The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #6537   Message #54747
Posted By: Dale Rose
19-Jan-99 - 12:00 PM
Thread Name: Art Thieme's CD: The Older I Get, The Better I Was
Subject: RE: Art Thieme's New CD
OK, here it is, an article from the Chicago Tribune of July 20, 1998. I know Art would not post it, but I don't think he'd mind if I did. I am not exactly sure how well I did with the html. I know I threw in just enough p's to break it up a little bit. It should be readable. It is no longer on line at the Trib, unless you want to pay $1.95 to get all 1,568 words. This is cheaper. It goes a fair way toward telling you who Art is and was, the man and the musician.


By Charles M. Madigan, Tribune Staff Writer.

PERU, Ill. The guitar, an altered Martin D-76 Bicentennial model with nine strings instead of six, sits in a corner by the sofa alongside the simple five-string banjo, with its single mother-of-pearl star on the head. Words march around the face of the banjo, an idea Art Thieme borrowed from Pete Seeger, who had scrawled "This Machine Kills Fascists" on the top of his instrument. Art's says, "This Machine Kills Time," as undoubtedly it did for many years.

The Old Town School of Folk Music - preparing for a move from Armitage Avenue to a bigger, better building, the former Hild Public Library at 4544 N. Lincoln Ave. - celebrated its roots with a festival Saturday and Sunday. The school presented a great collection of bands and singers aimed at underlining the vibrant, important role Chicago has played in the development of American folk music. But Art Thieme, a fixture on the Chicago folk scene almost from the day he first performed in 1959, wasn't there.

To find him, you had to drive a couple of hours west of Chicago to Peru, knock on the door of a gray old house on Sixth Street, and walk into a world full of guitars, banjos, recordings, belly laughs, a little sadness and some very powerful memories. He sits on this sunny, hot afternoon in a comfortable wing chair in the living room, a good eight feet away from the instruments that brought him fame, if not fortune, during nearly four decades on the American folk scene. The beard has gone totally gray now and, befitting his age, he is rounder than he was back when everyone in folk music in Chicago knew him as a solid guy who performed solid songs.

If Art Thieme, now 57, was writing a folk song about himself, what would it be? "Well, I guess it would be the title of the new CD, `The Older I Get, The Better I Was.' That sort of tells the story," he said. The CD, currently in the works on songwriter Andrew Calhoun's Waterbug label, should be available by October. Waterbug will be selling it on the Internet at or through its phone line (800-466-0234). It is 73 minutes and 50 seconds of the best of Art Thieme live, songs selected from concerts over the past 3 1/2 decades. Just a look at a few of the selections provides one measure of Thieme's presence, and importance, in the world of folk music. He sings the version of "Red Iron Ore" he learned from Bob Gibson in1959. He sings Uncle Dave Macon's "In and Around Nashville," and Jimmy Driftwood's "Tennessee Stud." He sings Josh White's version of "Betty and Dupree Blues," and "Pokegama Bear," a song written in 1874. "He is one of the greats of American folk music," Calhoun said. "He was not one of those people who had a gift for it, he had to work for it. He wasn't born to folk music, he was drawn to it. There aren't many people like him anymore, who work so hard to research the music and bring back the old songs."

