorded 1969), Eddie Holstein
  • Appears on Gathering at the Earl of Old Town, 1970
  • Appears on Rebel Voices: Songs of the Industrial Workers of the World as Performed by the Members of Local 630, 1993 CD reissue


  1. ^ a b c Emily Friedman. (January 1975), Fred Holstein: Your Friendly Neighborhood Troubadore, Come For To Sing 1 (1) p.8-9
  2. ^ Fred Holstein. (January 1975), Focus on Chicago. Come For To Sing 1 (1) p.7
  3. ^ a b c d Larry Rand. 1975, "Fred Holstein in the port of Chicago", The Chicago Guide, p.152-153
  4. ^ "The Early Years". Retrieved 2007-10-04. 

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