Sing a Simple Song/On a Roll | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Sing a Simple Song/On a Roll 

The Old Town School of Folk Music is bigger and richer than ever--and for some people, that's the problem.

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By Ben Joravsky

It's been over three weeks since Jim Hirsch stepped down as executive director of the Old Town School of Folk Music, and most of the teachers there are still trying to understand why.

As best they can figure, Hirsch's departure was the culmination of a monumental battle of titans that pitted him against unknown adversaries on the board. "Who really knows what happened--all we got is a little memo saying Jim's leaving," says one longtime teacher we'll call Pat. "That's how things have been going around here. All the information's tightly controlled. The larger issue is what comes next. It's soul-searching time. I see this as a great time to get back some of the things we lost."

It would seem that much of what was lost can never be regained, since it stemmed from a time as ancient as the fading newspaper clippings that herald the school's creation. That was back in December 1957, when a folksinger named Win Stracke met a folksinger and teacher named Frank Hamilton at the Oak Park home of Dawn Greening, a great fan of the music. "Dawn and her husband Nate made a space in the Greening dining room for Frank to hold weekly classes," Stracke recalled in the school's self-published history. "One night, about three weeks into those classes, as I was driving Frank home, I put the idea to him. I suggested that we could organize a school around him and his teaching techniques--a school in which he would use this same dining room approach, but for larger classes."

Hamilton's approach emphasized informality and spontaneity, with teachers and students exchanging wisecracks between songs. After each session the students (beginners and advanced alike) gathered in a common room for a sing-along. The clumsiest, all-thumbs neophyte could feel like Pete Seeger, if only because his scratching was absorbed into the more melodic sounds of the group.

At first the school operated out of Stracke's office in an old bank building at 333 W. North. By 1967 it had a building of its own on Armitage near Sheffield. Back then the school was clearly rooted in the counterculture world of bohemians, beats, folklorists, blues artists, coffeehouse devotees, and working-class poets. Many of its teachers lent their names and talents to antiwar protests, civil rights marches, and antimachine campaigns. A favorite song, almost an anthem in the early 70s, was "Lincoln Park Pirates" by Steve Goodman (who, by the way, took guitar lessons at the school as a teenager). The song tweaked the old Mayor Daley and mocked a city so corrupt that it allowed tow truck operators to claim public streets as private property.

"The atmosphere in the old days was very laid-back," says Pat. "It was all very hippie-ish. They used to keep records of the private lessons on three-by-five cards. Very antique bookkeeping. It was the kind of place where people showed up and hung out. The guitar store they had was very informally run. There were always people walking in, picking a guitar off the wall, and playing. They were into making a scene. Hang out. Drink beer. Play the guitar. 'You want a pick, have a pick.'

"The best part were the all-night parties with people jamming. The greatest sets happened after the bars closed. We're talking five to six in the morning. It was humble but heartfelt."

Of course it's hard to pay the bills when you're letting people play for free. By the early 80s the school was nearly bankrupt. Almost everyone agrees that Hirsch saved it. Hired as executive director in 1982, he organized lucrative fund-raisers, recruited rich and well-connected board members, and raised thousands of dollars in donations.

By the 90s the school was booming and in need of more space. In 1995 it cut a deal with the city, acquiring the old Hild Library on Lincoln Avenue near Wilson for $10. Hirsch put together a $10 million capital improvement campaign that included a $2 million loan from the city. The old library was rehabbed and in 1998 the school moved in.

On the one hand, the school's growth is a monument to its enterprise. The new site has 18 classrooms and 10 studios for private lessons, as well as a 400-seat auditorium, a coffee shop, and a much larger music store. The school has expanded its course selection well beyond guitar and folk music and offers everything from swing dance to West African drumming. According to acting executive director Gail Tyler, there are between 150 and 180 teachers on staff instructing about 5,700 students.

But something changed in the growth. "We lost our soul," says Pat. The store, once a great drop-in center for longhaired teens, now posts signs telling kids to stay out unless accompanied by adults. "Now everything's computerized, scanned, and inventoried--even the picks," says Pat.

Callers are greeted by a computerized voice that offers a long list of options. Scheduling is now done by computer, and the system's been a disaster. When one guitar student asked to move her private lesson from 4 to 4:30, a stressed-out clerk told her "that can't be done" for technical reasons--though the instructor had no objection. She had to keep the old time or drop the class.

Several teachers met last fall with Hirsch to gripe about the scheduling problems. "This monolith of obstruction is too big," one teacher told him.

It's hard to imagine any of the school's present leaders singing songs that poke fun at this Mayor Daley--not while they're making deals with his administration. And they better watch what they say about corporate America--the new concert hall's being named for American Airlines, which presumably put up a lot of money for the honor. The school is itself an agent of gentrification. That was also the case when the school was on Armitage, in what was once a working-class black and Puerto Rican neighborhood.

