Thursday, February 8, 2018

Saying Goodbye to Jo Mapes—The Best Damn Folk Singer You Probably Never Heard Of

Jo Mapes, always the bohemian and beatnik at home in Old Town in the '60's.

It must have been a cold night.  I was wearing my overcoat on top of a thread bare corduroy sport coat.  My beat-up old white Stetson was pulled low over my eyes.  It was on its last legs, a hole had popped in the crown and it was sweat stained and soiled to the exact shade of February soot-on-snow in Chicago.  I was downing shots of Christian Brothers Brandy nursing a schooner of Old Style as a chaser.  Which meant I had some jingle in my jeans.  It was late 1971, or early ’72.  I was on the staff collective of the old Chicago Seed—the city’s hippie underground paper.  Since I had money to spend, I had probably been out that afternoon hawking the rag on Michigan Avenue in front of the Tribune Tower.  We were paid in copies to sell.
I was alone and there were only a couple of others at the bar.  So it was probably early in the evening, well before the back room began to fill for the evening’s entertainment.  

Teachers, staff, and students celebrate some milestone at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Armitage Ave., Jo Mapes's second home.  The Fifth Peg Pub was opened by right across the street largely to give staff and students a place to play and hang out.  When John Prine showed up for an Open Mic, he put the place on the map.
The joint was the Fifth Peg Pub on Armitage Avenue just across the street from the legendary Old Town School of Folk Music I had just recently added it to my circuit of watering holes after discovering the Maywood Mailman John Prine who had stepped on stage there on an open mic night and created a sensation with his original songs.  John wasn’t there that night, but there was music drifting out from the back room.  It sounded like a couple of folks noodling around on guitars and maybe rehearsing.  After a bit I heard an astonishingly fine woman’s voice.  I forget the song, but I’ll never forget the voice.  “Who’s that?” I asked.
An attractive young woman at the end of the bar volunteered, “That’s Jo Mapes!”  “Never heard of her,” I said.  That was a mistake.  The girl looked mightily annoyed.  She launched into an excited recitation of the singer’s credentials—one of the pioneering singers of the Folk Revival in Chicago and the Greenwich Village scene in New York.  She dropped a Who’s Who of folk music legend names associated with her and said she had been on Hootenanny, the folk music TV show that had gotten me hooked on the music back when I was a kid in Cheyenne.  Oh. And the singer was the girl’s mom.  
I was impressed and abashed that I had displayed such woeful ignorance.  We settled in to listen to another song or two before a beautiful blonde woman who could not possible be old enough to be the mother of the young woman—or to have cavorted with some of the legends mentioned emerged with a large guitar and Ray Tate, who I did know—the head guitar instructor at the Old Town School and one of the owners of the Fifth Peg Pub.  We were introduced and chatted for a whileShe was warm, friendly, and funny.  After a bit she said she had to go and packed up her guitar and left with her daughter.  That’s how I first me Jo Mapes.
After that I saw her occasionally either on a folk stage or sitting in the audience for other performers.  We may have been to one or two Old Town music parties, but the memories of those bashes are not unexpectedly hazy.  We were never more than nodding acquaintances and I am pretty sure she didn’t remember my name.
I didn’t really get to know Jo until years later, in our early years on Facebook.  I am not entirely sure how we connected, probably through some mutual Old Town friends or musicians.  In those day neither of us had very large friends lists, but somehow, we really connected.  We were in touch daily, sometimes several times a day.  We swapped yarns and stories. Her’s were more interesting than mine—way more interesting.  She began to write out and post longer memoir pieces.  She was embarrassed because she was a bit of a technophobe and couldn’t figure out how to correct the typos and spelling errors that littered the posts.  But those errors could not obscure the gems of the tales or her underlying skill and charm as a story teller.  She began to express interest in working on memoirs but was deterred by mistakes.  I urged her to try and find an editor to work with her.
At the time Jo was living with her beloved dachshund and maybe a cat or two in an apartment in suburban Deerfield and was feeling isolated from her friends in Old Town and the Chicago folk scene.  In her 70’s, her health was in decline and her mobility increasingly limited due to failing eyesight due to macular degeneration.  Facebook was a life line and increasingly of friends and fellow musicians found her. 
Always dissatisfied with the recordings made at the height of her fame and angry about how outtakes from Hootenanny were issued on albums she knew nothing about, Jo even hoped to produce new music, including songs that she had written.  She made some home recordings sitting on the toilet in her bathroom with a guitar which she uploaded to the streaming music service Reverberation where they can still be found at She sounded great.
But as time went on Jo found it difficult to maintain her Facebook connections.  Several times she lost her account password or was somehow locked out and not knowing what to do, she opened new pages.  At one point she had at least four pages listed making it difficult for her friends to find which ever one was active.  Eventually her eyesight prevented her from posting at all.   Her daughter Mimi Mapes McCloy maintained one of the pages for her.
I was sorry not to hear directly from Jo anymore, but saw occasional reports on her from other friends and in folk music and Old Town groups.  Then came word that Jo died last Friday at the Brentwood Health Care Center in Riverwoods after long declining health.  She was 86 years old.
Joanne Claire Coombs in Chicago on July 20, 1931 and raised on the Northside by her maternal grandmother Rose Shanas.  In her early teens they moved to Los Angeles where she attended Thomas Starr King Jr. High School where her best friend was Black girl studying classical music, Odetta Holmes.  It was a lifelong connection cemented by hour of listening to music, including the songs of The Weavers and bluesmen like Josh White and Brownie McGee and picking out songs on their guitars.  Both launched careers as folk singers while still in high school.  The Black girl dropped her last name and was soon performing as Odetta.

