Celebrating 60 Years
By the mid-1970s, the folk revival might have cooled in other cities - but Chicago's Old Town School was thriving, even expaning. In January 1974, the School opened a branch office in Skokie (which later moved to Evanston). As Robert Ganz, branch director from 1974 to 1978, explains, "Our concerns at the branch were primarily, as I remember it, curriculum and survival. We wanted the School to be not a conservatory, but a cultural resource."
What conservatory, after all, would offer lessons in Texas Chainsaw?
"Giving [bluegrass banjo] lessons in Skokie taught me and the students the art of concentration. The guitar classes used all of the rooms, so the banjo players sat in the 'fishbowl.' I think guitar players began calling the banjo the 'Texas Chainsaw' around this time.
"After we moved to the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, we had a nice comfortable airtight closet for banjo lessons, off a room where guitar classes were held. But we still managed to be heard through the closed closet door and we kept those guitar players smiling.
"The guitar classes didn't mind, however, when one or two banjo students stayed after their lessons to play in the Second Half. Finally, the guitar players matched those Texas Chainsaw players in volume, with fifteen or twenty guitar players against only two banjo players in the room!"
"There was always a great sense of community in the classes, and this was at least as important to most students as learning how to play an instrument." -Greg Cahill
The School eventually opened branches in suburban Mount Prospect and Beverly; even in Madison, Wisconsin. But its expansion was not simply geographical. Back at 909 W. Armitage, students could join hootenannies; learn harmonica, mandolin, piano, classical guitar, autoharp, and voice; pick up some bluegrass technique or even a little rock and roll; even (for a short while) attend a theater school. Ray expanded the children's program to include special programs with Ella Jenkins and regular 'Poppas and Mommas' singalongs, and introduced children's Suzuki-method guitar classes.
The School further expanded its leadership on the local and national folk scene when it helped publish a monthly magazine, Come for to Sing, launched in 1975 under the vigilant editorship of Emily Friedman, with legions of dedicated volunteers. For ten years, this publication "reached folkies everywhere," as Ticia Perenchio put it, with its lively interviews, gossip, music and lyric sheets, reviews, and all manner of musical news. Lots of Old Town School teachers contributed articles, including Art Thieme, Jim Hirsch, Bruce Kaplan (who went on to head Flying Fish Records), and Jack Watters. Come for to Sing extended the School's reach to the entire nation.