by Mark Dvorak
How many people have heard the name Win Stracke? There isn’t much written about him, and you’ll search long and hard before you come upon one of his old phonograph records. And I know of only one place in the whole City of Chicago where you can go to look at a picture of him.
People who can remember as far back as the early days of Chicago radio and television, may also remember the name Win Stracke. He made regular appearances as an actor and singer, on both network and local programs. But to recall shows like “Studs’ Place,” “WLS National Barn Dance,” “Time for Uncle Win” or “Chicago Theater of the Air” requires a very long memory. And by now, folks who can go back that far are becoming fewer and fewer.
If you happen to meet someone who followed the Chicago folk scene through the 1950’s and early 1960’s, they may remember having heard Win Stracke sing in concert or at a night club. He performed with guitarist Richard Pick, blues singer Big Bill Broonzy, balladeer Larry Lane, banjo player Fleming Brown, the multitalented Frank Hamilton and many others. But the influence of another musical generation has by and large swept those old times aside. Ask someone about Chicago folk music and you will most likely hear names like Gibson and Goodman, Prine and Holstein and Koloc.
By the time I met Win Stracke, he was already eighty-two years old and retired. His memory was still good and his voice still rumbled. He lived at the North Shore Retirement Hotel in Evanston, Illinois, a distinguished and comfortable place. We visited on perhaps a half-dozen occasions and talked periodically on the telephone. Win was always courteous and eager to cultivate our budding friendship, and I enjoyed listening to him recount different scenes and chapters from a long and musical life.
Win had a beautiful, rich voice; soulful and deep. He was classically trained but was as comfortable singing “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” as he was a piece from a Wagner opera. Win learned theater improvisation with the Chicago Repertory Group and performed skits and songs as organizing tools during the years of the labor movement. With his friend Studs Terkel, he and others formed the cast of a touring performance, “I Come For to Sing,” which lasted for more than ten years. According to Studs, “I Come For to Sing” helped provide the contextual basis for the founding of the Old Town School of Folk Music. Like his friend Pete Seeger, Win knew how to lead a sing along and like Paul Robeson, he got into trouble for his political beliefs and commitment to progressive causes.
Win Stracke’s mark on the world can’t be measured in gold records or Grammy Awards. You won’t hear him on the oldies stations and you can’t find him at the iTunes store. Win’s music and artistic sensibilities were rooted in places far deeper. He believed somehow, in the power of music to unite people and offer hope. Win believed folk music to be the living, flowing breath of the history of nations. He believed singing and playing together might teach us to recognize that we are all fellow members of the family of Man, each of us hugging this little ball of Earth. He dreamed big dreams Win did. He dreamed about a world that could one day live in peace, where racism and social inequity no longer existed. And from Win Stracke’s dream came the vision of a music school like no other, where people of all ages and from different ethnic and social backgrounds, could come to study and learn from each other.
Walk down the stairs off the main hall at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and you’ll find Win’s picture. During busy times at the school, the blur of activity runs at fever pitch. At those times you’ll hear sounds and songs emanating from every class room and corner. African drums and choir voices. Bluegrass banjo and blues harp. You’ll hear a familiar Beatles song and power chords churning from behind the doors of basement studios. You’ll hear Latin guitar rhythms and see miniature ballerinas dancing along in their pretty tutus. Guitar cases will be everywhere. You’ll see people visiting and laughing over coffee while others sit quietly wrapped up in the serious work of practice. Watching and listening, you may find it difficult to imagine you are someplace other than inside of Win Stracke’s dream.
"Thanks so much for posting your wonderfully eloquent tribute to Win. Your interviews of Win are invaluable primary source materials for ensuring that his observations and memories will be available to future generations - and the combination of your gracious style and your informed questions elicited many precious recollections from him. The far sighted initiative you took over 20 years ago places all of us who admire and applaud Win in your debt."
Robert Riesman, Chicago IL
"Whenever you speak and write about my father, I feel so happy that you have become a kind of a 'spirit bearer' for him. You 'get' Win and that is grand. You are doing something that is wonderful..."
Jane Bradbury, daughter of Win Stracke, Evanston IL