Biography of a Hunch

Dawn Greening: Dawn's Early Light

Anyone who was involved with the School from its early days can't help but smile when remembering Dawn Greening. Former students and teachers call her "Momma Dawn," "the mother of us all," "the true heart of the School." In a way Dawn's warm heart and kind impulses helped create the Old Town School in the first place; not only did she love folk music, but she knew her friend Frank Hamilton needed an income, and offered him her home as a base for his music lessons. Maybe Steve Romanoski, fondly recalling the early days of the School, said it best: the Old Town School of Folk Music was born in Dawn's heart.

The following is excerpted from Steve's article, "Dawn Greening, The Mother of Us All," in the Summer 1980 edition of Come for to Sing.

Old Town School Founder Dawn Greening

Back in 1955, Dawn and her husband Nate were listening to Studs Terkel doing a live interview on WFMT with Bob Gibson from the Gate of Horn. Dawn was so touched by Gibson's style that she and Nate ran down to the Gate that same night to hear him in person. They were to return many times. After one performance, Dawn went up to talk to Bob, and told him about the rare 1916 Vega/Fairbanks Whyte Ladie banjo she had unwittingly bought for $17. When he saw the instrument he talked her out of selling it, and offered to give lessons. So Dawn and Nate offered to help Gibson paint and paper his apartment in exchange for banjo lessons for Nate.

As Dawn became a regular at the Gate of Horn, she met some of the great names in folk music. Many of them became more than performers who sand the music she loved; they became friends as well. Dawn offered the hospitality of the Greening home to musicians who were performing at the Gate; she offered them a home away from home. The entire Greening family became the friends of folks like José Feliciano and Peggy Seeger, and local folks - like Bob Gibson and Win Stracke.

Dawn meets Frank

Once Dawn spent an entire day preparing a fantastic meal for her dear friend Odetta. But Odetta called and asked Dawn to forgive her, but se had to cancel because a musician was passing through town from the West Coast whom she had to see. She said he was one of the finest musicians in the country, a man she saw whenever she could. He was 'the folksinger's folksinger,' said Odetta, 'the master of the art.' That cancelled dinner was the first time Dawn Greening had ever heard of Frank Hamilton.

When Dawn finally heard Frank play at the Gate, she agreed that he was one of the most brilliant musicians she had ever heard. She got to know him, and eventually suggested that he could teach her friends guitar at her house; each student would pay $2 per lesson, enough to let Frank stay in Chicago.

And now it was October, 1957. An early-evening crowd of friends had come to the Greening home with guitars in hand to learn in this new group format. Frank hoped to be able to implement a technique that had been developed by Bess Lomax Hawes in California. This first class numbered 15 people, including the entire Greening family. Groups were set up in various rooms at different levels of competence (or incompetence as Win Stracke said later). The first song to be taught was "Sloop John B."...

Dawn eventually became full-time administrator of the School, and often recruited her family (including Nate, Lesley, Lance, Laurian, and Wendy) to help on various events. The School maintained the charm and caring for the individual that Dawn had initiated in her home.

Portraits of Dawn: Jo Mapes

"I first met Dawn Greening on my trips into Chicago to play the clubs. Dawn was the 'Folk Momma,' 'Mother Dawn' to the folk music community. Her big old house saw them all: Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Doc Watson, and so many more. Pickers, pluckers, singers, pipers, all passed through Dawn and Nate's house to enjoy the welcome, the good food, good people and good times. Dawn, big, gregarious, warm, wonderful, lusty, gusty, and joyful, loved the music, and the folk who made it.

Dawn Greening

My fondest memory of Dawn was on the stairway at Mother Blues. The house was full and we were lining the stairway overlooking the stage, listening to someone on stage and singing along. Dawn was caught up in the spirit and was gustily singing and that big happy voice of hers sailed over the bannister. I looked at her, loving what I was hearing and seeing. She was lustily singing, in a key that still defies identification. Or maybe she covered five or six, but it didn't matter. Her face was beaming that wonderful big smile and happy eyes made her a celebration itself. I loved it. Her spirit and warmth gave the school something rare."

Dawn never knew who would be waiting for her when she got home. Once she returned from work to find Pete Seeger baking apples in her kitchen.

Portraits of Dawn: Fred Holstein

"Dawn was a bridge between the performers and the students; we were all just people to her. She knew that I woshipped Pete Seeger; when I first met Dawn, I was trying to grow up to be Pete. Soon after I met her, he came to town to give a concert. She came up to me, grabbed my arm, said 'Come over her,' and led me to a corner. There sat Pete. I was shaking! Dawn said, 'Pete, I want you to meet somebody,' and introduced me. Then she invited me to go out to her house with Seeger and several other people. I was flabbergasted - I was only 19 or 20, and had not known her long at all. But she knew how much it meant to me, so I passed that evening sitting on Dawn's floor, listening to Pete talk with Studs Terkel and Win Stracke. What a wonderful thing to do for someone whe hardly knew! She knew every single student, and which performers they liked, and she would make sure that they got tickets to see those performers , anywhere in town, whenever they appeared.... I don't have many heroes, but Dawn Greening is most certainly one of them."

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