31 Winters: Finding the Folk Way




31 Winters: Finding the Folk Way contains forty-four essays from the notebook of traveling folk singer and songwriter Mark Dvorak. 

The collection reflects on Dvorak’s long journey through music and teaching. It is instructive, thoughtful, sometimes funny and often revealing.

Dvorak began teaching first as an avocation but his interest in working with students deepened and evolved into a way of life and a livelihood of “helping people teach themselves.”

The essays cover a wide range of subjects and and read like a memoir. Dvorak shares his recollections of growing up in the Chicago area and coming of age. Some of the essays are actual music lessons. 

Two of the pieces are taken from different keynote presentations. “Why Folk Music Matters,” and “Who Are the Teachers” are resonant, and each offers a well-thought-out argument on a subject that has been his way of life and livelihood for three plus decades.

Dvorak documents some of his struggles while weaving together a career from the disparate threads of touring musician, educator and community builder. 

He underscores the influence of mentors Frank Hamilton, Win Stracke, John Prine, Tom Paxton, Brownie McGhee and others and in the end, 31 Winters: Finding the Folk Way emerges as a quiet and thoughtful love letter to the legacy of the Old Town School of Folk Music. 

“Gentle and poignant, direct and honest, the essays frequently turn sadness into hope and light.”

“Dvorak writes just like he sings and plays, with clarity & flair …”

“… a fabulous teacher, kind, good-humored, with the soul of a poet and the patience of Job.”


I am riveted to 31 Winters. I read to page 47 last night and concluded to read only one writing per day so I can have something special to look forward to each morning.

Our lives have many overlappings and similarities: Chicago, typewriters, putting out fires, notebooks, eagerness, discovery, hurt, accomplishments…

Your writing brings back many memories of life-moments which I hadn’t thought about for some time. Good or bad, there is a need to reflect on things in the past, where we are now and making progress in what we love to do.

It gives us joyful purpose and brings joy to others in a very challenging and sometimes dark world. Thanks for all you do.

- Warren Brown, Manteno IL


Mark Dvorak’s latest book, 31 Winters  is a collection of non-fiction and poetry. There are 44 pieces in all and together, they read like a memoir.

Dvorak is a singer, songwriter, accomplished musician (both live and recording), raconteur and yes, writer. He is also a teacher, philosopher, historian and archivist.

‘31 Winters,’ lights upon varying subjects including public speaking, musical heroes, particular songs, life on the road, history, the Old Town School of Folk Music, teaching, coming of age, playing music and practicing and somehow, Dvorak brings these different voices across the pieces together in a seamless way.

The thing about voice is, it can really draw the reader into the writer’s state of mind. While reading Dvorak’s teaching pieces for example, he writes as if he’s standing in a classroom, and I felt as if I was sitting right there with him, listening. This isn’t at all boring classroom material.

His life on the road pieces make the reader feel a musician’s pain while taking on the rigors of the road. In the piece, ‘My New Job in Murray, Kentucky,’ Dvorak tells the story of being stuck in a small town, where he’s playing at a festival. He is stuck because of vehicle troubles, and he spends a lot of time walking. Towards the end of the story, Mark is threatening himself with quitting the whole idea of touring completely. The piece is self-depreciating and hilarious.

And speaking of humor, Mark is good at sprinkling in funny bits and pieces. Sometimes, these parts are just funny for humor’s sake. Sometimes, they are for comic relief in a more serious piece. But, his sense of humor always lingers there, at least in the background. If you’ve ever met him, he has the driest, most folksy sense of humor you’d ever want to hear. He can bring this across in his writing, as well. His writing can do it all.

The very first piece in the book, ‘Didn’t I?,’ starts with a part where the writing is disposing of some of his older writing, using a trash can fire. The situation quickly becomes out of hand. While scary, the whole piece just makes the reader want to laugh. It’s a brilliant piece of work.