 I seldom add videos to this blog but this 1955 TV appearance
by a young Jo Mapes is charming, after you get past Dennis James's ham haned intro and interview.  I especially love how this apparent sweet young thing cooly performs the totally unexpected Ballad of a Frozen Loger.
Jo also acquired the first of four husbands and a new last name—Mapes—by which she became professionally known.  She began to attract local attention and in 1955 got national TV exposure on the LA based TV talent show Chance of a Lifetime hosted by Dennis James. 

Two years later she moved up the coast to San Francisco where she sang in coffee houses and immersed herself in the Beat culture before returning to Chicago what she could make of the emerging folk music scene in the Windy City.
Jo's first publicity glossy in the mid-'50's.  She was signed by Reprise for a while but no record was released.
Jo achieved success headlining at Chicago’s first Folk club, the legendary Gate of Horn at the corner of Dearborn and Chicago along with old friend Odetta, Bob Gibson, Theodore Bikel, Josh White both Sr. and Jr., Oscar Brown, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  The venue helped ignite the Folk Revival in Chicago.  Gibson, radio host Studs Terkle, and singer Win Strake expanded the scene with the establishment of the Old Town School of Folk Music.
The Gate of Horn was one of the most important folk clubs nationally as well.  It was co-owned and managed by Albert Grossman who was interested in moving his base of operations to New York City’s Greenwich Village, epicenter of an even more robust folk scene.  He undoubtedly encouraged Jo Mapes to make the same trip.  She did as a single mother leaving her first husband behind.
Mapes and the Village were a perfect match.   “She was a bohemian and a beatnik,” recalled her daughter Hillary Mapes Levine in an interview.  She was soon playing all of the famous Village venues.  Her circle of friends was wide and included the Clancy Brothers, Dave Van Ronk, and especially Shel Silverstein who was her some-times baby sitter and later recalled, “the best female folk singer and guitar player around, with unique singing style and stage presence.”  She shared an apartment for a while with Mary Travers and mentored other young artists like Judy Collins.
The Folk Revival went national in the late 1950’s with the success of The Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchel Trio, Harry Bellefonte, the Clancys, and a handful of clean cut college acts.  Jo was one of the women who rode that tide and was soon able to appear in clubs across the country.  Her Chicago friend and Old Town School associate Ed Holstein accurately described her appeal, “what was unique about her was she was a really good guitar player and singer, a great entertainer and just drop-dead gorgeous. She was like Marilyn Monroe with a guitar.”
 At the crest of this first wave in 1962 it looked like Mapes was going to breakthrough to real national fame.  ABC TV featured her as the host of the pilot for their new folk music program Hootenanny.  But she backed a protest by some artists over the network’s refusal to buck the blacklist and include Pete Seeger on the program.  Some artists boycotted the show.  Jo needed the work and did not but was punished by being removed as host in subsequent broadcasts.    Although never made a regular on the show, she did make several appearances over its two year run but was only paid scale and unlike many of the other featured performers had no recording contract or records to promote.  

