About the School
Frank Hamilton School: The Story
Founded in September 2015, the Frank Hamilton School is a place where people of all ages can come together to share, learn, and celebrate music. Based on the idea that music is a natural birthright shared by everyone, the school strives to make learning accessible and enjoyable, bringing students and teachers together in a caring and supportive musical community.
History of the School
A seed planted in Chicago…
The Frank Hamilton School is modeled on Chicago’s highly successful Old Town School of Folk Music, founded by musicians Frank Hamilton and Win Stracke in 1957, at the dawn of the folk music boom of the early 60s. Frank was a young and promising musician who had studied under Bess Lomax Hawes (sister to noted folk song collector Alan Lomax) and who became the school’s first teacher.
From a modest beginning, the Old Town School grew, becoming one of the largest folk music schools in the US, helping to launch the careers of many notable folk music artists, hosting performances by well-known folk musicians, and creating and supporting a vibrant folk music community in a large urban environment.
…has taken root in Atlanta
After a long and successful music career that included an early stint with the legendary folk group The Weavers, Frank Hamilton eventually found himself in the Atlanta area, and realized that the timing was right to start a new school based on the teaching methods successfully used in Chicago. “There is a tradition of music that runs through the South,” says Frank, who maintains that “Georgia is a musical place” with a strong ongoing musical tradition. The climate was right. There were already many local teachers and students working separately; why not provide a place where everyone could come together and create a thriving music community?
There had been talk of starting just such a music school here in Atlanta, but it took a collaboration between Frank Hamilton and local musician Bob Bakert to make it happen. Once again, two musicians served as the catalyst for launching a school—starting small and dreaming big. Bakert was not only a long-time musician but also a successful businessman, with a background in starting and managing a business, organizing, and booking musical acts. He was the ideal partner to make this dream become reality.
Like its Chicago forerunner, the Atlanta school started small, with a handful of volunteer teachers, administrative support from the Atlanta Area Friends of Folk Music (AAFFM) and four classes one night a week. But after two years of existence it grew to serve many more students, adding a second night of instruction and offering weekly classes in guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, ukulele, and vocal harmony, as well as specialty classes on a variety of musical topics. Some of these have included melody and improvisation, playing in a group, songwriting, and old-time music. The school has attracted instructors from all over the Atlanta metro area, with backgrounds ranging from roots music and folk to jazz and blues.
Now, coming back from the pandemic, and with a building of its own in Decatur Legacy Park, the school can offer classes any day of the week and at any time of the day. Regular classes rotate in an eight-week term. Workshops to enhance a student’s skills in specific areas are also offered periodically. In addition to teaching, the Frank Hamilton School hosts concerts, bringing touring musicians to local venues. Students and teachers from the school perform as well, at venues such as AAFFM’s Fiddler’s Green Coffeehouse, Waller’s Coffee Shop, and various local festivals.
Everyone is a musician
“Music is a natural birthright,” says Frank Hamilton—an ability, like speech, that “everyone shares to some degree.” The goal of the Frank Hamilton School is to create a close-knit musical community where all styles of music can be made available to everyone who wants to learn. The “folk approach” to teaching bypasses formal musical training, emphasizing instead the social and auditory aspects of music, where learning takes place in a supportive environment. Says Frank, “We wanted to see involvement by people who wouldn’t normally think they had musical talent, and bring out whatever they had.”
Two halves make a whole
Central to this approach is the “Second Half,” an informal gathering of teachers and students that occurs each evening after regular classes. Structured like a community jam session, it provides an opportunity for teachers and students alike to share, make music together, and learn from each other. Students are encouraged to join in at whatever level they choose: strumming chords, singing along, improvising melodies, or simply tapping their feet. While the class is devoted to studying a chosen topic or instrument, the second half is an opportunity to share that learning with the community.
