Win Stracke told the story of the Old Town School of Folk Music back in 1967, and his words are still the best description of the School's history anywhere. This essay is excerpted from Win's pamphlet, "The Biography of a Hunch."
All of this got started because of a hunch I had, back in 1957. Early in the spring of that year, I was doing a three-week stint at the old Gate of Horn, the folksong nightclub at Chicago and Dearborn. Along about that time, I met two people who were going to be really important in everything that happened later. One was a young unknown folk musician who arrived at the club to accompany one of the performers. The other was an Oak Park housewife who had become a serious fan of the growing folk music scene.
The musician was Frank Hamilton. When he arrived at "The Gate," he amazed just about everybody with his facility on different folk instruments, his creative improvisational ability, and the playful joyousness that he brought to any kind of traditional music.
The housewife was Dawn Greening, a woman with enough generosity, enthusiasm, taste, and love of folk music for five people. She knew Frank needed an income, that he was a gifted teacher, and that he had picked up some innovative techniques from Bess Lomax Hawes on the West Coast. So Dawn and her husband Nate made a space in the Greening dining room for Frank to hold weekly classes. I attended one of those classes with 14 others, and it was there the hunch was born.
One night, about three weeks into those classes, as I was driving Frank home, I put the idea to him. I suggested that we could organize a school around him and his teaching techniquesa school in which he would use the same dining room approach, but for larger classes. We talked about how it would work. Frank agreed, and the project was on.
A word about my hunch is in order. There was no doubt in my mind that there was a growing demand for good teaching of folk music. During my career on TV, I'd been getting hundreds of requests from parents to teach guitar to their children, but I knew that if a performer took on a full schedule of teaching individual students, he or she usually stopped being a successful singer. The way out of this dilemma was class lessons, especially the way Frank taught them. And this also happened to be a great way for people to learn how to play guitar.
Using my studio in the old Immigrant State Bank Building on North Avenue as an office, I enlisted the aid of my friend and neighbor, Gertrude Soltker, to help organize the school. Press releases were prepared, announcements were made over WFMT, and a registration day was set for the first Thursday in December.