The Old Town School of Folk Music: Bringing Together Different Cultures to Share in the “Same Human Experience”

The Old Town School hosts 6,600 students per week across its three Chicago locations. Photo: Jane Janeczko

The Old Town School hosts 6,600 students per week across its three Chicago locations. Photo: Jane Janeczko

The Old Town School of Folk Music has been a Chicago landmark for the last 55 years. The school has been so successful that it has expanded into two neighborhoods, three buildings and 400 members of faculty and staff.

Still, in an economy just hobbling back to life, it might seem impossible that a school dedicated to folk arts ranging from guitar to psychedelic go-go dancing would continue to grow, thrive and expand in Lincoln Square.

Old Town’s formula is a simple yet poignant, according to James “Bau” Graves, the executive director of Old Town School of Folk Music.

“Our school gives people the chance to try something that they have only dreamed of,” Graves said. “We have devoted, passionate teachers and as long as people want to learn…Old Town will be successful.”

When Frank Hamilton and Win Stracke, two Folk musicians, started Old Town School in December of 1957, they had relatively few students and offered a limited array of music classes.

As they slowly built up a following, thanks in part to the widely circulated Old Town School Songbook, more and more musicians and artisans around the country began to take note. Chicagoan Sean Courtney first heard mention of Old Town School while listening to blues musician Ben Harper’s “Live from Mars” album.

“In between tracks he was mentioning a couple of places that he credited as his biggest influences and I heard ‘Old Town School,’” said Courtney, a 63-year-old IT consultant.

“I had heard the school mentioned on WXRT talk before and some of my friends were involved so I knew I had to check it out.”

Since first approaching Old Town School five years ago, Courtney has taken classes from basic guitar to a blues course and even a songwriting class.

“Honestly, I could take the songwriting class again and again,” said Courtney. “Every time you take it you walk away with something completely different, that’s one of the best things about Old Town – whenever you think you’re done you find another way to continue your education.”

The first location of Old Town School of Folk Music was in the Old Town neighborhood, 333 North Avenue, squeezed between Lincoln Park the Gold Coast. But in 1968 the school moved to Armitage Avenue to accommodate the growing number of students.

Twenty years later the school began to realize that they had again outgrown their space and the City of Chicago approached the school about renovating the historic Hild Library, a resplendent art deco building that had been vacant for a dozen years, located in the Ravenswood neighborhood.

When the school expanded to the 4544 N Lincoln location the architects were tasked with restoring, rather than tearing down, the existing structure of the Hild Library. Therefore, small mementoes of the building’s earlier days pepper the façade and interior of the building. Photo: Jane Janeczko

When the school expanded to the 4544 N Lincoln location the architects were tasked with restoring, rather than tearing down, the existing structure of the Hild Library. Therefore, small mementoes of the building’s earlier days pepper the façade and interior of the building. Photo: Jane Janeczko

Sarah Dandelles, the director of the dance program at Old Town School, believes Ravenswood is a perfect location for Old Town School.

“I think the neighborhood has a certain non-hip charm that is pretty representative of the kind of work we do here at Old Town,” said Dandelles. “The neighborhood is changing, but there are still families and kids and our presence, especially the new building, has really driven an economic change.”

Old Town School was not always so financially solvent. In the late 1970s the school was actually on the verge of bankruptcy. To combat this decline the board created a plan to reinvigorate the school and appeal to a larger population. Thanks to these changes the Wiggleworm program, an early childhood music class that boasts alums like Malia and Sasha Obama, was established in 1985.  The Wiggleworm classes are the highest attended courses at Old Town School. In fact, the various children’s programs at Old Town School are now responsible for 2,700 students per week.

During the 1982 institutional renovation the school also began exploring more ethnically diverse programming, which inspired the wildly successful Pacific Island classes. These classes include ukulele, hula and Tahitian drumming all with a strong focus on community ties.

This chalkboard in the Old Town School’s Café advertises some upcoming events and classes. Photo: Jane Janeczko

This chalkboard in the Old Town School’s Café advertises some upcoming events and classes. Photo: Jane Janeczko

“At the end of Hula-Kahiko with Lanialoha Lee she prepares a kind of potluck dinner for the class. Everyone becomes so close thanks to good food, song and community,” said Dandelles.

Chris Walz, the department chair of the Bluegrass, Old Time and Folk department, finds the most satisfaction in the everyday work that Old Town School does. “On the first day of my guitar one class I always teach my students three chords – D, G and A7,” said Walz. “With those three chords you have melody, harmony and rhythm so from that moment on you know how to play the guitar…that to me is extremely satisfying.”

Walz originally came to Chicago in 1996 looking for work as an actor, but soon became involved with Old Town School after hearing the school was looking for someone to run the children’s theatre program. A mostly self-taught musician Walz was offered a job as a guitar teacher while he was browsing in the Old Town School’s music store and jumped at the chance.

“I had just finished up a class and I was in the store when Michael Miles (the former program director) offered me the job. I changed the entire course of my life in that moment,” said Walz. “I took the job and never looked back.”

Walz now lives in the Ravenswood neighborhood with his wife and says he appreciates the diversity in the area. “There are people of all different age groups and cultures who live in this neighborhood and because this location is easy to get to, there really is no limit to who can enjoy our environment,” said Walz.

According to Walz The Old Town School of Folk Music is one of the best representational entities in the Ravenswood neighborhood because it not only reflects, but also celebrates every culture the neighborhood has to offer and then some. “Immersing yourself in the song or dance of a different culture can make you feel removed, but no one is far away and everyone is sharing in the same human experience.”

Tim Joyce (right), the Director of Retail Operations, and Dale Petersohn (left) discuss business behind the counter of the Old Town School’s Music store. The store specializes in the sale and upkeep of instruments ranging from guitars to ukuleles to banjos. Photo: Jane Janeczko

Tim Joyce (right), the Director of Retail Operations, and Dale Petersohn (left) discuss business behind the counter of the Old Town School’s Music store. The store specializes in the sale and upkeep of instruments ranging from guitars to ukuleles to banjos. Photo: Jane Janeczko

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