#502: The Weight

July 13th, 2015

Outside, people enjoyed the festival.

They got corndogs and eyed craft jewelry. They traded cash for tickets and tickets for beer. Outside, kids ran and laughed and got their faces painted like tigers as the bright sun burned sandaled feet and unlotioned necks.

Inside, a packed auditorium remembered a friend with guitars and drums, bass and banjo. 

His name was Mike Mann. He was a teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where on Sunday scores of friends, students and music fans gathered to play a few of Mike’s favorite songs.

He died Dec. 5, 2014, following a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

“Each of us, in our heart of hearts, knew he liked us best,” one of his fellow Old Town teachers told the assembled crowd.

Set for the last day of the Square Roots craft beer and music festival (it’s in Lincoln Square and benefits Old Town’s roots music), Jam for Mike Mann packed Szold Hall in the new Old Town building on the east side of Lincoln Avenue.

Guitar-bearing friends and pupils overwhelmed the rows of chairs set up for the jam, filling the audience seating areas and, eventually, the aisles.

The rules of a jam are simple: Show up and join in.

Attendees got a packet of music Mike loved, with the chords, notes and lyrics written out. The Old Town teachers leading the show would occasionally give instruction on the trickier chords, but the joy was in the act of playing, not its technical perfection.

The audience belted out “Worried Man Blues,” “Everyday People.” They strummed and sang Buffalo Springfield and Taj Mahal. The Beatles and blues. They sang for their friend.

Mike Mann came to Old Town in 1998, joining up with a Beatles Ensemble after stopping by a First Friday, the music school’s monthly community night. He moved from student to teacher over the years, and traded 12-string guitar for bass.

The teachers shared stories of his humor, his kindness, his dedication to sharing music with the world.

He was loved. He was loved and the one-year relative survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 20 percent.

Mike Mann lived three years after diagnosis.

The last song they sang was “The Weight.” The Band’s 1968 hit was a favorite song of Mann’s. It was the one he always used to close out the jams he ran.

It was his closing number.

So forgive the corn, forgive the cheese, forgive me letting The Band finish this story I started, but I can’t in good faith memorialize a man who breathed music with anything but music.

Please take four minutes and 33 seconds out of your day to give Mike Mann’s last song a listen.

Old Town School remembers Mike Mann

A YouTube tribute to Mann, posted the day after he died

Read about a man memorialized by canoe

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