The Frank Hamilton School

The Frank Hamilton School is modeled on the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. Founded by folk musicians Frank Hamilton and Win Stracke, the School opened in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago in 1957. It began modestly by offering guitar and banjo lessons in a communal teaching style and hosting performances by well-known folk musicians. As a teaching and performing institution, the Old Town School of Folk Music launched the careers of many notable folk music artists. Currently the school has an enrollment of about 6,000 students per week, 2,700 of them children. 

Win Stracke was a classically trained singer and Frank Hamilton, a young multi-instrumentalist and teacher of folk music; Frank had previously studied under Bess Lomax Hawes, daughter of folklorist John Lomax. The two met at the Gate of Horn nightclub in Chicago where they were both performing. Together Frank and Win developed a classroom technique based upon traditional oral and folk teaching methods: listening, watching, trial and error, and playing by ear. Where other music schools taught sight reading and performance, Win and Frank wanted the Old Town School “method” to retain its emphasis on participation and development of aural skills.

“We wanted to make music accessible to everyone, we wanted to bypass the formal educative type of note-reading you’d get in a music academy and emphasize the social aspects of music. We wanted to see involvement by people who wouldn’t normally think they had musical talent, and bring out whatever they had,” says Frank Hamilton, once a member of the iconic folk group, The Weavers. Frank is an Atlanta resident, and a key player in the establishment of the new Frank Hamilton School.

Throughout its existence, the school in Chicago focused on offering both instruction and performance with many performing musicians also acting as teachers and mentors. It also proved a rich ground for collaboration. The late 1960s was a “golden era” as several musicians associated with the Old Town School rose to national prominence, including Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Steve Goodman, John Prine, and Bob Gibson.

Today, the Old Town School has grown immensely and continues to offer music, dance, art and theater classes and performances for adults and children at two locations, plus children’s classes in some suburban branch locations. Atlanta’s Frank Hamilton School offers music classes in several instruments at the Oakhurst Baptist Church.

by Hank Weisman