The Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook

by Mark Dvorak

Some time ago, a former student gave me a copy of the original Old Town School of Folk Music songbook as a gift. Though the Old Town School opened in November 1957, the first songbook didn’t appear until about a year later. There's no copyright page on mine, so it's hard to tell. I suppose someone somewhere knows. 

Whenever it came to be, I'm told it was created by Win Stracke, the school's first director, and Frank Hamilton, the first instructor. It seems inconceivable now, that someone then, would try to start a music school without a songbook. But that's the way Win and Frank wanted to do it.

Win and Frank loved music of all kinds. Win was a trained singer with a deep bass voice. He sang folk songs his whole life, but also sang in classical settings, choirs, and even in an opera or two. He enjoyed a successful career in radio and television, and at one time was quite the celebrity. Frank grew up in Los Angeles and was remarkably young when he, Win, and Gertrude Soltker opened the school. Frank was skilled on several instruments and was already an accomplished folk and jazz musician. He was also a talented teacher of folk music classes, having learned first hand from a woman named Bess Lomax Hawes in California.

Both Frank and Win had a great knowledge of, and deep respect for folk songs from many countries. Together they envisioned a school where people could not only celebrate the American tradition of song and dance, but could also become acquainted with the musical traditions of different world cultures. Their new school would be a meeting house for musicians, storytellers, folk dancers, folklorists and professional entertainers who would gather to share their knowledge and experience with the public. 

They fashioned a curriculum and developed a teaching technique. Hailed as "innovative" at the time, Frank and Win's creative new approach to learning music was actually based upon the age old methods folks have always used: listening, watching, trial and error and playing by ear. When they finally did get around to assembling the original "textbook," as it was called, it was done only after considerable discussion and debate.

Win and Frank wanted their book to be easy for students to use. It had to be inexpensive to produce. They wanted it to be representative of the North American folk song tradition. They wanted songs from other countries to be included. The songs had to be simple. They favored lots of songs which were suitable for group involvement. Where other schools taught theory and performance, Win and Frank wanted the Old Town School teaching method to retain its emphasis on participation and development of aural skills.

Finally, 94 songs were settled upon. Most were North American folk songs, but selections from Israel, Ireland, England, Chile, and a Cajun love song were added. Each page gave a sentence or two of background about the song with the chord progression and rhythm indicators printed above the verses. Chord fingering charts for guitar, and in some cases banjo, were pictured, and at the bottom of each page the melody was written out in standard music notation.

The book was issued to students unbound. The pages were 3-hole punched and to be put in a ring binder. The intention here was for all students to start out with the same collection of songs. As hand outs from different classes were added to the binder, no two books - or no two students - might evolve identically.

This new 50th Anniversary edition of our songbook is the sixth or seventh, depending on whom you ask, and it's a whole lot different than the original. There are now 117 songs in all - two dozen of which are half-century survivors from Win and Frank's original selection. The appendix has also been updated and expanded to include reference material on the most popular folk instruments studied at the Old Town School. It is chock full of clearly presented, useful information.

What a treasure is the new Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook! Some of the sturdiest songs known to the English-speaking world - from centuries-old ballads to African-American Spirituals to old-timey numbers to blues to folk favorites to songs from Chicago's own rich songwriting tradition - are all bound together in a single collection. Each song is a doorway through which lies an opportunity to renew ourselves; to discover again what remains common in our long and varied musical heritage.

In a way, every musician and songwriter is a kind of folklorist. We ask questions. In what we learn from people and books and recordings we sometimes find answers. Which lead to more questions. Throughout our musical lives, we review our growing catalogues of truth and sort through our expanding inventories of things unknown. Piece by piece, a personal collection of sounds, images and experiences is somewhere being assembled in our hearts and minds. That collection contains the stuff out of which real music is made. And with practice comes the promise that our music will one day reveal a beautiful reflection of who we are and from where we've come.

For certain, there is no shortage of virtuosos in our musical world. Performances and recordings abound that remind us indeed, some are born with extraordinary gifts. But I hope in learning the songs in the 50th Anniversary Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook you will also learn that, for a long time now, folks with ordinary gifts have been responding to the world around them in extraordinary ways. That's an idea I am now pretty sure Win and Frank knew a whole lot about by the time they opened the Old Town School of Folk Music.


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