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Woodstock Folk Festival celebrates the life of Bill Staines

Bill car.jpg
Provided by Karen Staines
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A northern Illinois music organization took time on Sunday Feb. 6 to celebrate the life of a legendary folk singer.

Musician Bill Staines died on Dec. 5, 2021 at the age of 74. He’d battled an aggressive form of prostate cancer. The Woodstock Folk Festival celebrated what would have been his 75th birthday with a virtual concert.

Staines performed at two of the organization’s festivals in the 1990s and received its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

Mason Daring is a film composer and record producer. He was also a longtime friend of Staines. He said the two met in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the mid-70s at club 47, which is now called Passim, located in Harvard Square.

“Bill Staines was the total package. I mean, he's a quadruple threat. Great guitar player,” he said. “People didn't understand that. But they took it for granted. But he's a great finger picker. Terrific voice, one of the greatest songwriters of any generation.”

He also added that Staines was a terrific live performer and yodeler.

Daring said a few years later he worked with Staines on a record called Rodeo Rose. He said this was the birth of a producer-and-musician partnership. After that, they started Passim All- Stars. This show took place every year or two. Daring said he didn’t know that last November would be the end of these concerts.

“Bill told me unfortunately backstage that he was sick. I wouldn't have known it,” he said. “I mean he didn't look great, but I wouldn't have known it. None of us looked great, in the age of COVID. And he died two weeks later.”

Bill and Karen.jpg
Provided by Karen Staines
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“I've been having a little difficulty cooking for myself right now. Although he always traveled. I never had trouble cooking for myself,” explained his wife of 45 years, Karen Staines. “But now I'm finding that — I used to chop, and I'd spend all day Sunday knowing that he'd be home Sunday afternoon, and now he's not coming home.”

Karen said sometimes Staines would be gone six weeks at a time but when he came home, he left his other persona on the stage.

“People that knew him on the road couldn't imagine the at-home side of Bill Staines, because he didn't wear a cowboy hat,” she said. “He didn't wear jeans and flannel shirts. We lived pretty regular lives. You know, we got dressed up just like other people.”

Daring said one of the things he remembers about Staines is that he played his guitar “backwards.” Staines was a left-handed guitarist but used a right-handed guitar. Instead of restringing the instrument he played the guitar upside down. Daring said instead of using thumb he used his middle and fourth finger. He described this as an unusual subtle sound. He remembers trying to watch Staines during a show.

“And I was so flummoxed. He just broke out laughing. I mean, he just started laughing in the middle of the song,” Daring recalled. “I'll never forget that. And I told him later -- I said, ‘I have to remember don't look at Bill's hand no matter what happens, do not look at Bill's hand.’”

Joe Jencks is a touring troubadour from DeKalb. He was introduced to Staines’ music when he was a young camper.

“At camps run by the Rockford Park District in Rockford, Illinois. So, I would have been in my early teens,” Jencks explained. “And there's one of his songs, it's

‘All God's critters got a place in the choir

Some sing low, some sing higher

Some sing out loud on the telephone wires

And some just clap their hands, or paws.’

Those words are from the refrain to Staines’ song “A Place in the Choir.”

Bill Karen Bowen Wife.jpg
Provided by Karen Staines
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Bill and Karen with their son Bowen and their daughter-in-law.

In his late 20s, Jencks opened a show for Staines. He said over the years, he developed a relationship with Staines. Jencks, who is also a writer, wrote a tribute to Staines for the Madison Folklore Society.

“It's just a reflection on three of his songs in particular, and how that gives us a little insight into him as an artist," Jencks explained, "and into him as a writer, and a very personal set of thoughts about how that affected me.”

Jencks said he wants people to know that Staines was very compassionate and suggested this can be seen in his songs.

“There's a certain sense of yeah, this person may be a little downtrodden,” Jencks explained. “Or, you know, having a hard time but, you know, he lifts up the humanity in the characters that he writes about. And in so doing, I think invites us to see the humanity in each other.”

Karen said she knew her husband was popular, but she didn’t know how prevalent he was.

“I just got a note this morning from a woman who said that his songs have been part of her life for four decades,” she said. “It helps me. It allows me to understand how many lives he truly touched.”

Jencks and Daring are two of many performers who took part in the tribute concert. The virtual concert includes personal stories by those who spent time with the folk singer. This tribute can be seen on the Woodstock Folk Festival website.

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.