Old Town School of Folk Music
If you take a walk through the halls of the Old Town School of Folk Music, you might expect to see guys wearing berets, playing “Tom Dooley”, with melancholy expressions on their faces. They might be there somewhere, but you’re more likely to come across a group of teenagers toting electric guitars to a punk rock class. The Old Town School got its start during the folk music craze back in the 1950’s, but it’s grown into a musical kingdom bringing in over 6,000 students a week to learn everything from how to strum that first D chord, to how to how to dance Bhangra.
The school originally set up a modest shop in Old Town on North Avenue in 1957 during the national folk explosion that gave rise to Bob Dylan in the late 50s and early 60s. Today, the Old Town School has two campuses – one on Armitage, just east of the brown line stop, and one on Lincoln Avenue, just south of the Western brown line – and it has plans to expand into a third facility across from the Lincoln Avenue location in the next few years. A beloved staple of the community, the school offers a wide range of music lessons and folk classes for all ages, while also hosting some big name musical acts on weekends throughout the year.
Back in the day, when the School was starting out on North Avenue in the City’s Old Town neighborhood, it was, “America’s first permanent school for the study of folk music and folk instruments.” What made the Old Town School something different was teacher Frank Hamilton’s idea of teaching music in group classes instead of individual lessons. It meant working musicians could reach more students and the cost of the lessons could be kept down. Co-founder Dawn Greening had the idea to bring all the students together for refreshments and an informal jam session, a tradition that’s still carried on today. The school grew steadily with its innovative teaching and in 1968 bought a building at 909 W. Armitage with more room for classes and a hall for concerts. There were some rough patches during the late 70’s and early 80’s when folk and traditional music were pretty much out of style, but managed to find a savior in musician Jim Hirsch. Though he had no formal background in running a non-profit, what this man possessed was a fierce devotion to the school and a knack for rallying support, whether it meant getting top musical acts to give a concert, or getting donors to kick in some cash. The school managed to avoid literal collapse in 1985 when the building was falling apart and had to be extensively renovated.
By the mid-90’s the school was running out of room for its classes, and as luck would have it, the City of Chicago was looking for someone to take the shuttered Hild Public Library building off their hands. The Old Town School acquired and renovated the building, revitalizing the space and allowing for more classes. Space was made for dance studios and one of the best concert spaces in the country.
Though not everyone has stepped into an Old Town School class, “obscurity” is by far one of the last words anyone would use to describe it now. When it opened in the 50s, the Old Town School gave lessons to roughly 150 students per week. That number has now soared to over 6,000 students per week, with sessions starting throughout the year. It’s also an accredited music college, so if you’ve ever wanted to cross “learn acoustic guitar” or “take fiddle lessons” off the ole’ bucket list, you know where to find them.
In July, the school hosts the Folk & Roots Festival which hosts acts of both local and national renown. The first Friday of every month is a night of music and community where you can come to check out one of the many faculty bands and anyone can bring an instrument to play in between sets. These unique additions are just two of the many special aspects of the school that adds “street cred” to an already highly credible institution.
During the day, the school is given over to its incredibly popular “Wiggleworms” program, introducing music to pre-schoolers. As the day progresses, the average age of the students creeps up. The evening classes for adults cover just about every musical instrument and genre there is, and if you’re looking to shake your money maker, there are dance classes ranging from Swing Dance to Ballet.
If you’re more into being an audience member than a performer, you can catch a concert in the school’s auditorium. Performing acts range from folk acts like Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, to modern songwriters like Shawn Colvin and former Old Town School student, John Prine. International Music is also well represented with groups like Japan’s Yoshida Brothers and India’s Gundecha Brothers.
Classes run seven days a week, while concerts are usually scheduled on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. To sign up for classes, order concert tickets or just find out more, visit the website at oldtownschool.org.
4544 N. Lincoln Avenue
909 W. Armitage Avenue
This article was co-written by UPchicago staff writer Jason Shough and guest writer John Lofton.