Biography of a Hunch

Opening Night at the Old Town School

Opening Night, December 1st, 1957

The opening ceremonies and registration on December 1, 1957, were a smash. Several hundred prospective students attended, along with a fine representation of performers, educators, and Old Town notables. George Armstrong opened the proceedings with the strains of the bagpipes; Frank Hamilton gave a demonstration of his teaching method, using our former Oak Park group as guinea pigs; Big Bill Broonzy performed one of his blues numbers and, on the spot, Frank analyzed and reproduced Bill's intricate right-hand style in written tablature on a blackboard and then played back an exact rendition of Bill's playing. That night we also instituted the coffee break that has continued to be a part of every Old Town School class. We closed the evening with a songfest, and the School was on its way.

The School expanded and, by its second year, held classes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons.

One of the reasons that the School was so successful was that it was also a gratifying social experience. From the beginning, students were encouraged to help each other. The coffee break added to the social atmosphere, and the "second half," with all the students singing and playing at their own level, has continued.

And the composition of the student body has always provided an interesting chemistry. In our classes you'll find just about everything: engineers and office workers, housewives and hockey players, brokers and bus drivers, priests and psychiatrists, firemen and photographers. At the same time we were lucky from the beginning to have the enthusiastic and generous support of the professional folksinging community. If I were to start listing the singers and folklorists who have performed at the school without compensation - names like Pete Seeger, Odetta, Studs Terkel, Doc Watson, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Monroe, the Weavers, Jean Ritchie - it would take a long time to reach the end of the list.

A word about our teachers. Many of them learned their skills here and stayed on to become part of the teaching staff. Many more were fine performers who wanted to become part of the School. All of them have been dedicated, loyal, and enthusiastic. The School and they have grown together.

Many thousands of students have by now attended classes. And while the School has always insisted that its main purpose was to give performing skills to amateurs - in the best sense of that word - some of these students became performers: people like Steve Goodman, John Prine, Jim McGuinn, Ginni Clemmens, Valucha, and Fred and Ed Holstein.

When we opened our doors on December 1, 1957, we described ourselves, in what now seems a burst of overconfidence, as "America's first permanent school for the study of folk music and folk instruments." Somehow we have tapped the strength, the beauty, the longevity of the songs we sing and channeled these qualities into a gathering place we call the Old Town School of Folk Music. We have built an institution that commands nationwide respect. It seems the hunch was right!

Next → Learn more about founder Win Stracke

The Old Town School of Folk Music, Inc.
4544 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago IL 60625  •  773.728.6000