The other piece I specifically want to mention is ‘Just Plain D.’ I guess I like this one because frankly, ‘D’ is the only chord I can play correctly on the guitar. You read this piece and suddenly, as a novice, you feel like you can really do something new.

Mark is encouraging, but realistic. He’s supportive as a teacher. He’s funny, but takes his music quite seriously. His writing comes across in the same way. Though the book is close to 350 pages long, it is a fast read, and with each piece, you just want more.

To this reviewer, ’31 Winters’ comes highly recommended.

- Paul Schingle, Tuscon AZ


Damn, these essays are good. Each one, like a good song, says a lot in a few clear words. Mark Dvorak tells stories about learning and teaching, about being young and getting older, about music and other matters of the heart. In short, he writes about life, in a style that manages the trick of being both conversational and philosophical. Reading his collection makes you feel like you're talking with a friend in a bar or on a road trip. And in case you’re thinking of burning your old journals, read this first.

- Mary Schmich, Chicago IL


Somewhere deep into Mark Dvorak’s  31 Winters, he offers this advice about teaching: "At birth, your students became the sole authors of their own creative lives. Help them to write that story.” And with his new collection of essays, Dvorak does just that by revealing the contours of his own creative life story and showing how it feels to be a lifelong student of music.

Dvorak’s writing is as clear and inviting as his playing and teaching style, which has long drawn fans in Chicago and beyond. And just like Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird has become a treasured compendium on writing for doling out the fundamentals of good storytelling by wrapping them in the stories of Lamott’s own off-kilter world, so does Dvorak introduce the basics of tuning a guitar or singing harmony or simply letting an idea take form through his own travels, travails and encounters, often with some of folk music’s most recognizable characters.

Dvorak reminds us that learning about music or writing is about something much more profound. “Art is our universe, and we share it together with all the plants and animals and rocks and oceans and somehow, I have always believed each of us carries an unspoken obligation as human beings, to explore it and try it, and taste it and move to it, dig around in it, and make it, and learn from it, laugh to it, cry to it, and identify with it.”

I’ll happily put Dvorak’s new book on my shelf next to Lamott’s and turn to it often.

Lara Weber, Chicago IL


The singer-songwriter who brings us songs like Old Friends, I Hate to See the Summer Go, The Middle Years, Time Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Me, It’ll Be Better When It’s Better, God Bless the Open Road and You, Two Little Boys, Let Love Go On, We Become, and many more beautiful folk songs, has written another captivating book.

It’s a collection of forty-four lyric poems of Mark’s innermost impressions of life experiences, listening, playing, teaching and absorbing details that so many of the rest of us may have forgotten or never got around to considering. He reveals himself in what could be a manual in self-actualization. It’s a revelation of the musician, songwriter and teacher that he is. It’s the examined life of the troubadour of Chicago and an esteemed favorite in the Northwoods.

It’s about the guitar, its anatomy, physiology, and behavior in the hands of a student and master. It’s a life-long practice of practice, practice, practice and it’s a full-time job.

And it’s about learning to listen and learning to look, about how to become and how to be a teacher, which is way more than just passing on what you know.

It tells of an artist coming of age and discovering music as a means of self-expression and the many mentors that inspired him along the way.

It’s about how a perfect job can become a nightmare. And perhaps most of all it is about the meaning of folk music. But it’s also about the need to make a living without getting carried away by money or status.

Together these stories are a celebration of life. Whether you aspire to play the guitar or not, if you are looking for inspiration or want to share Mark’s, read this book carefully, one story at a time.

“There is a place inside that draws up toward music, and is touched while listening to music. That place is somewhere very near the same place from where the music comes, inside the musicians who sing and play for us. It’s the same place, and the interaction at the core is neither social nor cognitive.”

Jerry Woolpy, Bats In the Boathouse Press, Minocqua WI

Stay in touch • markdvorakinfo@gmail.com • PO Box 181 • Brookfield IL 60513 • 312 315 4273