The Roots of the Old Town School Up Until 1957
The Old Town School of Folk Music sprang from local roots among Chicago's political progressives, and from a network of folk music enthusiasts stretching across the country.
It was Win Stracke (1908-1991) who first came up with the idea. The Chicago Daily News in 1958 described "the dean of Chicago's newest and strangest educational institution" as "a burly, balding fellow with a resounding bass voice who looks more like a genial teamster than a teacher." But Win Stracke's background was all about contradictions, navigating immigrant roots, high-brow cultivation, and labor politics.
Winfred J. Stracke, the youngest son of German immigrants, grew up in Chicago, where his father was a pastor in the Old Town neighborhood. A shy boy, he found his path in life studying at Senn High School. “He began to sing and he realized he had a voice! And he could impress people!.…He said that really changed his life,” his daughter Jane recounted.
After high school, Win set out west in a Model-T Ford to see the country, worked as a roustabout on an oil well, played piano in a brothel, and learned American folklore and song from a man called Flat Wheel Harry.
On his return, he studied at Lake Forest College, a private, liberal arts college. With formal training in classical voice, he launched a professional singing career, and throughout his life, he sang as a classical soloist, in choirs, at church, on stage, and on the radio.
Then he discovered politics. In 1930s Chicago, a strong activist theatre scene propelled the cultural mission of the labor movement, and Win was drawn into it. Around 1938, he joined the Chicago Repertory Group, founded by a small group of amateur actors to “build a permanent theater…informed with the vitality and power of this historical movement of the masses.” It espoused a participatory ethos, calling on “a cast of young actors from the universities, the shops, the factories, the offices of Chicago.”
In the Chicago Repertory Group, he met many of his closest friends, including Gertrude Soltker, who would become the Old Town School’s first administrator, and Louis “Studs” Terkel (1912-2008). Studs would be a lifelong friend, collaborator, and, after Win’s death, defender of his memory.
After the war, Win became instrumental in setting up the second chapter of People’s Songs. A New York-based organization recently launched by Pete Seeger and friends, it idealistically hoped (in Pete's words) to reach “the masses of America with our political message through the vehicle of folk songs, which were their music, only they didn’t know it. As they found out about it, they would think it was wonderful, and they would take it up, not through the mass media.”
Win was soon elected to the national People’s Songs Board of Directors, as well, alongside B.A. Botkin, Tom Glazer, Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax Hawes, Alan Lomax, and other well-known folksingers and folklorists. People’s Songs provided the soundtrack to Henry Wallace’s 1948 bid for U.S. president on the Progressive Party ticket, rocketing it into the national spotlight. Wallace lost, however, and People’s Songs dissolved not long after.
To make a living, Win began to build a career in television and radio, only to be thwarted by anti-communist blacklisting. Studs liked to refer to himself and Win as the “Chicago Two”—the only Chicago entertainers to be blacklisted during the McCarthy period. After Win was let go from early TV soap opera “Hawkins Falls” for political reasons, he became a central character in Studs Terkel’s quasi-improvisatory ensemble show, “Studs’ Place” (1949-1951). But the McCarthyists got “Stud’s Place” cancelled.
So Win tried children’s TV. His prizewinning “Animal Playtime,” broadcast nationally on NBC in 1953, was an improvisatory half hour of singing and stories with an assortment of real animals. Despite its popularity, it, too, was abruptly cancelled the next year. A TV critic assured readers that it was for “a good reason,” and the “same one” for which Win was let go from “Hawkins Falls.”
Win and Studs had not left folk music behind, however. Since 1947, they had been performing “I Come for To Sing” with friends Laurence Lane and Big Bill Broonzy, a musical revue where each musician would address a common theme, like “work” or “love.”
“So Win would sing frontier American songs and Big Bill would sing black man’s blues and Larry Lane would sing Elizabethan songs, or Child ballads, and I was a sort of easy-going narrator,” Studs explained. The quartet toured college campuses “and it scored like a house afire at different colleges. And then we played at different nightclubs in Chicago, on nights when they were dark.” “I Come For to Sing” was one of the earliest folk music tours of college campus, laying the groundwork for the “Folk Boom” to come.
Big Bill Broonzy played a special role in the conception of the Old Town School, embodying its mission of inclusivity in an America divided by race and class. Although he did not play an organizational role in the creation of the School, or teach a class, he was a cherished friend and his memory remains enshrined there. Born in Arkansas in 1903, Big Bill had a long, prolific career as a blues artist, for both African American and folk revivalist audiences. He escaped a future as a sharecropper like his father by hopping a train to Chicago in the early 1920s, joining the Great Migration to the North. There, he found success in the thriving African American music scene as a bluesman.
A 1938 Carnegie Hall extravaganza entitled "From Spirituals To Swing," produced by John Hammond, brought Big Bill to a white audience for the first time—and he was a hit. After the war, Big Bill got involved in the primarily white folk revival, initially through People’s Songs, where he met Win Stracke in 1946. Win would become a close friend and supporter of Bill’s for the rest of his life.
By the mid-1950s, Big Bill Broonzy was a fixture in the Chicago folk music community, which rallied around him in 1957, when he lost his voice in cancer surgery gone awry. At Thanksgiving, a benefit concert organized for him and promoted by WFMT featured leading lights of both the folk revivalists and African American blues world of Chicago, culminating in a stirring gospel performance by Mahalia Jackson.
