Biography of a Hunch

Ties to rural folk traditions

By the mid-60s, the Old Town School drove Chicago's folk community. As more students, teachers, and friends heard artists such as Jean Ritchie and Jimmy Driftwood, they sought stronger ties to traditional folkways. The Old Town Folklore Center, and delegations of Old Town School musicians who started attending the Mountain View, Arkansas, Folk Festival every year, helped connect the School to rural traditions.

The Old Town Folklore Center

In 1963, the Old Town Folklore Center opened next door to the School. This sister organization - run independently, but staffed by many of the same people attached to the School - sold records, books, instruments, and folk art pieces. Well, the Center might have specialized in southern folkways, but it was very much a part of Chicago like, as Art Thieme's brush with business, Chicago-style, shows:

It was 1964 (or '65 or '66) ... the place looked normal when we opened the store that day. But all the tape machines and a few instruments were gone. No sign of forced entry anywhere. We scoured the place for hours and then found a hole in the basement wall where the bricks had been kicked in. The damn guys had come in through a manhole on Sedgwick Street, crept under the hollow sidewalk, kicked in the wall and entered the store's basement. They's hauled the 100-pound tape decks out of the building the same way they came in.

As usual, the store was operating on a very tight profit margin so this was a crushing blow. We almost had to close the doors. The Win said he'd talk to the alderman, Paddy Bauler. Anyhow, the alderman or someone knew a fence who bought stuff from the street kids. We'd have to pay a price for our own stuff, but we could get it back. And we couldn't ask any questions. Well, we paid the price, got most of the stuff back, and no one ever said another word about it - until now! Yep, life was never dull around the Old Town School.

The Arkansas Connection

One night in April 1965, six Old Town School regulars squeezed their guitars, their luggage, and themselves into Ray Tate's car to head for Mountain View, Arkansas. As Judy Hauff recalls, "Everyone at the School was always talking up the festival - all the great old country acts you'd get to see, like Jimmy Driftwood and Almeda Riddle, the real authentic musicians.

Norm Kantor describes his first trip:

Chilly cold in Chicago, but the dogwoods were in bloom in sunny Mountain View. We stayed at Glenn Ohrlin's ranch. Glenn was a great host, singer, and storyteller. We sang all day and all night. Ray Tate, Mike Mashkes, Judy Hauff, Bill Hansen, Alan Ralph, Chuck and Sherry Handel - I forgot who else.

The folk festival took place in the local high school. Kids, five and six years old, played fiddle, guitar and banjo. Likewise, their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were all playing traditional and old-timey music. Bluegrass was forbidden.

It still goes on. It's wonderful. Fabulous jamming in the little town square. Dancing in the back of the town jail. Enormous do-it-yourself breakfasts at the Pony Peak Ranch. Quilts for sale hanging in one front yard after another. And music everywhere from dawn to dusk.

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