Working on a Building
“The sound of the Byrds was a direct result of the finger-picking techniques I learned at the Old Town School of Folk Music.”
— Roger McGuinn
Entering the vintage building that is home to Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, one is immediately struck by, well, the “folksiness” of it. Tables and chairs are strewn about a worn wood floor. Students tune all manner of instruments or squeeze in last-minute practice before their lessons. Instructors chat and warm up in spontaneous bursts from the last several decades’ traditional or popular music. Students participate however they can, or just nurse their beers and marvel at it all.
A heavy wooden backbar dominates one lobby wall, left from the room’s past life, offering refreshments when someone’s around to take the money. On the wall opposite is an antique display case that until recently housed an exhibit of old banjos and 40 years of photos of the school’s founders, supporters and guests — Big Bill Broonzy, Elizabeth Cotten, Bill Monroe and Pete Seeger among them. The instruments and pictures are packed away now, pending a summer on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
Two pillars dangle from the lobby’s ceiling, their bottom two-thirds chewed away. An architect’s joke, they recollect the structure before its 1985 renovation, representing, intentionally or not, how little the school’s ambiance rests on its architecture.
“The feel of the school has always been dictated much more by the people than the building,” says OTS Director Jim Hirsch. “Many people were concerned when we renovated, [but] we think about things like that and do everything to ensure that the things people love about the school stay the same; and the things that can be improved, we try to improve them.”
Hard by the entrance is a wood-framed and windowed inner room. Two people at a time can walk from its front door to the cash register opposite, but only one can take the hooked path past the music books (Gordon Lightfoot, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Laura Nyro, Bob Wills, etc.) along the window lined with kazoos and hand percussion instruments, over boxes of kids’ music makers, to the CD bin and the narrow rows of tapes marked “Old-Timey,” “Folk,” “World,” and “Bluegrass.” There’s no walking among the clustered guitar stands; only a long reach and deft maneuvering can liberate the instrument you want to try, unless your choice is among the many stringed or skin-covered things lining the walls. Strings, tuners, flat picks, sticks and other loose objects cram a small glass display case under the register.
Conditions in the Different Strummer, the world’s best postage-stamp-sized music store, are a microcosm of the school at large, for now. “When I started here as program director [in 1984], the school offered guitar, harmonica and banjo, and that was it,” says Michael Miles. “Right now…we’re not actually able to do everything that’s in the catalog because we’ve run out of space.” From 400 or so students in 1984, enrollment has burgeoned to 3500.
Rooted in the popular folk music movement that propelled the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” to the top of the pop charts in 1958, the Old Town School focused primarily on Appalachian-based folk music traditions for its first 30 years. Miles stresses, however, “The founders of the school were totally enamored with the notion of folk music being global.” The program scope has grown to accommodate interest generated by the increasingly prevalent use of acoustic instruments in popular music, but also has added music traditions of Hispanic, Eastern European, African and Polynesian cultures, all of which have sizable populations in Chicago. In fact, in the school’s 275-seat Broonzy Theater, one is as likely to hear Flamenco stomping as fiddle and banjo playing.
The school enjoyed national exposure from 198386 through its Flea Market concert program, broadcast live from Broonzy Theater and syndicated to 100 cities via public radio. The theater remains the school’s biggest visitor attraction. A website (www.oldtownschool.org) maintains a current list of scheduled concerts; recent shows have featured Alejandro Escovedo, Robert Earl Keen, Greg Brown, Dave Alvin and Gillian Welch.
Visiting artists and others teach master classes throughout the year, often in connection with a concert appearance. These, too, are listed among other current class offerings at the website. In 1997, Gillian Welch, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan joined the long tradition of well-known songwriters (Pete Seeger, Odetta, Bill Monroe), giving students insight into how their music comes together. Of Tweedy, Miles notes with a laugh, “One of his more interesting points was that he never writes anything down. If he can’t keep it in his head, he thinks it’s no good or something and he won’t perform it.”
The school’s teaching method evolved from one developed in the 1950s by Bess Lomax (Hawes), who was part of the then-thriving Los Angeles folk music scene. Lomax was the daughter of John, who founded the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song, and the sister of Alan, whose field recordings provided some of its most valuable assets. The school adapted her method within an overall philosophy encouraging every student to make whatever music is within their capability. The success of the approach may be judged by the careers of such former students as Roger McGuinn, Bonnie Koloc, Steve Goodman, Bill Murray and, more recently, Veruca Salt.
As influential, or more so, than the school’s teaching methods is the missionary work it has done for traditional music. In the school’s history, Roger McGuinn tells how he was “blown away” when Bob Gibson performed at his high school. “I had a guitar and was teaching myself to play…I’d never heard music like that before. I wanted to know more about it.” His high school music teacher referred him to the Old Town School, which had just opened up a short walk away in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.
The school was forced to move in 1968 in a Joni Mitchell-esque scenario: Its North Avenue home was to be paved to put up a parking lot. New quarters were found at Aldine Halls and Tavern on Armitage, which rented space for banquets and weddings. The owner’s family quarters upstairs were converted to offices; the halls to classrooms. The building’s high ceilings, spacious rooms and period woodwork are an ideal backdrop for passing along traditions. Old Town School public relations director Bob Medich relates with some amusement how, on a recent visit to her childhood home, a woman who grew up there told of sneaking out at night from the piano classroom, which back then was her bedroom. Her grandmother died, she said, where OTS director Jim Hirsh now has his desk, looking out on Armitage street through the curved windows of the cupola.
These days, the director’s desk often is spread with plans for a new facility. Along the halls, among posters from old concerts (including one autographed in 1993 at a joint Lucinda Williams/John Prine appearance), photos of the founders, and flyers promoting current programs, are “before” photos and “after” architectural renderings of new space.
Last December, the school paid the City of Chicago $10 for a vacant, Depression-era library building in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. Classes will be offered there beginning in September after a $3-million renovation. The larger space will facilitate greater use of the school’s archives of more than 3,000 records, videos of OTS concerts, publications including first editions of Woody Guthrie’s book, Bound for Glory, and ephemera like the letter from Big Bill Broonzy detailing how he was ripped off by a promoter in Europe whom he’d trusted because he had such a good wife.
For concerts, there’s a 420-seat theater Hirsch calls “a pocket La Scala.” “Seating is almost vertical,” he explains, “and everyone will be close to the stage.” Over the stage will be a WPA mural dedicated to the arts. The mural is being moved from elsewhere in the building, as is a second one, dedicated to industry, which will line the wall of the upstairs lobby.
The stage area will incorporate a cafe with tables and chairs that will provide the setting for the school’s traditional First Friday song circle and open stage. First Friday offers a chance for students, performers and others who just like to sing and play to practice their performing skills before a supportive audience. Visitors are welcome and encouraged to sit in.
The greatly expanded Different Strummer will feature a 13-foot-high display wall for stringed instruments, two service counters, a listening station for CDs, and two large display windows on the street.
Back on Armitage, Aldine Hall will be retained to house the school’s programming for children, its wooden stairs creaking with another generation to carry it on.
Old Town School of Folk Music, 909 West Armitage Ave., Chicago, IL 60614; (773) 525-7793.