Old Town School of Folk Music
The Old Town School of Folk Music is a Chicago teaching and performing institution that launched the careers of many notable folk music artists. Founded by Folk musicians Frank Hamilton and Win Stracke, the School opened in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago in 1957 at 333 West North Avenue (the original location has since been demolished and replaced by a non-descript strip mall with the same address), offering guitar and banjo lessons in a communal teaching style and hosting performances by well-known folk musicians. Currently the school is led by executive director Bau Graves and has an enrollment of about 6,000 students per week, 2,700 of them children.
The Old Town School was originally founded by musicians Win Stracke and Frank Hamilton and opened December 1, 1957. Win was a classically trained singer and Frank was a young multi-instrumentalist and teacher of folk music; Frank had previously studied under Bess Lomax Hawes, daughter of folklorist John Lomax. Win and Frank met at the Gate of Horn nightclub in Chicago where they were both performing. Together Frank and Win developed a classroom technique based upon traditional oral and folk teaching methods: listening, watching, trial and error, and playing by ear. Where other music schools taught sight reading and performance, Win and Frank wanted the Old Town School "method" to retain its emphasis on participation and development of aural skills. Early Classes were held in a dining room at the home of co-founder Dawn Greening
Several of the early faculty at the Old Town School were past members of Win Stracke's the "I Come For to Sing" review. A folk review performed by a rotating group of artists, the program was a variety show in which each program revolved around a particular topic, the songs and readings presented would all deal with that topic. Win Stracke, Studs Terkel, Big Bill Broonzy, and Fleming Brown were all members of "I Come For to Sing" at different times. The school would also publish a folk magazine by the same name from 1975-1987.
The initial version of the Old Town School Songbook was an unbound stack of pages to be added to a three ring binder. It was a collection of 94 songs mostly North American in origin, but selections from Israel, Ireland, England, and Chile were added. In keeping with the teaching philosophy of the school it favored lots of songs which were suitable for group involvement. Each page had a short history of the song, the chord progression, rhythm indicators, a transcription of the melody and lyrics for the verses. Chord fingering charts were provided for guitar and banjo.
1960s and early 1970s
Pete Seeger, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Driftwood, Big Bill Broonzy, and Josh White all performed at the Old Town School in its early years. Early teachers at the school included Chicago blues guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, and banjo players Fleming Brown and Stu Ramsey as well as the Brazilian singer-guitarist Valucha deCastro (a.k.a. Valucha Buffington). The formation and growth of the School coincided with the folk music boom of the 1960s and early 1970s. In Chicago, folk influence was scattered in Hyde Park (site of the Folk Festival), Oak Park (where Greening lived), and Old Town. The school's first location was a rundown storefront at 333 W. North Ave. in Old Town.
Throughout its existence the School has focused on offering both instruction and performance with many performing musicians also acting as teachers and mentors. The School also proved a rich ground for collaboration. The late 1960s were a peak of success as several musicians associated with the School rose to national prominence, including Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Fred Holstein, John Prine, Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc, and Bob Gibson. The school moved into a more permanent home at 909 West Armitage Ave.
1970s & 1980s: Decline & Renewal
Enrollment peaked in 1975 with about 650 students per-week, but as the folk revival declined in the mid-1970s so did the fortunes of the School; although it continued to provide music lessons to hundreds of students the School suffered financial difficulties and was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1981. It was discussed at this time to move the School from its aging facilities on Armitage Avenue to the suburbs. A new group of directors took over shortly afterwards, increased fund raising efforts and slowly brought the School back into profitability. They also expanded the school's curriculum to include ethnic and traditional world music. This was highlighted in February 1989 by a performance from Jesus "Chucho" Rodriguez & Henry Hernandez with their Indian Harp and The Inca Peruvian Highland Wind Ensemble.
After occupying a building at 909 West Armitage Avenue in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood since 1968, the Old Town School in 1998 expanded into a new and larger main branch in the former Hild Library at 4544 North Lincoln Avenue, with a 400-seat concert hall. The move allowed the school room to expand its music education program significantly.
Today, the Old Town School continues to offer music, dance, art and theater classes and performances for adults and children at both locations and children's classes in some suburban branch locations. Students from all over the Chicago area attend weekly classes taught by dedicated professionals. Students can also take ensemble classes, working with others on the music of groups like The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and many others. Most classes perform at the end of the eight-week session in the "Big Gig" or at local venues. The current enrollment is about 7,000 students per week.
There are two Old Town School Music Stores (one at 4544 North Lincoln Avenue and one at 909 West Armitage Avenue) that sell musical instruments for children and adults, books, CDs, accessories, and more. The Store offers instrument repairs and rentals to students.
Since 1997, Old Town School hosts the Chicago Folk & Roots Festival in nearby Welles Park. However, in 2012, the School announced it would not organize the event due to rising costs from city policy changes. Instead, in collaboration with The Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce, Old Town School hosted the Square Roots festival.
On December 1, 2007, Old Town School celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a concert at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre featuring Jeff Tweedy, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, David Bromberg, Bonnie Koloc, Frank & Mary Hamilton, Lonnie Brooks with Wayne Baker Brooks and Nicholas Tremulis and Luna Negra Dance Theater.
In July 2010, the School announced the planned $18 million expansion of their facility to include new classroom and theater space across the street from their current location (on an empty lot purchased in 2005). The new building opened at 4545 North Lincoln Avenue on January 9, 2012. It adds more than 27,000 square feet of acoustically-engineered, state-of-the-art classrooms and a 150-seat flexible use hall called The Myron R. Szold Music and Dance Hall. The building is LEED Gold certified.
On Friday nights, the School offers 6-String Socials at 909 West Armitage Avenue where students can get together to practice singing and playing.
- Category:Old Town School of Folk musicians - a Wikipedia category listing Old Town affiliated artists
- "About the Old Town School". Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- Greg Kot. The songbook remains the same at Old Town Chicago Tribune, November 25, 2007. Retrieved Nov. 26, 2007.
- "Old Town School History". Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- "Old Town School History: Founding". Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- Friedman, Emily (2006). "Ray Nordstrand Obituary". Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine. Archived from the original on 2007-10-02. Retrieved 2007-11-19.
- "Old Town School Songbook". Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- "Old Town School History". Retrieved 2007-08-17.
- "Old Town School History". Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- Wetli, Patty (6 March 2012). "Old Town School Pulls Plug on Folk and Roots Festival". Center Square Journal. Brown Line Media. Retrieved 1 September 2012.
- "Old Town School readies $18 million expansion, new concert hall". Chicago Tribune. 2010-07-21.
- "ABC7 In Your Neighborhood: Old Town School of Folk Music". ABC 7 Chicago. 2012-01-22.
- The Old Town School of Folk Music
- Companion to the Old Town School Songbook
- Old Town School History
- Chicago Tribune The songbook remains the same at Old Town. Article by Greg Kot on the 50th Anniversary of the school.