From Lincoln Park to Lincoln Square, the Old Town School of Folk Music has grown up
by Jennifer Lizak
In the late 1950s, American folk music experienced a boom in popularity. Bolstered by hits from artists like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, folk music was on the rise. Gathering around radios and in living rooms, people rediscovered the folk genre and found that it spoke to the social concerns of their time as well. It was at this moment in history that Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music was born.
"The great American folk music revival was starting to rise, and Win Stracke thought a school would be a good opportunity to get people together," says Bau Graves, executive director of the Old Town School.
A Chicago television personality and musician, Stracke discussed the idea with some of his fellow folk music fans, and the first session, taught by folk musician Frank Hamilton, took place in the Oak Park living room of Dawn Greening. On December 1, 1957, the three officially opened the Old Town School in a building at 333 W. North, and a movement was born.
This December, the Old Town School will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a gala concert event featuring many renowned artists, including former student Roger McGuinn. "The Old Town School is dear to me because it prepared me for my career in music during the three years I attended," says McGuinn, who enrolled in classes shortly after the school opened and went on to become one of America's most celebrated folk singers with the Byrds. "Frank Hamilton took me under his wing and taught me everything he could."
While students like McGuinn got a great start under the founders of the school, folk music students of the 1970s almost didn't get a chance to learn at all. First, the Old Town School was forced to move from its North Avenue location. Scrambling to put on fundraisers and ask donations of friends, the administration was lucky to secure a building at 909 W. Armitage in 1968. With the new building, classes were expanded and the school was back on solid ground.
The renaissance didn't last for long, however, because by 1977 the Old Town School was barely surviving. Rock music had decisively overtaken the folk genre in popular culture. The oil crisis, an economic depression, rising heating bills, and demands from the IRS all came knocking on the school's door. Graves puts it bluntly: "We almost went under; it took some pretty savvy financial leadership to pull out of the financial difficulties."
Faced with the school's demise, the administration hired one of their own, guitar teacher Jim Hirsch, as director. Hirsch cut costs, refused to accept even his own salary for the first year, and focused on fundraising. He also added new programs which attracted students, spearheaded the renovation of the building on Armitage in the mid-1980s and helped create the school's annual fundraising concert series. Once again, the school was saved.
Since then, the Old Town School has flourished. In 1998, a second building at 4544 N. Lincoln was purchased, and the school expanded even further. Today, the school teaches nearly 6,000 students each week, with classes in session nearly every day of the year. In addition to music classes, Old Town School now offers classes in art, dance and theater, sponsors concerts, and hosts the yearly Folk and Roots Festival in Lincoln Square. They also sell instruments and music through their own store and created the popular Wiggleworms music education program for infants and toddlers.
A partnership with Bloodshot Records has resulted in Old Town School Recordings, a project that released four volumes of the Old Town School Folk Music Songbook as well as a Wiggleworms album. "Old Town School is pure passion for music not obscured by commerce," says Nan Warshaw, owner of Bloodshot Records. "Infants, seniors and everyone in between gets to enjoy what they bring to Chicago."
Beyond tuition dollars and critical acclaim, perhaps the biggest measure of success is the love and commitment that folk music fans have for Old Town School, which has allowed the school to attract and retain talented teachers, many of whom are acclaimed professional musicians in their own right. "Many of the teachers have been doing this for years," says Graves. "The staff gets here and says, ‘Why go anywhere else?' Many people have been teaching here 15 or 20 years."
Joe Filisko, an award-winning harmonica player and a teacher since 1993, credits the school's support for his returning year after year. "The Old Town School has always been extremely cooperative and accommodating in allowing me to run my program at the highest possible level," he says.
Old Town School's students are just as passionate as their teachers, and Graves believes that relationship is what cements the school's success. McGuinn's style was directly influenced by his classes. "The ‘jingle jangle' 12-string Rickenbacker style that I used later in the Byrds came from the five-string banjo-picking patterns I learned at the Old Town School," he says. "I got a well-rounded music education there."
On Dec. 1, the Auditorium Theatre hosts Old Town School of Folk Music: 50 Years In Chicago, a gala event featuring a slew of influential musicians, including Jeff Tweedy, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, David Bromberg, Lonnie Brooks with Wayne Baker Brooks and Nicholas Tremulis, Luna Negra Dance Theater and more. Proceeds will benefit the Old Town School of Folk Music educational programs. "Music education has been sadly neglected in this country," says McGuinn. "I'm for any institution that will teach kids to play and sing, and keep traditional music alive."
What does the future hold for Old Town School of Folk Music? Further expansion of facilities and the digitization of the musical archives are at the top of the list, but Graves is open to anything the future might bring. "Of course there will be changes," he says. "Folk culture never stays the same for very long, and we'll see changes, many of which we cannot imagine right now."
For more information, visit oldtownschool.org