It's not clear if these dynamics played any role in Hirsch's departure--neither Hirsch nor the board will say why he left. For their part, the Old Town's leaders say they would rather talk about the future.

"I think we're as vibrant as ever," says Tyler. "We have had a few problems. But these are growing pains of an institution that now serves 5,700 students. I'd love to answer every call with a human voice. But the volume of calls we get is overwhelming. People don't want to hear a busy signal when they call. We're not operating out of a living room anymore. Like it or not, we need technology. We have to keep up.

"But that doesn't mean we have changed in a fundamental way. There's a history here that can't be lost. Yes, I have an MBA, but I hooked up with the school when I took a class in chorus. My first teacher was Margaret Bell. That was ten years ago. She's still here. I've learned to play the fiddle here. I've been taking lessons the whole time. I've kind of lived here. When you lived and loved it you won't change it."

Last week the school flew in founder Frank Hamilton from his home in the east. "You should have seen it--it was magical," says Tyler. "They were supposed to have a two-hour workshop but it went on for three hours. The teachers old and young were there. Frank's vision was alive. It's still tying the place together."

Nonetheless, a few veteran teachers who were complaining about conditions to Hirsch say they'll pester the new bosses if the place strays too far from its roots. "I'm hoping that this change at the top will be a good thing," says Pat. "I hope we're going to enter an age of greater humanism. I know we can't go back to those days of the three-by-five-inch cards, but the school should be a haven from the anonymous level of things."

On a Roll

Vishu Ramanathan and Tobias Cichon have been friends since first grade, but until last year they'd never thought about bowling together. "I was getting married and Tobias was getting married and we thought bowling would be a funny thing to do," says Ramanathan. "We needed something to get us out of the house. But it's hard to find bowling time because most lanes are filled with leagues. So we decided to form a team and join a league."

They hadn't bowled in years and didn't have a home alley. They wound up at Timber Lanes, on Irving Park at Wolcott, almost by fluke. "We found it on the yellow pages on the Internet," says Ramanathan. Then they had to round up a team of five.

"I didn't know any bowlers," says Ramanathan, a 25-year-old computer programmer. He called some guys he and his wife knew from high school or college or work, and wound up with a union glazier (Ian Hunnicult); a mortician (Doug Klein); and two more computer programmers (Matt Fleming and Chris Larson)--in addition to Cichon, who by the end of the season was sidelined with a broken leg.

They called themselves the New Team, and last September they made their debut in the Timber Lanes Monday evening men's league. What a contrast they were from the other bowlers. They were at least a decade younger (a generational difference asserted by their earrings and tattoos), and at bowling a lot worse. They rolled gutter balls and sub-100 games and rarely won.

But they had a good time. They drank beer and smoked cigarettes and played loud rock 'n' roll on the jukebox and swore a lot, as bowlers do, and whooped and yelped and banged chests whenever they rolled a strike. They also improved. Fact is they had a bit of an advantage--the leagues at Timber Lanes are handicapped. Each bowler's awarded roughly the difference between his average score and the average of the best bowlers. The lower your average, the higher your handicap.

As the season wore on they found themselves bowling just well enough to beat teams without dramatically increasing their average and lowering their handicap. Somehow they wound up in the championship against the Hawaiians, a grizzled bunch of high scorers led by Bob Kuhn (Timber Lanes's owner), who earn their nickname by wearing luau shirts.

On May 8, the night of the big face-off, the New Team showed up in their own luau shirts ("we wanted to do something to psych them out," says Ramanathan) and accompanied by a cheering section of girlfriends and wives. They won game one. All they needed was to win one of the remaining two games and the championship was theirs.

But the Hawaiians refused to go down easy. They blasted strike after strike until the huge handicap had been erased, and the two teams rolled into the final frame neck and neck. "We bowled our butts off," says Ramanathan. "Matt bowled a turkey [three strikes], and we won by 13 points. It was so close Bob Kuhn wanted to audit the score. He spent about five minutes going over those numbers and then he put down his pencil and picked up his ball and left. That's when I knew we were the champs."

The Hawaiians shared a toast with the victors. But in the aftermath one question remains. Was it all an act? Was the early clumsiness and oh-my-God-I-got-a-strike exuberance a ruse? Was the New Team a bunch of hustlers who bowled just bad enough to win?

Ramanathan swears it isn't so."Were we sandbaggers? Hell no! It's just that once you learn to bowl you have nights where you're awesome. What can I say? On that night we were awesome. We'll be back next year to defend our championship. Only we'll have a new name. I don't think we can be the New Team anymore."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Kamba.

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