Elgin folk legend Don Skelton returns to stage after 15 years
By Dave Gathman email@example.com October 9, 2013 4:48PM
Former folk music performer Don Skelton will mark his return to music on Oct. 11 at the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren Coffeehouse in Elgin. | Submitted
Updated: November 11, 2013 11:59AM
ELGIN — During the New Wave of Folk Music in the 1970s and 1980s, Elgin-area aficionados spent many an evening at places called The Grocery Store, The Colloquy and Rasty Dan’s, listening to music written and sung by local singer-songwriter Don Skelton.
On Friday, they will be able to relive those memories as Skelton performs in public for the first time in about 15 years. The concert will begin at 7 p.m. in the basement of Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren, 783 W. Highland Ave., as part of the church’s occasional “Highland Avenue Coffeehouse” series.
Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. Light refreshments will be provided.
“In the early 1970s, any Elginite who loved folk music knew Don Skelton,” said Brethren member Jim Lehman, who coordinates the coffeehouse programs.
“People were drawn to his warmth and humor, his expressive voice, his fine guitar work and most of all to the depth of his songs,” Lehman said. “Skelton always had a feeling for the goodness and the uniqueness of people, and he gave voice to this in songs about hope and struggle and delight, and about the interesting quirkiness of human beings.”
Skelton is now 68 and lives in Plato Township. He said he began writing and singing music soon after he and his wife, librarian Carol Skelton, moved to Elgin from his native South Dakota in 1968.
They had come because an old college buddy had found a teaching job for him at School District U46’s Ridge Circle Elementary School in Streamwood.
“My music is definitely folk-style,” Skelton said. “But not traditional folk music like the Kingston Trio, which relied on the traditional tunes. I followed along the lines of a new wave of folk singers who developed in the Chicago area, like Steve Goodman and Jim Post and Bonnie Koloc. We sang in a folk vein, but there was more to it.”
The ’70s provided the 20-something teacher a variety of venues to gather with folk fans over food, coffee and tunes. Several Elgin churches had banded together to support a wholesome, booze-free coffeehouse for young adults called The Colloquy. At first, that was housed in a single-family home at 330 W. Highland Ave. Later, it moved into what is now the Mel’s Pizza storefront in the Big Oak (Gromer’s) Shopping Center along West Chicago Street.
He also sang at The Grocery Store, a tavern located on what is now a vacant lot along Washington Street at the Union Pacific track.
“There was almost a circuit of live music places in those days,” Skelton recalled. “I got booked at one of the Ground Round restaurants — and once you played successfully in one of those, you could count on being booked at the others in the chain.”
“But my favorite place to play was Rasty Dan’s, in the basement of a building downtown along Grove Avenue between Chicago Street and Highland Avenue. It used to be a restaurant called The Ratskeller,” he recalled.
In November 1973, the Colloquy board launched Skelton into a bigger venue by renting the Hemmens Cultural Center for two concerts by him. In 1976, he even was hired to be the opening act for a concert by nationally famous Anne Murray in Des Moines, Iowa.
Going full time
By the 1970s, Skelton said, he was performing so much that he gave up his teaching job and went into music full-time, although he says he supplemented his income by running first a contracting business and then a building management business.
“I began to play less and less” until he gave his last live concert about 15 years ago, Skelton said. But he said he has gone on writing new songs and recording them in a home studio. He also has worked to master a new form of playing the guitar called “finger-style playing,” or “thumb-picking.”
After he retired in 2009, he said, his friend Lehman began urging him to go back on stage. And with Friday’s Church of the Brethren program, he finally agreed.
In time, the concert will be just one month short of 40 years after that first Hemmens program. In space, it will be just a couple blocks from the old Colloquy.
“This will be an emotional and sentimental moment for Skelton and for his friends and fans, all of whom are a bit older,” Lehman said. “But this coffeehouse concert will be more than an exercise in nostalgia. Yes, there will be the old songs his fans will love. But there will be much that will be fresh and new, and some things to entice the generations who never knew the excitement and dynamism of the folk era.”