Frank Hamilton’s Old Town School

by Mark Dvorak

It’s a chilly Sunday afternoon in mid-November, and a group has gathered in a room called the Soccer Club at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. The door opens with a squeak, and a rush of cold air and I make our way in. The room is a commotion of hasty preparedness. A small mountain of coats is piled on the back table. Chairs are hustled into place as recording equipment is set up and tested. Instrument cases are stashed under tables, tucked into corners or left open and in the way. Musicians of every sort lean in close to coax their strings into tune. The door squeaks open again and again. More people, more instrument cases clunking about, more coats, more chairs. The room is jammed to capacity and buzzing with anticipation.

At the center of this frantic swirl is a fellow named Frank Hamilton. Those who already know him also already know that he is the much-loved cofounder of the Old Town School of Folk Music. Frank greets each new acquaintance as if they might one day become an old friend, and he makes certain his old friends know how much they are cherished.

Between hugs and handshakes, he noodles with his guitar. His eye catches someone else he hasn’t seen in a while and his face lights up. Good music, good health and good friendship are mostly what Frank and his wife Mary, seek these days. It is evident there will be plenty of each before the afternoon is over. I watch and imagine that this swell of warmth and kindness has been following the Hamiltons around for a good many years.

Some in attendance appear curious. Others are aware that they are in the presence of a true American master. You’d never hear Frank talk about himself that way. But if you took the time to ask those who know, that is what you would learn. The list of musicians, singers and writers that he has called friend and student and colleague, is simply mind boggling. Among other things, Frank is an uncredited scholar and a dazzling instrumentalist. He is a daring improviser and a spirited entertainer. Above all else, Frank Hamiton is a teacher.

It’s almost time for the workshop to begin and the room settles a bit. Latecomers scurry to find their place. Among the honored guests this afternoon are some of Frank’s friends who share the memory of the Old Town School’s early days. After a couple songs, Frank gets these elders talking and reminiscing, and a patchwork history of the Old Town School unfolds. 

Lance Greening and his sister Laurean remember how their mother Dawn, first began hosting Frank’s classes in their living room. They recall the excitement that swept through their young lives, and the endless work and worry that came along with launching and sustaining a music school through its first years. 

There are references to Win Stracke and his vision of capturing the cultural energy of a big city, and having it one day grow into a music school like no other. There are testimonies from early students. Names like Broonzy and Valucha and Fleming are mentioned in reverent tones.

A story is remembered about heading down to Greek town to learn from the Greek musicians working in some cafe, only to return another time just to watch the Greek women dance. There is laughter and more stories, and another in a series of answers to the rhetorical question ‘Who really started the Old Town School of Folk Music?’

Then it’s time to sing again and “John Henry” erupts from the group like thunder. Then a rousing two-part song, “Ilkley Moor Baht Hat” begins to take shape. One half of the room is led by Frank, and the other by Ted and Marcia Johnson. The room is thick with rhythm and harmony. Voices soar. The music is simple and robust, the experience breathtaking. More songs. “How did we do that?” someone asks. Laughter. More stories. Another song.

Marv David has been an outspoken advocate for the Old Town School from almost the very beginning. He is not a tall man and he speaks in the vernacular of a native Chicagoan. Marv is getting up in years, and has not been in the best of health.

He asks for the attention of the room and requests that Frank, “Sing that beautiful song that you did last night at the concert.” Frank obliges. He fixes the tuning of his guitar and his eyes close. After a moment, the room falls silent and Frank begins.

He sings of seasons and cycles. He sings about crossing a dark valley and he sings about coming through. He sings of a rebirth and a new dawn. A very tender moment is taking place and I watch the people watching Frank. He is their mentor and their friend, and it has been this way for many years. 

Marv is transfixed. His face conveys both pride and humility, his eyes and ears drinking in a moment he knows will never happen again. Along with the others, I watch and listen, a curious witness to an unspoken exchange of deep affection. The song winds down to much applause and suddenly, our time together is ended.

Something resembling an instruction program had just taken place, but it felt more like a family reunion. For nearly three hours, this group of friends and strangers welcomed each other, and sang and talked and played and laughed and remembered how and when a sweeping and very beautiful story began.

For an afternoon, we did what humans do when they celebrate belonging. And so as folks continue to sing and learn and work and play together, so will the story of Frank Hamilton’s Old Town School continue to be told.

From the Old Town School of Folk Music’s 45th Anniversary, November, 2002.


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