A Companion to the Old Town School Songbook
Compiled and edited byMark Dvorak.
Some time ago, a former student gave me a copy of the original Old Town School of Folk Music songbook as a gift. Though the Old Town School opened in 1957, I don't think the first songbook appeared till about a year later. There's no copyright page in mine, so it's hard to tell. I suppose someone somewhere knows. Whenever it come to be, I'm told it was created by Win Stracke, the School's first director and Frank Hamilton, the first instructor. It seems inconceivable that anyone would think of starting up a music school without a songbook. But that's the way Win and Frank wanted to do it.
Win and Frank loved music of all kinds. Win was a trained singer with a deep bass voice. He sang folk songs his whole life, but also sang in classical settings, choirs, and even an opera or two. He enjoyed a successful career in radio and television, and at one time was quite the celebrity. Frank grew up in Los Angeles and was remarkably young when he and Win opened the School. He was skilled on several instruments and already an accomplished folk and jazz musician. Frank was also a talented teacher of folk music classes, having learned first-hand from a woman named Bess Lomax Hawes in California.
Both Frank and Win had a great knowledge and deep respect for folk songs from many countries. Together they envisioned a school where people could not only celebrate the American tradition of song and dance, but could also become acquainted with the musical traditions of different world cultures. Their new school would be a meeting house for musicians, storytellers, folk dancers, folklorists, and professional folk entertainers who would gather to share their knowledge and experience with the public.
They fashioned a curriculum and developed a teaching technique. Hailed as "innovative" at the time, Frank and Win's creative new approach to learning music was actually based upon age-old methods folks have always used: listening, watching, trial and error, and playing by ear. When they finally did get around to assembling the original "textbook" as it was called, it was done only after considerable discussion and debate.
Win and Frank wanted their book to be easy for students to use. It had to be inexpensive to produce. They wanted it to be representative of the North American folk song tradition. They wanted songs from other cultures to be included. The songs had to be simple. They favored lots of songs which were suitable for group involvement. Where other music schools taught sight reading and performance, Win and Frank wanted the Old Town School "method" to retain its emphasis on participation and development of aural skills.
Finally, 94 songs were settled upon. Most were North American folk songs, but selections from Israel, Ireland, England, Chile, and a Cajun love song were added. Each page gave a sentence or two of background about the song while the chord progression and rhythm indicators were printed above the verses. Chord fingering charts for guitar, and in some cases banjo, were pictured on each page and at the bottom the melody was written out in standard musical notation.
The book was issued to students unbound. The pages were 3-hole punched and to be put in a ring binder. The intention here was for all students to start out with the same collection of songs. As hand-outs from different classes were added to the binder, no two books - or no two students - might evolve identically.
The current edition of our songbook is the fifth or sixth, depending on who you ask, and is a whole lot different than the original. There are now 108 songs in all - two dozen of which are more than forty-year survivors from Frank and Win's original selection. The Old Town School Musical Guide in the back has been greatly expanded too. It's chock-full of clearly presented, useful information. And after 30-odd years of teachers watching ring binders crash to the floor, the current book has been spiral bound, so it sits better on a music stand.
My hope is that Old Town School teachers and students will find this companion guide helpful. It might be useful in the classroom by providing some context to a group lesson. It might be useful as a reference to give the reader a basic grasp of the genre. Or it might be used as a starting point for your own study and research.
In a way, every musician and song writer is a kind of folklorist. We ask questions. In what we learn from people and books and recordings we sometimes fine answers - which lead to more questions. Throughout our musical lives, we review our growing catalogs of truth, and sort through our expanding inventories of things unknown. Piece by piece, a personal collection of sounds, images and experiences is somewhere being assembled in our minds and hearts. That collection contains the real stuff out of which real music is made. And with practice comes the promise that our music will one day reveal a beautiful reflection of we are and where we're come.
For certain, there is no shortage of virtuosos in our world of music. Performances and recordings abound which remind us that indeed, some are born with extraordinary gifts. But I hope the following pages begin to provide the reader with the sense that, for a long time now, folks with ordinary gifts have been responding musically to the world about them in extraordinary ways. That's the sense I got while digging this stuff up. And that's an idea I now think Win and Frank must have known a whole lot about by the time they opened the Old Town School of Folk Music.
A Final Note