It has been said that anyone who can learn to speak a language can learn to make music. What better way is there to learn to make music than to share it with others? The Frank Hamilton School is helping to make this possible. Come on down and check it out for yourself.
by Vikki Ganger
Not that long ago, American folk songs were like copper or gold. Though you might discover a local musical gem crackling over the airwaves on late night radio, you had to mine the hills and valleys of this country to find the bulk of authentic American folk music. The general listening public had never heard the real stuff, the music made by real Americans, music with real American origins.
That is until people like Frank Hamilton came along. Like Alan Lomax, Peter Seeger, Jack Elliott and Guy (a man Frank hitchhiked clear across the lower 48 to meet), the young Frank Hamilton combed the country in the early 1950s, finding and learning songs that remained unpretentious, songs that grew uncontaminated in pockets of expertise, music played by community folk with regional idiosyncrasies, music with deep roots and meaningful lyrics.
Frank sought regular “folk” music makers who were not necessarily technically well versed but who picked up and developed neighborhood habits, ways of making music such as Kentucky thumb-style picking or Texas fiddling. Frank and the other folk musicians and folk music enthusiasts identified and began to perform this music, music that became the cornerstone of what the country came to know as American Folk Music.
But gathering and performing this music was not enough for Frank. Frank’ s passion was and has always been to teach everyone else how to partake in the process. A guitarist since age 15, Frank picked up other string instruments easily, even trading banjo lessons in exchange for his first car.
After traveling the south in 1953 with Jack Elliott and Guy (the man responsible for introducing the song “We Shall Overcome” to the American Civil Rights Movement), Frank made it to New York’s Washington Square Park for the famous Sunday folk song meetings. (By the way, “We Shall Overcome” is copyrighted in the name of Frank Hamilton, Zilphia Horton, Guy Carawan, and Pete Seeger.)
Along the way, Frank performed and recorded with Seeger, Odetta, The Clancy Brothers, and Bud and Travis, to name just a few, eventually winding up in Chicago where, in 1957, he co-founded the Old Town School of Folk Music. From its humble beginnings in the Swedish Immigrant Bank Building, the school grew into the largest non-profit music school in the country and remains the largest of its kind today with over 7,000 students passing through the doors on a weekly basis.
Frank’s musical history is impressive. In his sixty-year career, which is still going strong, Frank has performed in almost every state in the U.S., from the Gate of Horn in Chicago, the first folk music nightclub, to up and down the east coast with The Weavers in the 1960s.
Eventually, Frank became a studio musician of choice in Los Angeles, laying down tracks for motion pictures and other projects. At that time his family grew, and while he raised his children, he continued teaching guitar at places like Dick Grove’s Music School in LA and Barney Kessel’s Music World, as well as Westwood Music and the University of California in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
For the past three decades, Frank has made Atlanta his home and as expected, from the moment he arrived, Frank gathered musicians together to perform, to share, and to learn. Mary Hamilton, Frank’s beloved wife, shared many stages with him entertaining school children through the Young Audiences education program and entertaining everyone in concerts and musical gatherings in many states, until her recent passing in 2014. Though devastated by the loss of his musical partner and the love of his life, Frank vowed to continue the tradition.
Always modest, Frank may not tell you that his musical skills go way beyond the folk genre. A gifted jazz guitarist and world-music performer on multiple instruments, Frank can handle any genre from a multitude of styles and time periods. He also possesses the natural aptitude to teach any style and to inspire anyone to make music, no matter what type of music it might be.
Frank has always insisted that,
“Music is not an exclusive club. Anyone can learn at any time regardless if they consider themselves talented or not.”
Many a famous or not so famous musician first picked up an instrument under Frank’s direction, with Frank’s encouragement, and eventually became performers or teachers in their own right.
With his school in Atlanta Frank continues inspiring others, creating more than just another music school. With Frank’s vision and leadership, the Frank Hamilton School has become a community center where everyone, from beginner to advanced, can come together to play music.
This is a unique place, where, as Frank puts it, “the teacher becomes the facilitator, not the guru or autocrat. Frank Hamilton’s passion is palpable. He has remained true to his original inspiration, bringing all folk together in song and community. The tradition continues. There are many more exciting days to come.
by Kim Chamberlain