Finding Atlanta folk

Frank Hamilton revives a musical tradition

It is often said that, in some way, all music is folk music, and there is some truth to the adage. One of the essential components of traditional folk music is face-to-face communication and the passing along of traditions. Singer and guitarist Frank Hamilton, 81, for a time was a member of Greenwich Village’s storied folk music quartet the Weavers.

Hamilton, along with Win Stracke and Dawn Greening, co-founded a loosely structured teaching program for potential folk music artists, and in 1957, the Old Town School of Folk Music opened in Chicago. With connections to fellow Weavers member Pete Seeger, Hamilton found financial support from folk archivist Bess Lomax Hawes, sister to famed folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

The school’s philosophy is simple: Teach people to play familiar songs in a group setting. Then bring them together to jam. Now, every Tuesday night, Hamilton gives the tradition new life at the Frank Hamilton Folk School. Over the course of six sessions, participants learn how to tune, strum, play multiple chords, and ultimately perform complete songs with enough proficiency to entertain others.

“It’s not an exclusive club,” Hamilton says. “Anyone who wants to play is a musician from the moment they start. Teachers are students, and students are teachers. The interaction is what’s important.”

In a recent Second Thought Radio interview with Celeste Headlee, Hamilton laid out the school’s ideal. “Seeger wanted to break down the wall between the performer and the audience, that was very important in folk music.”

The Old Town School became an internationally recognized forum for teaching and performing, with multiple classes and a stellar concert series that continues to this day. When asked why he chose Atlanta for the new school, Hamilton was quite clear. “Atlanta has the demographics that can support the place, and has a history of folk music.”

The Atlanta Area Friends of Folk Music organization has been active since 1975 organizing and promoting local and regional concerts, workshops, and festivals, and is a current supporter of Hamilton’s program. Hamilton, who had pretty much retired to Atlanta in 1984, was widowed in December 2014, and knew he had to do something to fill his time. Classes are held at the Epworth at Candler Park United Methodist Church on Tuesday evenings. He teaches guitar and banjo. Other classes include mandolin, singing, ukulele, and fiddle, with more to come.

Each month, the Folk School is also sponsoring two or more concerts featuring performances from students and established performers at the Red Light Café and Fiddler’s Green. “The concerts are an important adjunct,” Hamilton says. “By allowing students to see what it’s all about, and give them the opportunity to jam, and make them comfortable with that.”

Local acoustic roots music events event organizer Thom “T-Dawg” Helland assists Hamilton with booking and promotion. Helland is the mastermind behind the Annual Holiday Hootenanny shows, and this year’s final Back Porch Hootenanny, a two-day event held April 1-2 at Cherokee Farms in LaFayette, Ga.

Helland also plays a hands-on role as the Folk School’s Administrative and Creative Director. “With a decline in funding for the arts in schools and the community as a whole, an organization like this is an essential piece to the puzzle,” he says, “tying together the process of learning music aurally, in a group, with the ability to jam and feel confident performing and playing in a communal environment.”