Jo Mapes: Hootenanny Star cobbled together from her appearences on the show without her in-put or approval.  And she never earned a dime from it.
That lack of a record deal was more than a bitter pill, it was devastating to Mapes as a struggling single mother.  It was also something of a mystery.  Despite the high regard of all of her peers, popularity at the clubs where she performed, and even her connections to Albert Grossman, who had become the most important agent for folk acts.  Grossman had helped found the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 which helped put Folk music on the cultural map and was managing a growing stable of musicians including established acts including Odetta and the Clancy’s and up-and-comers like 18 year old Boston coffee house balladeer Joan Baez.  But when Grossman was putting together a new trio consisting of “two guys and a girl” he bypassed Mapes for her younger former roomie Mary Travers.
Finally, it looked like she would get the break she needed, but here stubborn independent streak got in her way.  The way she told it:
Jac Holzman of Elektra Records wanted to sign me as their ‘new girl’ singer. . . . I said I’d sign but only if I could do my material. He said no. Instead, he hired Judy Collins, whose first hit was Someday Soon, a [Ian Tyson] song I had taught her. They took my arrangement and everything. The thing that made it more difficult for me is that I was the only young woman singer at the time who was supporting three children. Judy didn’t have children then. [Joan] Baez didn’t have any children. I was trying to combine a career with supporting three kids. I missed some things because of that.
In 1962 Grossman signed scruffy Bob Dylan, a Woody Guthrie wannabe who landed in the Village fresh from Minnesota.  Along with Baez and Peter Paul & Mary the folk music scene was transformed into a new, cutting edge protest music.  In the process some older, established female folk singers got lost in the shuffle, even those who had record contracts like Barbara Dane and Carolyn Hester.  Mapes was even more vulnerable. In their place they saw the rise of Baez, Collins, Travis, and a tad later Joanie Mitchel and Baez’s younger sister Mimi who perhaps symbolically even married Carolyn Hester’s husband Richard Fariña.
But Mapes soldiered on with the support of a loyal base who came out for her club dates around the country.  And eventually she did get on wax, fat lot of good it did her.   With the popular success of Hootenanny Kapp Records swooped in and bought the rights to the performances on the show.  They released various compilations albums from, as Mapes later put it, “clips swept up from the floor,” one solo album from the show The Hootenanny Star, and another with her in collaboration with South African singer Miriam Makiba.  Mapes was unaware of some of the albums until decades later.  Because of her contract with ABC and the producers of the show, she never got a penny in royalties for any of those performances, some of which also made their way to YouTube posts years later.

