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 Carawan, a man Frank hitchhiked clear across the lower 48 to meet, the young Frank Hamilton combed the country in the early 1950’s, 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 Carawan, 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 1960’s.
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 he 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 has vowed to continue the tradition.
Currently, Frank performs traditional jazz with veteran clarinetist, William Rappaport who also originally hails from Chicago. In the meantime, Frank is gearing up to continue the tradition of the Chicago Old Town School, right here on his own turf in Atlanta. The inauguration of the Frank Hamilton School speaks of Franks’ continued dedication to American musical 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 new school in Atlanta Frank plans to continue inspiring others, creating more than just another music school. With Frank’s vision and leadership, the Frank Hamilton School will become a community center where everyone, from beginner to advanced, come together to play music.
This will be a unique place, where as Frank puts it, “the teacher becomes the facilitator, not the guru or autocrat.”
As the spirit of the school catches on, the teachers become students themselves and the students become the teachers and as this community-based program grows, the classes will include many forms of music and other forms of artistic expression from jazz, to blues to American and International folk dancing.
Frank Hamilton’s passion is palpable. He has remained true to his original inspiration, bringing all folk together in song and community. The tradition will continue. There are many more exciting days to come.
by Kim Chamberlain