Meanwhile, in 1956 or so, the Old Town School’s first teacher showed up at the Gate of Horn, from California by way of New York City. Frank Hamilton (b. 1934) grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a classical piano teacher. Looking for his own musical path, Frank fell in love with guitar: “It was a social instrument. It put me in a social milieu. I was kind of an awkward, shy kid, I didn’t know many people and was ill at ease, socially. But when I played music, I felt comfortable.”
Frank quickly fell in with LA’s growing folk music scene, and was on stage by the age of 16 with the Sierra Folksingers, who had brought the hootenanny to California from New York City. He caught the eye of Will Geer, the Hollywood actor and a lifelong friend of Woody Guthrie. At Geer’s Topanga Canyon house, Frank met Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, and the Weavers, who were riding the swell of their success on the pop charts with songs like “Goodnight Irene”—just before they were blacklisted.
Frank learned his unique group teaching approach from Bess Lomax Hawes (1921-2009). Like her father and brother, John and Alan Lomax, Bess was deeply committed to American folk music. She worked with musicologist Ruth Crawford Seeger as a teenager, and in the 1940s, sang with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie in the Almanac Singers, a group that performed political topical songs, and regrouped after the war as the core of People’s Songs.
When she began teaching folk singing for extra income, she found that teaching in groups was not only efficient, but socially beneficial. For Sing Out! Magazine, she later wrote: “You will find much more privacy in a crowd than in a private lesson with a voice coach where you have to do it all by yourself; besides, group singing is fun, relaxing and sharpens your ear.” Bess’s LA classes were very popular, and spread all around the area, gradually coalescing into a loose-knit group called the Songmakers.
Frank accompanied Bess’s classes on guitar. “I took what she did and adapted it from a more instrumental standpoint…. But the basic idea of social teaching, music as being a catalyst for bringing people together on a social level, I think we owe that to Bess.”
During a sojourn in New York City, Frank was befriended by rising Chicago-based folksinger Bob Gibson (1931-1996), who invited him to come sing with him at the Gate of Horn. “[Frank] amazed everyone with his facility, his creative improvisational ability, and a certain playful joyousness that he brought to all aspects of traditional music,” Win wrote.
“I ended up staying on Rush Street with Bob Gibson in this crazy pad, with all these wild characters—it was quite a ‘scene,’ you might say, in those days.” Frank found ample reason to stay and was soon looking for a means to support himself in Chicago.
He wasn’t alone. By early 1958, the Chicago Daily News could report: “Most of the top performers from all over the country now either live in Chicago or can be found here a good deal of the time.” It went on to explain that “the magnetic effect Chicago seems to have on folk singers seems to be the congenial atmosphere they find here—and the money. Folk artists tend to congregate wherever their fellow performers are, and where they can find receptive audiences.”
The Gate of Horn, at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Dearborn and the first in a long succession of folk music nightclubs on the North Side, was a focal point for these audiences. Al Grossman, a prescient entrepreneur who later co-founded the Newport Folk Festival, created Peter, Paul and Mary, and managed Bob Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin, and many other 1960s stars, opened the Gate of Horn in 1956—probably the first nightclub in the country exclusively devoted to folk music. In addition to a steady stream of professional performers, it also hosted weekly hootenannies for amateurs.
Chicagoans often found out about goings-on at the Gate of Horn and elsewhere in the city through WFMT radio, a mom-and-pop station launched in 1951 to play classical music, political commentary, theater, and folk music. In 1953, Mike Nicholls began hosting “The Midnight Special,” a late-night folk music program featuring local and visiting folk musicians. WFMT sent the voices of Chicago’s folk music community over the airwaves to reach new ears.
The emerging folk music community also gathered privately around Chicago. The Armstrong and Greening families in particular opened their homes to local music lovers who wanted to experience and share folk music, not just hear it on stage, as well as to performers and tradition bearers who passed through town. George and Gerry Armstrong were in addition dedicated preservationists, regularly making field-trips with their daughters around the United States and the British Isles to record fading traditions.
It was Dawn Greening, however, who planted the seedling that would grow into the Old Town School in her own living room.
“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. “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…. From my standpoint, she embodied what folk music was all about.”
Dawn and her husband Nate first ventured out to the Gate of Horn after hearing Studs Terkel interview Bob Gibson on WFMT in 1955. Dawn immediately befriended Bob and was soon taking in a steady procession of folksingers; Peggy Seeger, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and dozens of others passed through the Greening’s Oak Park home in the 1950s and 1960s.
California folksinger Odetta, a close friend of Dawn's, took her to hear Frank Hamilton at the Gate of Horn for the first time in 1957. Frank and Dawn hit it off right away, and to help him out, Dawn arranged a group guitar class in her living room for him to teach at two dollars per lesson.
Win Stracke was one of Frank's first students at Dawn’s house and, from Frank’s perspective, the school got started when “a big portly gentleman, with a booming voice and a big guitar came in and said, ‘I want to study to learn to play up the neck of the guitar.’”
But Win Stracke had more on his mind than that. About a year earlier, Win had told Dawn he wanted to start a folk school, so after watching Frank teach, Dawn invited Win to come by. “He liked the way I taught,” Frank remembers. “This social orientation towards teaching was a whole new thing. It was kind of instinctive with me, because I grew up in the folk music movement…. Win recognized that, and we kind of clicked.”
Once Win met Frank, everything came together quickly, and the Old Town School of Folk Music opened before the end of the year. Its founders and the community that gave it life shared a common commitment to the promise of a more egalitarian and inclusive world, and the belief that not only political action, but also the shared experience of music could bring it into being.