Old Town School of Folk Music

The Old Town School began 55 years ago in an Oak Park living room. It currently resides in buildings on Armitage in Lincoln Park, and on Lincoln in Lincoln Square.

On Monday, school officials have officially added a third building to the school. It's a brand new $17 million state-of-the-art facility that has school and public officials joining in a chorus of praise.

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Today's dedication kicked off, appropriately, with a song written for the new building. And after an initial snafu with the ribbon cutting, everyone joined the chorus.

The institution has a lot to sing about. The sparkling, new 17,000 square foot facility comes equipped with state-of-the-art music rooms, dance studios, and an auditorium with retractable risers that converts into a dance hall.

It's a gathering place for both experienced musicians and budding ones as well. 

Executive director Bau Graves says the school outgrew its home across the street in a converted public library almost as soon as it moved in 14 years ago - and that today is the culmination of years of planning, fundraising, and building.

“The Old Town School has lived in a living room, former bank, former tavern, former library, former soccer club,” said Graves. “This is the first time we've had a space designed as a school of music and dance.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who used to be the area's congressman, marvels at how an entire neighborhood grew up around the school.

“This, to me, is a classic example of how a single cultural institution can take a neighborhood and become the economic engine and cultural engine of an entire neighborhood,” said Emanuel

It's a far cry from when the Old Town School began, a story best told by the late historian Studs Terkel.

“The Old Town School came to be because of one man, Win Stracke. He was a folk singer, opera singer, church singer, he had a vision,” Terkel told WTTW back in 1998.

Fifty-five years later, the school is as successful as ever. While other cultural institutions have been hurt by the recession, Graves says the last few years have brought record attendance and record fundraising to the school.

“I think part of the reason for that is that during hard times, the experience of getting together with one’s fellows to sing and play music and dance is something that touches people in a way that's really important in their lives,” Graves said.

Folk music is traditionally meant for the common folk. But it’s clear that some high level public officials have a special connection to the music as well. The children of both Mayor Emanuel and President Obama have taken classes at the school, as have those of Attorney General Lisa Madigan and State Senator Heather Steans.

“We have graduated from Wiggleworms to art classes to piano lessons to guitar lessons,” said Madigan.

“We've been through Wiggleworms, banjo, guitar lessons, summer camps,” said Steans.

As the school has grown physically, it has expanded its definition of folk to include world music and musical theater.

But Louis Armstrong once famously observed that all music, essentially, was folk music - because he'd never heard of a horse singing a song.

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors