by Mark Dvorak
One of my favorite times at the Old Town School of Folk Music is the hour or so spent in the lobby before class. It’s a time to relax and it’s a time to prepare for the evening. It’s a time to visit and a good time to make casual music with students and other instructors.
Sometime in the afternoon of September 11, 2001, I called down to the school to see if classes would be held that evening. A young woman answered the phone, “We have to be open tonight,” she said. I got down to school early that afternoon, perhaps around four, and everything in the lobby was of course, different. There weren’t as many people bustling around and there wasn’t any jamming. Conversations were brief and low key. From the kitchen, news updates came over the radio and many in the office sat glued to the television that had been brought up from the resource center. Attendance was light for the evening classes, and many simply gathered in the concert hall to reflect.
On a usual Tuesday after class, there is a group who hangs out in the lobby to sing and play until the building gets locked up. On September 11, the usual group gathered around the usual table and usual songs and sounds began filling the echoey hall. Soon, others joined in. Someone asked for “This Land Is Your Land.” Someone asked for “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” More people. Someone began “If I Had a Hammer.” Still others joined in. Song after improvised song sprang from the group. Verses were swapped and shared. Eyes that asked scanned the room for other eyes that might know. “Blowin’ in the Wind.” “Down By the Riverside.” Beautiful, rich harmony everywhere. “We Shall Overcome.” Tears flowed, voices soared. “You’ve Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley.” “I’ll Fly Away.”
I don’t remember what time we broke up, but it was late and “Irene Good Night” was the last quiet call. The group sang slowly, thoughtfully. I closed my eyes toward the end and I remember how we held onto that last beautiful chord. Then silence.
What a day. How do you not think about the people who simply went to work that morning, or got on a plane, and are now gone forever? How do you not wonder about men and women whose duty calls them to run into a burning building while everybody else is running out? How do you begin to understand the political climate and hatred which spawned the whole sad mess? And being thankful that loved ones and friends are safe while knowing other families’ lives will always be different, is a strange kind of thankful.
Like everyone else, I’ll remember where I was and what I was doing that morning I first heard the news. And I think I’ll remember the gripping images that came pouring out of the television for a long, long time. I once read somewhere that for each act of horror there is an act of heroism, for every sorrow, a joy. I hope I remember this, too. It helps some.
But what I think I want to remember most about September 11, 2001 is how a group of us at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Illinois found each other and made real music. Important music. I want to remember how we looked at each other. I want to remember the purity of the sound, and how we were all moved by the privilege of the moment. I want to remember how those common songs, with their sleepy verses and routine choruses, came bursting back to life on a night when some strangers and friends needed to feel a little more like human beings. It was a do-it-yourself demonstration on how folk songs have always worked, and it was plain to see that night, the emotional circumstances under which real folk music gets born and flourishes.
And when our group found each other that night after class; when we got in tune and looked to each others eyes, and hugged and touched; so was the evidence of some gentle resolve brought forth. So was a quiet hope rekindled.