Chicago, 1956. Al Grossman, owner of the Gate of Horn - the first folk nightclub in the country - had just hired two young musicians as his house performers. Frank Hamilton and Bob Gibson got off the bus.
Frank Hamilton brought more than his guitar with him from California. He had picked up some innovative teaching techniques from Bess Lomax Hawes, anthopologist, folklorist, musician, and grand dame of the L.A, folk scene, as he explains:
"The Old Town School may have had its beginnings as far back as the early 1950s, miles away from Chicago. The Kingston Trio were business majors at Menlo College in Northern California. Tom Dooley was a little-known song collected by Frank Warner, a folk performer who sang it to a small select audience. He had learned it from Frank Proffitt, a North Carolina banjo maker. Meanwhile Elvis wriggled below the camera on the Ed Sullivan show as three-chord rock and big band ditties filled the stale airwaves.
"In Santa Monica, California, Bess Lomax Hawes was holding classes in guitar, five-string banjo, autoharp, and lap dulcimer in private homes of her students. She did this to teach people what American folk music was all about. Bess is a human reference library on American folk music. Her father was John Lomax, a leading folklorist who started the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song. And if Bess is the Margaret Mead of folk music, her brother Alan is the Charles Darwin. He has given us field recordings from Appalachian porches to Texas chain gangs; he discovered the legendary Leadbelly.
"Bess taught me to teach music classes. She galvanized the fledgling folk scene in Los Angeles. In my opinion, without Bess, there might not have been an Old Town School, because as far as I know she was the first person to gather classes together to teach folk singing and accompaniment on folk instruments...
"Win Stracke has a vision of a school of folk music, a giant meetinghouse for musicians, storytellers, folk dancers, folklorists, and professional folk entertainers who would gather to share their knowledge with the public. Teacher and student would be partners in learning. Kids from the poorer sections of the city could afford music lessons there. Chicago was the right place at the right time. The guitar, banjo, and stringed instrument classes could be the vehicle for making it happen."
And, as Steve Romanoski adds, Frank's first group lessons at the Greenings' house established another Old Town School tradition: the "second half" gathering.
"Dawn devised a schedule that included a refreshment break and group singalong after the sessions. In New York she had been at the house of a friend who had passed out printed lyrics of simple folk songs. She'd had such a wonderful time that she wanted to share that feeling with the students and friends at her home. And so this format became the backbone of the Old Town School's unique method of teaching. Frank would go from room to room teaching the same tune at different levels of difficulty, then it would all get put together and everybody would end the evening with a singalong."
I picture Frank as the ultimate caring teacher, often not on time but the students not objecting because when Frank entered the classroom he would take total chaos and turn it into order." -Dawn Greening
Frank Hamilton served as the unofficial dean of teachers at the Old Town School until he left to join the Weavers in 1962. "During the first days of the School, I ran around from one room to the next, juggling classes like some kind of nutty professor," he recalls. "This wore a little thin and we developed a teaching team to bail me out."
At the very beginning, then, the School had its main ingredients in place; group lessons taught by different talented musicians, with all students and teachers gathering together for a hootenanny/jam session after class. The recipe still works today.