Jo's long-dreamed of LP finally came out, but the label went bankrupt before it could be widely distributed.
In 1964 she finally released her own album And You Were On My Mind on the short-lived FM label set, but the company went bankrupt before the album could be widely distributed.  The few copies that got out have become prized collector’s pieces. 
Discouraged at last, Mapes decided to retire from touring and full time performing, but not before a final grand Carnegie Hall concert attended by her loyal fans and a host of her musician friends.
Mapes married banjo player Flemming Brown and returned with him to her hometown of Chicago to start a new life with her children and family that same year.  Once again the marriage ended but Jo and her children thrived in an Old Town apartment in quaint Crilly Court, a secluded block of 19th Century apartments just off of busy Wells Street, the heart of Chicago’s vibrant music and counter cultural scene.
Old friend Bob Gibson encouraged her to join the teaching staff at the Old Town School of Folk Music, a joyful association that endured for years.  She taught and inspired generations of pickers and singers from amateur plunkers to aspiring stars.  She also played at School concerts and occasionally was booked into local clubs like Richard Harding’s Poor Richard’s.  Thirty years later, in the mid-1990’s she would headline an anniversary concert for the School sharing the bill with Bonnie Koloc, Fred Holstein, and blues mouth harpist Corky Siegel.
But she also needed to find more income to support her family, especially after her marriage ended.  She derived some income from songs she wrote and were recorded by others notably Come On In, by The Association and The Monkees, and Come and Open Your Eyes, recorded by Chicago and Old Town based Spanky and Our Gang.
More reliably she used her musical talent as a jingle writer, copywriter, producer, and voice artist for the J. Walter Thompson and Leo Burnet advertising agencys.  She worked on several major accounts including Kodak, United Airlines, and Kellogg’s.  On commercial in particular in which she voiced her own jingle in a Raisin Bran spot was “The one we lived off for 13 years” according to daughter Mimi.
For ten years beginning in 1968 Mapes put her wide connections in the local entertainment scene and as a nightlife reporter, critic, columnist, and feature writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.  She interviewed luminaries including B.B. King and Bette Midler.
A personal favorite photo, Jo busking on a Chicago street with Michael Mashkes, another Old Town School teacher for Sun-Times piece.
It was a rewarding, sometimes hectic life as she juggled her multiple roles a professional woman, teacher and mentor, performer, single mom, and a sort of den mother to the up-and-coming talent in the exploding Chicago folk scene of the late ‘60’s.  When young Steve Goodman, a North suburban Jewish kid bursting with energy and raw talent came to the city after a brief attempt to establish himself at the Village’s Café Wha? in New York, he made a bee line to Mape’s Crilly Court apartment seeking support and career guidance.  He became practically part of the family, doting on Jo’s daughters.  For her part, Mapes introduced him to Earl Pionke proprietor of the Earl of Old Town on Wells Street from which he launched his legendary career.
Living in Old Town could be quite an adventure in more ways than one.  During the Democratic National Convention of 1968 protestors were force out of near-by Lincoln Park at an 11 pm curfew and driven into the streets of Old Town by club swinging Chicago Police freely dousing the neighborhood with teargas.  For what seemed like hours cops pursued the scattering demonstrators beating whoever they encountered on the streets including reporters and passersby.  Like many other residents, Mapes opened her apartment to fleeing protestors.  Cops charged at homes, beating several residents on their own front steps.  Enraged and burly officers pounded on Jo’s door and demanded entrance. She had the girls hide the fugitives in back bedrooms and went to the door in her bathrobe calmly and innocently charming cops into leaving. 
Jo would occasionally leave Chicago and step back on a wider stage.  In 1974 she played the First National Women’s Music Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with Labelle and an old Village acquaintance, Janis Ian.
Jo at home during her Facebook years.
By the mid-‘80’s with her children grown Mapes was semi-retired except for her continued teaching at the Old Town School.  She left Old Town, which had grown yuppified and expensive.  For a while she lived in the Artists in Residence apartment building in the North Side Edgewater neighborhood.  With typical energy she organized Artists In Evidence, a club for fellow residents.  Eventually she moved to manageable, comfortable digs in the suburbs.
As far as I know, the family has not announced funeral arrangements.  They may be private.  But I would anticipate at some point a public memorial may be held, likely coordinated by her Old Town School friends and associates.
Note: Quotes used in this article were found in Maureen O'Donell's fine Sun-Times obituary, a 1987 interview with Jo by Dave Hoekstra  in the same paper, and other sources.  Check out O'Donell's piece at                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       


  1. Thank you for this wonderful article, bringing back so very many good memories of an exceptional time in Chicago for so many of us, and glimpses into Ms. Mapes' life. It really is extraordinary that she didn't become more widely known, considering her talent, personality and beauty. Rest in peace, dear Jo Mapes.

  2. Watching the PBS show on folk music last evening got me thinking of a Jo Mapes solo concert I attended in the early 60's at the old Mosque Theater in Newark. Only time I ever got a celebrity autograph!