Music was Thieme's constant companion for decades, but now that has been pushed to the side by something else, a problem that began making itself known some 15 years ago, when he first noticed a numbness in his hands and feet. More than a year ago, the doctors at Mayo Clinic finally isolated the cause and delivered a diagnosis: multiple sclerosis. The irony of it all is almost overwhelming. After years and years of work aimed at keeping his hands limber and his legs moving, after surgeries that fused discs in his back and neck, after therapy that had him wearing carpal tunnel braces and after packing his wrists in ice, he learned why none of that was really working. "I was starting to get very depressed about it. I have had four spinal surgeries over the last decade. I would just go to Columbus Hospital and get spinal surgery every time I would get an onset (of numbness) in my hands and feet," said Thieme. He was watching his considerable skills as a banjo and guitar player decline. The reason he drilled three holes in the tuning head of his Martin guitar and added three strings was that he could no longer get the volume he needed out of six strings. "I was fed up, but I didn't know what was happening," Thieme said. "I put myself in the local psych ward and got some (anti-depressants) and got feeling a lot better. But the bottom line was I didn't know what was happening. I couldn't walk. My legs started getting worse. My hands were number, and I was getting no answers." So off he went to Minnesota to visit the doctors at Mayo. It took two months, a spinal tap, a lot of tests and an MRI. "A Dr. Moses Rodriguez finally figured out I had MS," Thieme said. "It was totally liberating. It was just great knowing. Now I can put a name to it. I have learned how to accept it."

He spent much of the past year in a wheelchair, but after a recent return visit to Mayo, he gets around with the help of a cane. And these days, Thieme is happy to be walking and eager to offer everything from thoughts on music to a ham-and-cheese sandwich with mustard on white bread. He fairly hops out of his chair to retrieve a recently released Kingston Trio CD to listen to an old song. Dealing with a disease he could not even identify was difficult, he said. Listening to his four albums and recalling his live shows, it becomes apparent that Thieme spent more and more time on very clever puns and jokes and stories and less and less time on the challenges of guitar playing and singing. "It was a concerted effort when my hands started getting numb," he said. "I needed to use the humor to give my hands a rest between songs. "Some people knew there was something wrong. I was always shaking my hands on stage and complaining to friends. On occasion, I would ask people to do a song swap with me on stage rather than have me do a set and then have them do a set. I could do that with good friends. It would let me take a break." There is no sign of bitterness in any of these memories. And because of what he calls the dulling sameness of the United States, he doesn't miss touring anymore.

Putting the CD together from the old concert tapes was tough. "The new recording is made up from concert tapes from those three different decades," he said. "It is hard to listen to those tapes because I can hear that I was competent with my instruments. The instruments were a lot of what I did." He can't see himself as an a cappella singer, he said, and he has never had much luck playing with anyone else. Art Thieme was always a solo act. "So, I was better than I am now as far as the music is concerned, but I'm changing."

He has a new computer in the bedroom. He is very close to his wife, Carol. He is alive and chatting almost all the time with friends all over the world on the Internet, where he can be reached at But what he won't do for outsiders is pick up that Martin guitar or the five-string banjo. He can still play a bit, but the numbness in his hands makes it difficult for him to keep his right hand elevated over the strings. That means he gets a thumpy sound when he wants a clear sound, a constant reminder that he no longer has the sensitivity he needs to perform to his own standard. That must be deeply frustrating for a musician who was so meticulous over the years. His banjo playing was pristine. It was old timey, a deep bow to the Appalachian style that was dominant before the bluegrass movement brought aggression and blistering speed to the instrument. His guitar playing was strong and always right to the point, the perfect backdrop for a voice that made up in depth what it lacked in range. He worked hard to make the music and the vocals fit perfectly, always a challenge for a soloist. There is a sense that, once a visitor leaves, Thieme will hop up again and maybe grab the banjo or any of the other instruments sitting all around his living room.

There is one item on the instrument list that is simply too Art Thieme to pass over. His "Star Wars" school lunchbox dulcimer, amplified with an electric pickup to thrill the grade-school masses he entertained for so many years, sits in one corner. He made it out of a tin lunch box, a piece of hard wood, some staples, a couple of bolts to hold it all in place and three cheap tuners. It still sounds just fine. As a measure of Thieme's sense of humor, when you open the lunch box, there is a rubber chicken inside, just in case he ever needed it. Anyone who knows the man can envision it happening. A children's nonsense song, some innocent jokes constructed on puns, and then, surprise, a rubber chicken! It is humor and music mixing in equal doses. And so is Art Thieme.

Copyright Chicago Tribune