By 1971, Win Stracke could see that his hunch had paid off boutifully - and he was ready to retire from the School. Succeeding him as director was Kentucky-born Ray Tate; peerless flatpicker, gifted teacher, and all-around musical dynamo. Dean of teachers since 1965, Ray colored the Old Town School throughout the 1970s with his charm, his ability to recognize and draw out talent, his strong personality, and his eagerness to expand the School's horizons. Under Ray's direction, the School started to offer private lessons, expanded classes to every night of the week for myriad instruments, and gave numerous free faculty and student performances at institutions. The School has an entire scrapbook of thank-you letters written to Ray. Such mementos constitute part of his paper legacy - but Ray is remembered most as a consummate teacher and musician.
Ray Tate, the teacher's teacher. Ray was so enthusiastic that I bet every student in the class believed him or herself to be a protegé. Ray taught in the circular method; there wasn't a thing that didn't become a building block for the next thing taught. We got the history, the encouragement, the 'spirit' if you will, from Ray. He loved it, and it showed.
Ray had an ease with audiences; his obvious superior ability on the guitar came through as well as his skill on any other instrument he ever came across. He was dynamite at them all; piano, horn, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, bass, you name it. There was a story that wne taround the School: A student brought Ray a very peculiar instrument he had acquired at a flea market. Ray had it all tuned up before it was finally established that the device was a noodle cutter. But that about tells you how we trusted that 'good ol' boy,' who, from time to time, caused the utmost damned consternation.
It was Ray who kept the Old Town School of Folk Music on the folk music circuit long after there was no folk music circuit. Ray never missed an 'open mic' session at the Azteca, the Saddle Club, or the Bulls. He taught us how to write a tune now and then, to play with chords and harmonies, to take it all very seriously. And he taught something else to those of us who were watching; how to teach.
Like his predecessors Ray brought performers playing at the many clubs around the city into the School for impromptu concerts and jam sessions. "If special visiting artist came into town, Ray'd latch onto them to give a workshop at the School," says Ticia Perenchio, who did public relations work for the School during Ray's tenure. "So someone could take a workshop with Sam Hinton or Bryan Bowers." And former teacher Mike Dunbar adds, "Clubs like the Earl of Old Town or the Quiet Knight would send their headline acts to the School to be guests at the second half, or to play at the Saddle Club, a nearby tavern where the School hosted a weekly open stage.
I ran into Ray Tate at the old Quiet Knight in the early '70s. He told me about the School and mentioned that something called 'Paxton picking' was taught there. I was thunderstruck because, to put it mildly, I have never entertained an inflated sense of myself as a guitarist. Careful attention to my recordings has reinforced this view. I expressed disbelief; Ray insisted.
I must tell you that on every occasion in which I have ever visited the School I have searched the walls in vain for a chart explaining 'Paxton picking'! I see Dyer-Bennet arpeggios, Leadbelly licks, etc. but of my inimitable style, no sign. Perhaps it's kept under lock and key in some inner sanctum, accessible only to the more advanced students? A nagging voice whispers, 'Nah." I began to fear that Ray Tate was having a little joke with me.
I'm still wondering what 'Paxton picking is - and if I could learn to do it.
One day Leo Kottke visited an Old Town School fingerpicking class. "Leo pulled out his guitar and played a few tunes with us," Margaret Reilly recalls. "And Second Half was always fun. Broonzy Hall would be packed with guitars, banjos, fiddles, Old Town School songbooks, and people. If Ray Tate and Bill Hansen weren't blowing us away with their great guitar playing, there's be folks like Ed or Fred Holstein, Valucha, Bob Gibson, Hamilton Camp, Ginni Clemmens, or Fleming Brown stopping in for a song or two."
In May of 1973 I volunteered, as part of my senior year at Francis Parker, to work at the Old Town School. Gail Forsberg was at the desk then, and essentially I assisted her in stamping the students' cards and doing general clerical work. I'd come in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed every morning at ten and run out and get coffee for Gail and Eddie Holsteing, who was always around. At the time I was just a star-struck kid, bashfully impressed to be hanging out with a famous folksinger like Ed Holstein.
Amiss the dog was always in the store with me, up on the counter, playing with customers or with Emmy Revesz's boxer, Ariel. Ariel would howl whenever she heard harmonica. Emmy would get the biggest kick out of playing duets with Ariel every time she tested a harmonica. Another good friend of Amiss was Zeus the wonder dog, the School's mascot German Shepherd who belonged to the custodian, Cory Camallieri. Zeus's head was as big as Amiss's entire body, but the two would roll around the floor constantly, to the amusement of everyone. That was just one of the many great friendships started at the Old Town School.