The Magical Backstory Of Chicago’s Historic Folk Venue Gate Of Horn

Editorial Note: During the Chicago Blues Festival and the Festival of Dads, we began to explore how all our concert experiences are connected and now I’m excited to introduce a new Live Fix weekly exploration as Colleen share’s her passion for live music history.

As many of you know, Colleen takes all the great concert photos here on Live Fix, but besides capturing the essence of live music in images, she also loves studying live music history.

And beginning today, once a week Colleen will share her discoveries with you.

I’m super excited about Colleen’s new live music history column, because ever since we started Live Fix Colleen has played a vital role in helping me research many topics so I could write my posts.

That said, I’ve seen what she’s got lined up for you, and all I can say is that you’re in for a great adventure!

Here’s the Plan

Every Monday, Colleen will jump into the live music time machine to explore everything from the intriguing back story of music venues to pivotal moments in live concert history.

And to kick things off, this week Colleen will explore history of The Gate of Horns and tell you how the venue impacted the history of the folk scene in Chicago and how it inspired and eventually led to the Newport Folk Festival.

So without further ado, I’ll now hand over this post to Colleen!

Thanks everybody! I’m really excited to share this post with you and explore live music history with you each week here on Live Fix. And I hope you enjoy the ride too!

We’ve covered a lot of shows in Chicago over the years and I’m always curious about the history of the venues we go to.

I’m always wondering about the historic venues in Chicago that no longer exist, and I’m always curious to know how what role they played in the past and how those venues of the past helped shape the present live music scene in Chicago and in other cities.

And in my recent discoveries I’ve been reading a lot about the legendary Gate of Horn and how the venue was a creative haven for other famous folk artists, poets, promoters and musicians like Shel Silverstein, Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan and Bob Gibson.

So what I’ll do now is take you on a journey — told with photos, lyrics, quotes and a video — that will tell the story of what it was like to see a show at the Gate of Horn and why it was one of the most important live music venues in Chicago’s rich history of folk music.

Albert Grossman & Les Brown’s Story

First, I should tell you that in the book American Folk, Kip Lornell says that “…folk music tends to be overlooked but it is often referred to by the tradesman of popular culture who are forever looking toward their roots for inspiration.”

That’s an interesting quote because that’s sort of how the Gate of Horn is. What I mean is that many people know about the artists who eventually came out of the GOH scene but the venue itself is not as well known.

One of the most famous men who saw the potential of folk music to impact popular culture was the legendary manager Albert Grossman who’s  famous for discovering and managing Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and other popular folk and rock acts.

Albert Grossman grew up in Chicago and was the also the owner of the Gate of Horn along with Les Brown.

The venue opened in July 1956 and was located in the basement of the Rice Hotel on the southeast corner of Chicago Avenue and Dearborn Street.

My sources say that after Grossman and Brown attended a live folk concert which featured Fleming Brown and Big Bill Broonzy they decided to rent space in a remaining building that had been left vacant ever since the Chicago fire a music venue and this was the beginning of folk history in Chicago.

From that moment on and throughout its history, The Gate of Horn saw the likes of Roger McGuinn, Bob Gibson, Odetta, Jo Mapes, Brownie McGhee and the Clancy Brothers.

And during its existence, it was a great period in Chicago for folk music because the genre started to rise in popularity and continued to gain more and more appreciation in the main stream popular culture.

Chicago was able to share with the nation its new found musical interest by recording a live concert titled Bob Gibson & Bob Camp at the Gate of Horn (iTunes).

I can only imagine how this venue would have looked located in the basement of a hotel, reports say that it could only fit about 100 people, a stage and a microphone.

Gate of Horn layout

This venue meant so much to the likes of Shel Silverstein and Bob Gibson that they wrote about it in their literary essays.

Musical artist and beloved folk singer Odetta loved the venue so much so that she titled her second solo album At the Gate of Horn (iTunes).

In Bob Gibson’s autobiography, Bob Gibson: I Come For To Sing Gibson documents the first hand accounts of many who visited the Gate of Horn.

Here’s what George Carlin had to say about his experience at the venue as history unfolded right before his eyes:

“There’s a friend of mine named Herb O’Brien who used to be a bartender at the old Gate of Horn and he said that Bob Zimmerman who we now know as Bob Dylan, used to come in there. Allan Ribback told all the bartenders to give Dylan free drinks while he copied down Bob Gibson’s chord changes.”

Poet, writer and singer-songwriter Shel Silverstein wrote the famous liner notes for the Gibson and Camp at the Gate of Horn album that was recorded at the club in 1961.

Here’s how Silverstein describes what the Gate of Horns meant to him, what it was like to be there as a fan and the historical significance of the who’s who that was all around him.

