For the last 60 years, the Old Town School of Folk Music has become as much a Chicago institution as Wrigley Field and Second City.
But it is a little-known fact that the school, which has taught thousands of students the fine art of guitar, banjo, mandolin and a myriad of other instruments, found its beginnings in a living room in Oak Park.
That fellowship of music will return to the living room later this month with a fundraiser and show in the home of two River Forest residents working to bring folk music back to the western suburbs.
Old Town, new beginnings
For the last five years, River Forest residents Stephanie and David Schrodt have quietly funded small folk concerts in and around Oak Park and River Forest – primarily for organizations such as the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation, Oak Park Senior Services and Housing Forward, to name a few – through a fund known as Songs for Peace and Justice.
Over the last five years, Stephanie Schrodt estimates that the Songs for Peace and Justice fund has provided entertainment to as many as 20,000 area residents through its weekly concerts.
Schrodt, who has funded the concerts, and others associated with the Old Town School of Folk Music are kicking it up a notch with a day of music lessons, a concert and a fundraiser on Sept. 30.
Dubbed "Folktober Fest" the event includes classes taught by Old Town School instructors and musicians on Sept. 30 at First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St., which will include guitar basics, 5-string banjo basics, Irish fiddle, finger picking guitar, and more.
The day of learning will end with a so-called "Second Half" session, a standard at the Old Town School, where students join together for a performance. The event is sponsored by Music and Potlucks, a community organization launched by Schrodt and others to support the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.
The Schrodts also are holding an invitation-only fundraiser and concert at their home in River Forest on Sept. 30 to raise money for the newly established Music and Potlucks group.
"Oak Park is the perfect community for a program like the Old Town School of Folk Music," Schrodt said in a press release. "We love the idea of a 'pop-up' school paired with a wonderful evening event. It's our way of tipping our hats to a venerable Chicago institution in an important anniversary year, while also bringing some of that great energy out to the Oak Park-River Forest area."
Instructors for the day's classes – Jason McInnes, an Old Town School teaching artist; Peggy Browning, Maura Lally and Mark Mitchell, all members of the trio The Pickin' Bubs; and Old Town School instructor and performer Mark Dvorak – will perform at the fundraiser.
Schrodt tells Wednesday Journal that the goal is to open the fund to donors in order to hold more events.
She said the music lessons are an "antidote for living in deeply troubling times," adding that "people are yearning to get together."
It started in a living room
The concert and fundraiser planned for the end of September comes nearly 60 years exactly from the first class at the Old Town School of Folk Music, which, depending on who you ask, was first held at the end of November or beginning of December in 1957.
The school that pioneered the method of group music lessons held its first classes in the home of Dawn and Nate Greening, who lived in the 600 block of South Lombard Avenue.
That's according to Frank Hamilton, a folk music pioneer who served as the school's first instructor. Hamilton, who launched his own school in 2015 in Decatur, Georgia, tells Wednesday Journal he remembers first meeting Dawn Greening at the Gate of Horn – considered the first folk nightclub in the country – in Chicago in 1957.
Hamilton was performing at the venue and his friend Odetta, a renowned folk singer and activist of her day, came to see him play. She brought her friend Dawn Greening from the western suburbs, Hamilton recalls.
Hamilton told Greening after the performance that he was interested in teaching music and guitar in a group setting, a method he'd learned from his friend Bess Lomax Hawes, a folk musician and sister of famed folk historian Alan Lomax, in the early 1950s.
"I said, 'I'm very interested in teaching,' and Greening said, 'You can start with my family,'" Hamilton recalls.
Weekly classes began with the Greening family but quickly grew with neighbors and friends joining in. Hamilton is said to have run multiple classes throughout the house, moving back and forth between groups and encouraging students to learn from one another.
That's when folk singer Win Stracke, a Chicago folk musician, began plans to open a proper folk music school. According to the Old Town School's website, Stracke penned an essay about the school's beginnings in 1967.
"One night, about three weeks into those classes, as I was driving Frank home, I put the idea to him," Stracke wrote. "I suggested that we could organize a school around him and his teaching techniques – a school in which he would use the same dining room approach, but for larger classes. We agreed and the project was on."
Later that year, Stracke secured a space at the corner of North Avenue and Sedgwick Street in Chicago, and the Old Town School of Folk Music was born. Opening night, the school featured legendary performers such as Big Bill Broonzy, George Armstrong, Ella Jenkins and Fleming Brown, Hamilton said.
"It was quite successful because we were given the support of the Chicago arts community," he said.
Hamilton would serve as instructor for the next six years before leaving to play banjo with the renowned folk group The Weavers.
Music with a message
The community that first supported the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s is still alive and just as relevant today as it was then, according to Old Town School alum instructor and musician Mark Dvorak.
"There was this whole community of people who supported this kind of folk music, which was really quite radical in the 1950s; people spoke about justice before the civil rights movement and peace before the Vietnam War," Dvorak, who will serve as an instructor at the pop-up school, said, calling it a tense period where people were blacklisted for their association with the Communist Party.
Dvorak said the group method, which encourages players to learn from one another as well as instructors, was once referred to as folkways learning.
He said it's an idea whose time has come again in an era of great political division.
"People are looking for each other and things to agree on," he said. "The country is polarized, and music gives us something to agree on. There's a lot of power in music."
More information about the classes and fundraiser are available on Dvorak's website at http://www.markdvorak.com/.
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