Celebrating 60 Years
For some students, the Old Town School offered a tantalizing glimpse of an alternative to their current lives:
I first visited the School in the spring of 1960. I came up from the south side of Chicago, where I was living, via the subway. It left me off at North and Clybourn: to a 13-year-old southsider, as familiar as Alaska.
I headed east on North Avenue, looking for 333 West North, only to pass it by several times. In my mind's eye, I was looking for a schol, an institution, with a big lot, columns and pillars, monkey bars, etc. I didn't realize it was possible to have a school on the second floor of an old meeting hall. When I found it, there was Frank Hamilton leading the second half, singing 'Welcome Table,' using what I was to find out later was a bass run on the guitar; Dawn Greening being gracious and wonderful serving homemade cookies; the Clancy Brothers dropping by to do a few songs; and I knew fleming Brown, the great banjo player wasn't far away - I was in heaven!
I would get on the North Avenue bus at the Narragansett depot, on the edge of suburbia, in a world dull and familiar to a discontented teenager of 1961, and then the Saturday afternoon Odyssey would begin. I found myself surrounded by babushkaed women, coming or going from their shopping or relative-visiting, their cloth or net bags filled with richly scented sausages and many other items defying identification, glibly gossiping of their families, or maybe discussing the new parish priest, or planning clandestine freedom movements in the old country, in Polish and a symphony of other European tongues. As the ride continued, darker faces would appear, and English bubbled again to the top of the language sea, joined by Spanish.
After the bus reached the Clybourn train stop, many more guitars and banjos would board, all headed for the Old Town School and for the last half mile I had to abandon my Odyssean fantasies of the bus trip and get off for the guitar class.
I never got very good on the guitar, but those bus rides, and those classes, and the visits across the hall from the school to the wonderful visionary old men of the Proletarian Party, living out their last years in what we would now call S.R.O.s, spending many days sitting and reading on park benches, dazzled at least one bourgeois teen - I must admit I often skipped the second half to hang out over there.
And above all, in my memories of the school, there was Dawn. I actually met her before I took classes at the school. I had started a folk music club at Oak Park High School; Lance and Leslie, two of Dawn's children who were students there, had told me of a house where Pete Seeger and Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry and other mythological creatures would hang out on their travels. They invited me over, and I discovered a place where a teenage rebel could let down his guard a few minutes; I learned that you could escape Oak Park and all it symbolized to me without ever leaving it, and I also learned from Dawn and Nate and the others that even if they didn't come from a remote and exotic place like India or Kentucky or Mississippi, and even if they weren't introduced into our consciousness from the mythic world of media like Pete Seeger, and even if they didn't belong to a remote generation like the Proletarian Party folks, some grownups were still able to hang on to the dream.
Clearly, the school was a welcome answer to the city's growing interest in folk music - an interest that had kept the Gate of Horn thriving, and now was feeding all kinds of new folk clubs around the north side: the Bulls, the Azteca, the Saddle Club, the Quiet Knight, Poor Richard's, the Earl of Old Town. A full-blown folk revival was on in Chicago, and the Old Town School was at the heart of it. A wonderful symbiosis transformed the music scene: Teachers and students would hand out at the clubs, which helped keep those small establishments going - then they started to perform in them.
Actually, it started at the Bulls. It may have been the beginning of what is now known as 'Open Mic' entertainment in Chicago. We had absolutely no intention of entertaining anyone then, just wanted to get together and pick and sing with ourselves after class on Thursday nights. And we hated it when people came to hear us and the Bulls had to put in microphones and amps, so we left and went to the Azteca, then left there and settled in at the old Saddle Club on North Avenue. But we had to succumb to the crowds that kept following, and used mikes and amps; it got to be on-stage entertainment every Thursday night for years.