“I’ll tell you a little bit about the old gate of horn. It was in the basement. I don’t mean a basement club, I mean it was a basement. Chicago is full of places like that. Leroy Neiman the artist was living around the corner in another basement and it wasn’t a basement apartment he was just living in a basement.

The Gate of Horn was sort of the same. It was just sort of chiseled out. It was on North Dearborn Street and there was a door that said “Gate of Horn” and some steps that led downstairs and then when you got down there it had a sign on the door that said “use other door.”

So you had to climb up and go around the other side and there was another door that went down and you were in this crowed little ante room, or whatever the hell it was. The bar was off to the right. That’s where you would find everybody mostly between sets.

Either there or in the back it was really more like backrooms plural and it was all like carved out rock with bricks showing through and ashcans sitting around and the further in you got the more like the catacombs it was.

And any minute you expected to trip over the dusty bones of some medical folk singer and there was one bright light and you had to sit on the ashcans or lean against the icebox and that is where you would see Gibson and Camp tuning up to go on stage or combing their hair or going over some arrangement or complaining about some chick who didn’t show up the night before. Herb Brown was back there too, doing something great with his bass but I never heard him say anything.

Oh there was a combination office rehearsal hall dressing room that was about three feet square and occasionally they would rehearse in there when they wanted real privacy until Marilyn or one of the other waitresses had to go in there and change so they would come out and play on the coca cola cases and Marilyn would go inside and change until Alan Ribback had to go in and check some books then Marilyn would come out and Alan would go in and fool around with some papers until maybe Cynthia had to go in there to change or the cook had to go in there to get some hamburgers anyway, it went on like that. There wasn’t much room and there was an awful lot of confusion.

The waitresses used those catacombs as a short cut from the bar to the main room. There it was in the dark and hot and crowed and great. They would come in from the back of the club that’s where the entertainers came on too.

Gibson would come out of the back with Brown and they would do a few numbers and then he would introduce Camp and when Camp came on the whole thing would start to jell and swing and Brown’s bass would be going like hell and Gibson would be up there all cocky playing that 12 string and singing and Camp would be like a little rooster with his head back screaming and bouncing up and down and it was really something.

After the show we would all be out front, Gibson, Camp and Joel something, and the bartender with the mustache and Ira and Inman and Camp’s chick Patty or Gibson’s chick whatever the hell their names were I don’t even remember their names and there was a lot of booze being sopped up between sets and a hell of a lot of musical chairs being played with the girls around there.”

Now, I’d like to share another snippet from Bob Gibson’s autobiography about his GOH memories:

“…I’ll never forget those days at the Gate of Horn. It was incredible the people who hung out there, like Studs Terkel, Shel Silverstein, and the Bunnie from the Playboy Club up the way would hang out there, They’d work the Playboy Club all night, being hit on all the time, and then they’d come over to the Gate because nobody would hit on them there. It was a wonderful place. There was  lot of creative energy around there. After the show was a lot of sitting around singing at the bar…”

Magical Lyrics Tell the Emotional Impact

As you can tell the Gate of Horn was very magical place and to wrap up this post, here are the excellent storytelling lyrics to the song “Gate of Horn” (iTunes) by Roger McGuinn, one of the many musicians who played there and wrote about his experience. The song link above is from a recording done in 2004 at the XM Studios, but the song is originally from his album called Live From Mars.

Gate of Horn by Roger McGuinn

I’m goin’ to the Gate of Horn

In my memory

Red light flickerin’ on a tablecloth

Big, dark beer in front of me

How I wish that I was there

Standin’ at the bar

Listenin’ to Bob Gibson play

On his fine guitar

There was Judy and Peter and Josh and Odetta

The Clancies and Mary and Paul made it better

Grossman and Tommy and Dicky and Lou

When no one was lookin’ McGuinn was there too

Well then they came and tore it down

Song birds scattered

They all left town

Gate of Horn meant everything to me

Gate of Horn, Gate of Horn

I’m glad I was Chicago born

Gate of Horn meant everything to me.

From The Gate To Newport

It was those types of experiences that eventually led Albert Grossman and a team of other folk pioneers like Pete Seeger to start the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, which was a natural progression of the already popular Newport Jazz Festival. And from there, as they say, the rest is history.

What’s Your Favorite Venue Memory?

In my research of GOH, I’ve wondered how many music fans can talk about their live music experience or their favorite venue like Shel Silverstein or Gibson did.

It’s too bad the place has closed down, because it sounds like a place I would like to be at on a Saturday night.

It’s amazing how history can inspire us to truly appreciate the music and venues we experience in the present!

And it’s been great sharing the history of Gate of Horn with you, and I hope you’ve enjoyed our journey back in time too.

I’m looking forward to exploring more live music history with you, and in the meantime, I’d like to know what you thought of this Gate of Horn post.

And if you have any Gate of Horn stories, or would like to make a request for a future live music history topic, tell us all about it in the comments below!

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