The Earl of Old Town: A Chicago Folk Music Legacy & G.O.A.T. The Listening Room

For many Chicago residents, a stroll up Wells Street near North Avenue in Old Town is a familiar journey, with landmarks like Second City on the left and Wells on Wells on the right. Yet, delving into the history of this vibrant neighborhood reveals a bygone era when Old Town resonated with the sounds of folk music. Where Cocoran's Pub now stands, there once thrived a legendary folk music club known as The Earl of Old Town.

Our introduction to The Earl of Old Town came through a 1970 recording titled “The Gathering at The Earl of Old Town.” The performances and songwriting of Jim Post, Steve Goodman, and other renowned Chicago folk singers captivated us, sparking curiosity about the iconic venue on the album cover. As we delved deeper into its history, We uncovered a rich narrative and received invaluable insights from those who experienced it firsthand, including Ed Holstein, Chris Farrell, and Patti Rain.

Early on, Earl Pionke, the club’s namesake, was a quintessential Chicagoan. Born and raised on the city's South Side, Earl's journey to owning a club began with various jobs to support his family. His passion for the emerging music scene in Old Town inspired him to open The Earl of Old Town in 1962. Confident yet uncertain about drawing crowds, Earl's vibrant personality quickly became the club's hallmark. Chicago folk mainstay Eddie Holstein fondly recalled Earl’s larger-than-life presence, noting, "You don’t meet Earl Pionke, you hear him coming." The initial success of local folk singers’ performances at the club ignited Earl’s vision: The Earl of Old Town would be a premier showcase for emerging talent and the spirit of the times.

A Hub for Emerging of Songwriting G.O.A.T.s

The Earl of Old Town soon became Chicago’s hottest spot for burgeoning folk musicians. Artists like John Prine Bonnie Koloc, Jim Post, Steve Goodman, and the Holstein brothers—Fred and Eddie—all found their footing on its stage. The club offered a nurturing environment for new artists to hone their craft. Eddie Holstein remarked, “You’d really learn how to deal with an audience, what songs work, what didn’t. It was a great experience.” Today, Holstein continues to impart his knowledge at The Old Town School of Folk Music and performs throughout Chicagoland. Nightly live music sessions created a magnetic atmosphere at The Earl. The club’s welcoming ambiance struck a balance between sophistication and homely charm. Its intimate setting fostered a unique connection between performers and audiences, making each performance a memorable experience. Chicago folk veteran Chris Farrell emphasized, “It was a listening room; you came to hear the music.”

Throughout the late 70s and early 80s, Earl Pionke maintained his reign atop the local folk music scene in Chicago. As the careers of Prine, Goodman, and Koloc took off nationally, their successes helped put The Earl of Old Town on the map. Musicians flocked from all over the country to participate in Chicago’s vibrant folk music scene. Chris Farrell recalled, “It was soon clear that The Earl of Old Town was the place to be.”

Inspired by the evolving career of Bob Dylan, Patti Rain was among the many young artists seeking their niche in Chicago's thriving music scene. A native Chicagoan, Rain returned to her hometown after stints in California and New York. In 1978, she saw an ad in The Earl’s window seeking help. Primarily a painter, Rain was beginning her music career and saw this as a golden opportunity. She began performing opening acts and her own sets, learning from the regular musicians at The Earl.

Rain, who won the LA Music Awards' Americana Artist of the Year in 2010, reflects fondly on her time at The Earl as pivotal. “It was my graduate school,” she says. “It was where I learned how to write and play.” The venue’s vibrant atmosphere often attracted surprise visits from renowned musicians.“

The beautiful thing about The Earl was even towards the end, amazing musicians would pop in. You never knew who might stop by,” she recalls.

One of Rain’s most cherished memories is organizing an impromptu tribute concert the night John Lennon was killed on December 8, 1980. The room overflowed with performers and audience members united in celebrating Lennon’s life.

The End of an Era

Despite its vibrant history, The Earl of Old Town closed its doors in 1984 as business slowed and Earl Pionke grew older. The closure marked the end of a significant chapter in Chicago’s music history. Patti Rain and others who experienced The Earl firsthand recall the heartbreak of its closure.

Earl Pionke remained active in the local music scene, partnering in a club called Somebody Else’s Troubles and later running a bar in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood. Pionke passed away in 2013 at the age of 80 from pancreatic cancer. The legacy of The Earl of Old Town endures through the stories shared by those who experienced its magic. Eddie Holstein aptly noted, “There aren’t very many of us left alive these days.” Yet, the ripples of Earl Pionke and his beloved club continue to resonate. As time marches on, preserving and sharing the story of The Earl of Old Town remains crucial to honoring its impact on Chicago’s music scene.