Old Town School of Folk Music: 50 years and county
Folk music is one of Chicago's greatest and most-lasting musical traditions, starting in the 1950s when a group of academics and progressives held concerts, published songs, and revived interest in rural folk melodies and the Southern country blues. Ground zero for these efforts was the Old Town School of Folk Music, founded by Fred Holstein and Win Strake, to teach and preserve these traditions. The school didn't just contribute to popularizing the American songbook, it is also responsible for developing the careers of songwriters, including John Prine, Steve Goodman, Roger McGuinn and many others.
On Saturday the Old Town School toasts its 50th year at a star-studded concert at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, featuring performers from the school's past and present. Since moving from Old Town (the Armitage Avenue location still hosts children's classes) to Lincoln Square 10 years ago, Old Town School classes and concert attendance have surged. The location enjoys a higher profile, but the renewed interest is also a byproduct of the culture's renewed interest in noncommercial, folk-based, music, from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack to indie luminaries like Sufjan Stevens and The Decemberists.
Old Town Executive Director James Bau Graves talked last week about the school's legacy and programs. He is a relative newcomer to the area; he accepted the job last May, when he moved to Chicago from Portland, Maine, where he worked as an arts administrator and ethnomusicologist. Graves, 55, is also a guitar player. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q. Now that we're 50 years removed from the folk music revival, what has changed the most since then?
A. I think it's been a process of having continuously widening horizons. When the folk music revival was coming along during the 1950s and 1960s, during the years when the Old Town School was getting going, most of the focus was on the rural American and African-American traditions. But as our society has become vastly more diverse, the horizons of traditional music and dance have necessarily expanded at the same time. I think among folklorists and musicologists, people on the academic side of things, the guitar and banjo crowd was always part of a river of tradition that included a whole lot more … I think slowly over time, institutions like the Old Town School have embraced cultures around the world who, after all, are our immediate neighbors.
Q. Folk music is now another way of describing all world music.
A. Ethnomusicologists are fond of saying that, of music made on our planet on a daily basis, about five percent comes from a European art music tradition -- what people call classical -- and ethnomusicologists or folklorists claim the other 95 percent. If you stop and think about it, even Mozart and Beethoven are extensions of folk traditions.
Q. How so?
A. The music they played is based on modes and harmonies and meters that evolved in European folk traditions and they took them and refined them to a somewhat higher level. But the music is still firmly grounded in musical traditions of their region. Just in the same way Indian sitar players are grounded in the traditions of India or a Chinese Peking opera singer, although working in an extremely refined medium, it is still one that is based on traditional forms.
Q. The folk revivalists who started the Old Town School were among a movement who truly felt songs could change society.
A. There's no doubt about it, the folk revival was deeply intertwined with new left evolution of American politics at the time.
Q. Have those ideals carried over as much over the years?
A. I think they absolutely have. And anybody who comes into the Old Town School cannot help but to be struck by the fact that although music is what brings people into our facilities, when they get there, they find something more. They find a stress and an accent on the importance of fostering community. And people participating on their own culture together. I think that is sort of a soft political stance. It's not taking a hard political line on something, but it does point to an attitude about how people should be interacting with each other, which is undoubtedly continuing to be an important part of what school does.
Q. What have been the major changes since the Old Town School moved to Lincoln Square 10 years ago?
A. I think in the last 10 years, there've been a couple of important changes. One, it has grown enormously. It is probably three or four times the size now as it was when it moved into the Lincoln Square facility 10 years ago. So it's serving a lot more people with a lot more programs and many more faculty members. So in that sense, it has a bigger footprint into the community … When the school moved into the Lincoln Square facility, it didn't have very developed dance programs. The dance programs over the last decade have been the fastest growing programs at the school. Even though we're called the Old Town School of Folk Music, we're the largest provider of dance programs in the city of Chicago. We're offering dance classes from 23 different countries. And that's an important new development. And I think the other important development is … the evolution of the school's approach to diversity and the many communities that exist in our neighborhood and developing programs that are relevant to that community … There are communities that we are not adequately serving at the moment, so we're developing programs that appeal to Asian communities, Middle Eastern communities, African refugees. All of which are found 20 and 30 blocks from the school.
Q. There must be increased competition these days now that folk music and dance appeals so strongly to the 9-to-5 crowd.
A. Certainly there is competition for some programs, and there are lots and lots of places you can take guitar lessons in Chicago and there are lots of places that offer dance classes. Many of our classes are highly specialized. There's not a lot of places you can learn the finger-picking guitar style of Blind Lemon Jefferson or Mississippi John Hurt or where you can come and can join a jug band or play in an ensemble that's devoted to playing the music of Wilco and where Jeff Tweedy drops in the class once in awhile.
Q. Does the majority of funding come from corporate sponsors?
A. The Old Town School is in a very enviable position in the nonprofit world ... About 85 percent of the funding comes from earned revenue: tuition, guitar purchases, ticket sales. About 15 percent of our budget comes from individual donors, foundations, the government, memberships -- a wide variety of sources. But it's a relatively small piece of our pie.
Q. Whenever I talk with longtime blues collectors, they tell me how difficult it was back then to discover old-time music, because the technology didn't exist to make it accessible. Now, with anything and everything available via the click of a mouse, is the hunt for regional music -- an endeavor that the Old Town School was based upon -- an archaic art?
A. There's always more fieldwork to be done. I don't think there's any end to that. The point you make is quite accurate. When I started getting into ethnomusicology, there was Nonesuch's Explorer series and there was Folkways, and that was about it. If you were interested in music from the Philippines, the only way you could come up with it was some ethnomusicologist's scratchy recording off in a bush somewhere. That changed substantially with the Internet and with the expensive but high-quality recordings available to anyone in the world. You can be a shaman in Siberia and have your product on the Internet. So that's made a huge difference. … So on one hand, there is a lot more material available to people that has never been available in the past. The real trouble is getting those guys out of Siberia. Being able to have access to really great musicians has become far more difficult than the past. The kind of restrictions reduces the ability of musicians to come to the United States on tour, due to the difficulties of getting visas, the cost of getting those visas, the Homeland Security restrictions. There are artists in many countries that we're just never going to hear in this country because they happen to come from other places in the world that our government doesn't agree with.
Q. What effect has that had on the Old Town School?
A. There's an enormous interest in the United States in Cuban music. Except for the Cuban musicians who left Cuba and no longer live there, you can't get any Cuban musicians in the U.S. in the last four or five years … These are people who toured in the U.S. multiple times. The Buena Vista Social Club guys -- they had successful tours here, but homeland security won't let them into the country now. If they wanted to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge, they probably would have 10 or 15 times, but now they're a threat to our country, so they can't come in.
50 Years in Chicago: A benefit for the Old Town School of Folk Music
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago
Tickets: $35/$50/$75/$125/$250. Call (312) 559-1212
What: The Old Town School moves for one night to the austere Auditorium Theatre for a show representing the school's past, present and future. Frank Hamilton, Old Town's first teacher, will perform as well as notable alum Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. The evening will also include performances by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, father-and-son blues duo Lonnie and Wayne Baker Brooks, Chicago-based songwriter and performer Robbie Fulks, bluegrass innovator Bela Fleck, singer-songwriter Bonnie Koloc, the Sones de Mexico Ensemble, guitarist David Bromberg, the Luna Negra Dance Theater, the eclectic Chicago blues harp player Corky Siegel and a house band featuring Bloodshot Records notables Jon Langford, Sally Timms and Kelly Hogan.