Letters to the editor:
When a journalistic lout writes a piece that is patently dishonest or untrue, I take a pass. It’s par for the course. But when someone I respect does a slovenly job of like nature, it does bad things to my blood pressure. Consider the piece by Mara Tapp on the birth of the Old Town School of Folk Music (July 23). There were two passages that were positively unbelievable. The first: Frank Hamilton, “a founder of the Old Town School and a onetime member of the Weavers, says, ‘Peter Paul, and Mary are really popular singers. They’re not folksingers. Neither is Pete Seeger. Most of what they express is popular music, the chords, the trappings–it’s show business.'”
I admire Frank. He is a marvelous musician and teacher. That’s why Win Stracke, the founder of the Old Town School, hired him. I find it hard to believe that Frank said what Mara Tapp said he said–Pete in the same pop league as Peter, Paul, and Mary! If he was misquoted, Mara deserves a good swift kick in the ass. If he actually said it, he deserves two good swift kicks in the ass.
When Frank was in his rompers, Pete was singing authentic American folk songs in the most unfashionable places–picket lines, soup kitchens, risky rallies for peace and for racial integration in the deep south. He was rotten-egged and stoned along with Paul Robeson at Peekskill.
More to the point, he is one of the most assiduous scholars of folk music I have ever encountered. I first met Pete 60 years ago come September. As a member of the Almanac Singers (his colleagues: Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell), he stayed with us for a couple of weeks. During that time he and his buddies were singing Child ballads and their Appalachian variants and adapting them to the situations at hand. They brought forth the songs of Aunt Molly Jackson and Florence Reese (the miner’s daughter who wrote “Which Side Are You On?”). When Big Bill Broonzy came over, there was the richest exchange of black and white folk songs and blues I have ever experienced. Of course, Win Stracke came over too. He was in the same league as they were.
What makes the casual put-down of Pete so egregious is that Pete is the most antishowbiz performer I have ever known. Almost to a fault. When the Weavers were in their glory, appearing everywhere, in fashionable as well as unfashionable places, a crisis developed. Pete had enough. He didn’t want to appear anymore in theaters and on TV and radio programs with showbiz types. He thought it was diluting what the Weavers were trying to do. He walked out. What is most ironic is that Frank Hamilton was his replacement, for a time, at least.
The other passage of the Tapp piece I found even more offensive. “Hamilton says he was ‘really in love with folk music’ when he and Win Stracke started the Old Town School in December 1957. Stracke was a singer and songwriter with a following from television and radio gigs, but he wanted to improve his guitar technique.” What patronizing bullshit.
I have known Win for 64 years. Frank was not yet in his rompers. Win had a remarkable following in the 30s and 40s of left-liberal-religious groups in Chicago. He was their bard. He sang everywhere, usually in the most unfashionable of places. On the morning after the Memorial Day Massacre, 1937, he appeared at Sam’s Tavern, where some of the steelworker wounded had gathered. He sang all sorts of labor songs (they’re folk songs, too). He, being the musicologist he was, even sang “Cutty Wren,” a 15th-century peasant revolt song. He explained it to the guys and they fully understood. He sang in the soup kitchens of the Newspaper Guild during their celebrated Herald-Examiner strike. It was that many-months-old strike that really established the Guild. During these years, Win was a respected singer of lieder, operatic airs, and hymns. Because of his unrespectable activities, he was fired as soloist of the highly respectable Fourth Presbyterian Church. From then on he suffered a longtime blacklist.
To be described by Frank as “a singer and songwriter with a following from television and radio gigs, but he wanted to improve his guitar technique” was just a bit too much to take.
May I tell you how the Old Town School came to be? In the early 50s, when the folk-song revival was just getting under way, there were Monday night performances at the Blue Note, the city’s most prestigious jazz club. It was a twice-a-night concert called “I Come for the Sing.” There were four of us. Big Bill Broonzy sang the blues; Larry Lane, Child ballads; Win, American frontier songs; I, the wise-guy narrator. There developed a sizable cult following. Folk-music interest was just aborning. Frank Holzfiend, the club owner, was delighted. The place would otherwise have been dark on Mondays. Everybody was happy, except Win. Like Pete Seeger, he felt something was wrong.
Night after night, though he performed beautifully, his mind and heart were elsewhere. Continuously he spoke of a place, a neighborhood, a community, as the locale for a folk-music school. Reaching out to where the people lived. Together with Budd Wolff, the AFTRA lawyer, he worked out all the details. That’s when he hired Frank Hamilton as the first of the faculty. That which is known as the Old Town School of Folk Music came about because of the vision of one man: Win Stracke.
I was hesitant about writing this letter, because I like Frank and Mara, but I’ll be damned if I’ll allow the memory of a big man made small.
PS: Reader is, hands down, my favorite local journal. It has a great batting average. It’s entitled to a whiff now and then. This was one of them.
Mara Tapp replies:
I suspect Frank Hamilton was being provocative. By calling Peter, Paul, and Mary and Pete Seeger “popular” singers rather than “folk” singers, he was commenting on the cult of celebrity–our tendency to focus on personalities rather than substance. It’s a particularly thorny issue for folksingers, because stardom makes the singer more important than the song.
Studs finds fault with my description of Win Stracke’s taking lessons from Hamilton. My source was a booklet printed by the Old Town School of Folk Music on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. It includes an essay by Win Stracke called “Biography of a Hunch,” in which he describes taking a class with Hamilton. Elsewhere, the booklet says, “When Win decided to improve his guitar playing skills in 1957, his new friend Dawn Greening suggested he study with Frank Hamilton–and the Old Town School of Folk Music was born.” I figured a booklet about the school by the school was an authoritative source.
“Biography of a Hunch” tells how Stracke’s impressive musical career included hosting the city’s most popular children’s TV show, Animal Playtime, appearing on The Dave Garroway Show, and being a regular on Studs’ Place. There is no shame in becoming famous on radio and television, as Studs has proven admirably.
I also would like to correct the misimpression that Hamilton characterized Stracke as a TV and radio personality who needed to sharpen his guitar technique. That description was mine.
I intended no disrespect to Pete Seeger or Win Stracke. My article tried to look at the current state of folk music and how it survived the last couple decades. After 20 years of camaraderie, I continue to consider Studs a mentor, hero, colleague, and friend, and I hope that these clarifications relieve his sense of injustice.