Biography of a Hunch
A Brief History
In the Beginning
The Old Town School of Folk Music opened in December of 1957 with its first home at 333 North Avenue. The first five years of the Schools history mirrored the boom in folk music at that time. Enrollment grew and programs expanded. Over 150 students attended guitar and banjo classes on a weekly basis. Folk dancing, and family sing-alongs rounded out the programming. The School also offered concerts by nationally renowned artists. Pete Seeger, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Driftwood, Big Bill Broonzy, and Josh White were just some of the many folk music artists who performed at the Old Town School in its early years.
The School continued to grow, contributing to and benefiting from the folk revival movement of the 1960s. The School developed a special atmosphere of community and camaraderie, and helped to launch some of the brightest artists on the folk music scene: Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Bob Gibson, John Prine, Bonnie Koloc, and the late Steve Goodman all studied at the Old Town School. In 1968, the School purchased and moved into a 13,000 square foot building at 909 West Armitage Avenue.
In the early 1970s the School introduced private instruction in a variety of instruments, a more high-profile concert schedule, and the opening of satellite locations. Enrollment peaked in 1975 with over 650 students attending classes each week.
The late 70s marked a decline in enrollment, concert attendance, and the beginning of a severe financial crisis that left the School on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1982, the School's staff and Board began a broad series of institutional changes that increased management effectiveness, placed a higher emphasis on fundraising, and expanded the scope of programming to include ethnic and traditional music from around the world. Solvent, the School rebounded. By 1987 the School was able to renovate the Armitage Avenue facility, a renovation that contributed to a surge in the School's popularity. That same year the School won the prestigious Beatrice Foundation Award for Excellence.
1990s and beyond
In the early 1990s, the School recognized the need for additional space and began to explore options. Coincidentally, at about the same time the City of Chicago approached the Old Town School and other cultural institutions about the former Hild Library, an art deco builiding that had stood vacant for twelve years. The 43,000 square foot building was situated on North Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Square, one of Chicagos most culturally diverse neighborhoods. Chosen by the city as the preferred recipient, the School began planning and soliciting support to expand operations to the new facility in late 1994.
With funds raised from a $10 million capital campaign, the School expanded its programs to the much larger Lincoln Avenue facility, and maintained its music education programs at the Armitage building in Lincoln Park. The new Old Town School building was dedicated on September 18, 1998, with a concert by Joni Mitchell and Peter Yarrow. The new facility, the finest in North America for the study and presentation of folk and traditional music forms, dramatically raised the School's profile and garnered national praise and recognition.
Today enrollment in Old Town School tuition programs averages close to 6,600 students per week, 2,700 of them children. The Lincoln Square and Lincoln Park facilities hold hundreds of classes and workshops in music, dance and art for adults, children and teens seven days per week, 48 weeks per year. Early childhood and middle school music programs thrive in three suburban branches as well as in several community outreach programs throughout the city. The School presents performances by internationally known touring artists, the best of Chicagos local artists and its staff and students virtually every weekend. Most Wednesday nights feature free concerts through AfroFolk Live and La Peña, popular and long established Community Programs. Some 85,000 come to these concerts and attend the Chicago Folk & Roots festival in nearby Welles Park annually.
Through our 53-year history, what has set the Old Town School of Folk Music apart from other music teaching programs has been our philosophy that music is for everyone. The founders wanted the School to be a place where, as founder Frank Hamilton said, "teacher and student would be partners in learning." This philosophy is still in place and the Old Town School continues to be a place that gives people the tools to make their own music. Young and old, beginners and advanced players, people from various cultures and traditions come together to create music and learn from each other.
The Old Town School of Folk Music remains committed to teaching and presenting music that reflects the cultural traditions of Chicago's diverse communities. Operating with a five-year strategic plan implemented in 2010, the school continues to focus its resources and activities on improving and expanding artistic opportunities for people of all ages, interests, abilities and backgrounds.
Biography of a Hunch
These moments in Old Town School history are reprinted from Biography of a Hunch: The History of Chicago's Legendary Old Town School of Folk Music, written by Lisa Grayson.