The Old Town School of Folk Music turns 60 years old on December 1. That’s 60 years of music classes and sing-alongs—and most important, thousands and thousands of characters who’ve passed through its various doors, at its original location on North Avenue and its current spaces on Lincoln and on Armitage. The school has also amassed an impressive collection of books and recordings in its basement Resource Center.
Mareva Lindo, 29, who began taking classes in OTS’s Wiggleworms program as a toddler and interned at the school as a college student and now works in the Resource Center as a podcast producer. She thought that lots of stories were waiting in the center to be exhumed and retold, so a little more than two years ago she began working on a podcast with Hampshire College student Emma Rothman, a descendent of Chicago ethnomusicologists Gerry and George Armstrong, who’d donated their archives to the center. They released 12 episodes of The Archives Podcast, mixing stories about the Armstrongs with collections of musical performances from the Old Town School’s archives.
A year ago, around the time of their final episode, they received an e-mail from a staffer at public oral history project StoryCorps asking if they’d be interested in a collaboration. The new six-episode podcast that’s resulted, distributed as a continuation of The Archives, follows the StoryCorps model: two people who know each other well (in this case, people who’ve been involved with OTS at some point in its history) interview each other.
“It was a big, huge step for us,” Lindo says. “It opened up the possibility of how to tell stories. The story of the Old Town School is really a collection of characters, and it always has been. It’s been so fun to listen to those stories and hear how we got to where we are now.”
The podcast launched last week, and new episodes will appear every Thursday on iTunes and Soundcloud. The Old Town School celebrates its 60th birthday this weekend with a full slate of events: on Friday, December 1, the Armitage location hosts several sing-alongs and workshops, including one led by Lindo, and on Sunday, December 3, the Lincoln location presents a big benefit concert and the opening of a multimedia timeline exhibit created by Lindo, Resource Center manager Colby Maddox, and ethnomusicologist Tanya Lee.
Lindo envisions this new series of the podcast as a tapestry, weaving together strands of stories into a complete history. The first episode covers the inception of the school, starting with the battles that cofounder Win Stracke fought against depression and blacklisting in the 1950s. “It’s so touching to me,” says Lindo. “He loved Chicago, and he loved Illinois. He’s an unsung hero of the city and the state. I got to meet his daughter, Jane. She was awesome and so forthcoming.”
Of the school’s original four founders, only one, Frank Hamilton, is still alive. He lives in Atlanta, where he founded another folk school a few years ago, even though he’s in his 80s now. Lindo spoke with him a few times by phone. She also interviewed singer Ella Jenkins, who was at the Old Town School’s opening night and claims to have been the first person to walk through the door. “At the time,” says Lindo, “she was one of the many, many people who wanted to be at a place where there was a lot of folk music.”
In an effort to look forward as well as back, Lindo also talked to members of OTS’s teen advisory council, who shared their visions of what they hope the school will become in the future.
“It’s amazing to look back at the characters,” says Lindo. “There are a lot of people whose names we don’t end up hearing, but who were making it what it was because they were there. They came, and they came every day. That’s one of the things Rebecca [Armstrong, daughter of Gerry and George] was talking about when we spoke today. It was their version of church. It provided a ritual and a space and people, and it became a transcendent cultural experience.”
Come for to Sing: Old Town School in 1957
Fri 12/1, 8:30 PM, Old Town School Lincoln Park, 909 W. Armitage, 773-728-6000, oldtownschool.org, $5
Old Town School History Timeline opening reception
Sun 12/3, 3 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, 773-728-6000, oldtownschool.org, free