Male musician playing banjo sitting in a chair

Neighborhood News: Lincoln Square’s Old Town School of Folk Music

Male musician playing banjo sitting in a chair

When you think of Chicago’s vast music history …jazz, blues, rock, pop …let’s not forget that the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Avenue, and 909 W. Armitage, has been serving world-class folk music for more than 60 years. 

The Beginning…a beat to remember 

The name ‘Old Town’ may refer to its founding rather than its current address, but the Old Town School of Folk Music was founded by folk musicians Frank Hamilton, Win Stracke, and Dawn Greening at 333 West North Avenue, offering guitar and banjo lessons in a communal teaching style and hosting performances by well-known folk musicians. 

Though she doesn’t have her own Wikipedia page, Greening was the one who planted the seedling that would grow into the Old Town School in her own living room, according to the Old Town website. Her son discussed his mother’s role on their website:

“Mother made people feel good—they called her the Mother of Old Town School, the Heart of Old Town School. She was a big woman with a big heart,” her son Lance remembered, in a blog on their website. “She said that the solution to the world’s problems is completely in love. If we can only get people to love each other, we’ll have no problems.” Although Dawn was not generally known as a musician herself, “she had a great appreciation for music,” Frank said. “She loved it….she had this ability to just draw in people.

Hamilton, who will turn 90 this year, taught guitar and banjo and served as unofficial dean. Several hundred prospective students, performers, and educators attended the first session, and famous singers and folklorists – without compensation – began performing during the Second Half. Among them were Pete Seeger, Odetta, Studs Terkel, Doc Watson, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Monroe, and The Weavers. Their website also mentions folk dancing and family sing-alongs. 

The formation and growth of the School, as Wikipedia tells it, coincided with the folk music boom of the 1960s and early 1970s. In Chicago, folk influence was scattered in Hyde Park (site of the Folk Festival), Oak Park (where Greening lived), and Old Town.

Boom Town, 1960’s and 70’s

The school  focused on offering instruction and performance, with many performing musicians acting as teachers and mentors. The School also proved a rich ground for collaboration. As Wikipedia sources tell it, the late 1960s were a peak of success as several musicians associated with the School rose to national prominence, including Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Fred Holstein, John Prine, Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc, and Bob Gibson.

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, according to their website. 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.

Rebound 1990’s

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 909 W. Armitage building in Lincoln Park. The new Old Town School building was dedicated on September 18, 1998, with a concert byJoni Mitchell and Peter Yarrow.The new facility, according to their website, is “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.”

Today…Wiggleworms and more!

There’s a class for everyone at Old Town School, including banjo, dance, ukulele, voice, piano, and  ensembles.

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 their popular World Music Wednesdays program

For babies and young children Wiggleworms classes are for kids, 12 months to 4 years, and caregivers together, setting the foundation for a lifelong love of music.

In-person classes are available in Lincoln Square, Lincoln Park, Pilsen, Evanston, Western Springs, and Glen Ellyn.

Event Saturday night 

On Saturday, February , folk legend Bonnie Koloc headlines a sold-out evening of legendary folk music with Rose Snyder, Steve Eisen, Andy May and Al Ehrich, along with special guest Mark Dvorak. Tickets do sometimes become available in the days before the show. Add yourself to their email notification list by clicking here.

Alison Moran-Powers and Dean’s Team Chicago