Otsfm logo

Old Town School History

The Old Town School of Folk Music teaches and celebrates music and cultural expressions rooted in the traditions of diverse American and global communities.

The Old Town School of Folk Music opened in December of 1957 with its first home at 333 West North Avenue. The first five years of the School’s history mirrored the boom in folk music at that time. Enrollment grew and programs expanded. More than 150 students attended guitar and banjo classes on a weekly basis. Folk dancing and family sing-alongs rounded out the programming. The School also offered concerts by nationally renowned artists. Pete Seeger, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Driftwood, Big Bill Broonzy, and Josh White were just some of the many folk music artists who performed at the Old Town School in its early years.

Visit – The Roots of the Old Town School Up Until 1957


The School continued to grow, contributing to and benefiting from the folk revival movement of the 1960s. The School developed a special atmosphere of community and camaraderie, and helped to launch some of the brightest artists on the folk music scene: Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Bob Gibson, John Prine, Bonnie Koloc, and the late Steve Goodman all studied at the Old Town School. In 1968, the School purchased and moved into a 13,000 square foot building at 909 West Armitage Avenue.

Visit – A Musical Democracy 1957-1967


In the early 1970s the School introduced private instruction in a variety of instruments, a more high-profile concert schedule, and the opening of satellite locations. Enrollment peaked in 1975 with more than 650 students attending classes each week.

Visit – Learning By Doing 1968-1986, Part I
Visit – A Unique Folk Scene or Market? 1968-1986, Part II


The late '70s marked a decline in enrollment, concert attendance, and the beginning of a severe financial crisis that left the School on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1982, the School's staff and Board began a broad series of institutional changes that increased management effectiveness, placed a higher emphasis on fundraising, and expanded the scope of programming to include ethnic and traditional music from around the world. Solvent, the School rebounded. By 1987, the School was able to renovate the Armitage Avenue facility, a renovation that contributed to a surge in the School's popularity. That same year the School won the prestigious Beatrice Foundation Award for Excellence.

Visit – Finding the World in Chicago 1987-1996

1990s and beyond

In the early 1990s, the School recognized the need for additional space and began to explore options. Coincidentally, at about the same time the City of Chicago approached the Old Town School and other cultural institutions about the former Hild Library, an art deco building that had stood vacant for 12 years. The 43,000 square foot building was situated on North Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Square, one of Chicago’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods. Chosen by the city as the preferred recipient, the School began planning and soliciting support to expand operations to the new facility in late 1994.

With funds raised from a $10 million capital campaign, the School expanded its programs to the much larger Lincoln Avenue facility, and maintained its music education programs at the Armitage building in Lincoln Park. The new Old Town School building was dedicated on September 18, 1998, with a concert by Joni Mitchell and Peter Yarrow. The new facility, the finest in North America for the study and presentation of folk and traditional music forms, dramatically raised the School's profile and garnered national praise and recognition.

Visit – The Circle in The Square 1997-2007

Right Now

Today enrollment in Old Town School tuition programs averages close to 6,600 students per week, 2,700 of them children. The Lincoln Square and Lincoln Park facilities hold hundreds of classes and workshops in music, dance, and visual art for adults, children, and teens seven days per week, 48 weeks per year. Early childhood and middle school music programs thrive in suburban branches as well as in several community outreach programs throughout the city. The School presents performances by internationally known touring artists, the best of Chicago’s local artists, and its staff and students weekly. Most Wednesday nights feature free concerts through our popular and long established World Music Wednesdays program. Some 85,000 come to these concerts and attend our neighborhood Square Roots festival annually.

Through our decades-long history, what has set the Old Town School of Folk Music apart from other music teaching programs has been our philosophy that music is for everyone. The founders wanted the School to be a place where, as founder Frank Hamilton said, "teacher and student would be partners in learning." This philosophy is still in place and the Old Town School continues to be a place that gives people the tools to make their own music. Young and old, beginners and advanced players, people from various cultures and traditions come together to create music and learn from each other.

The Old Town School of Folk Music remains committed to teaching and presenting music that reflects the cultural traditions of Chicago's diverse communities. Operating with a five-year strategic plan, the school continues to focus its resources and activities on improving and expanding artistic opportunities for people of all ages, interests, abilities and backgrounds.

Click for some historical extras