Born in 1934 in New York City, roots music legend Frank Hamilton is an American folk musician, collector of folk music and educator. As a performer, Hamilton spent much of the late forties and early fifties traveling across the American South, performing in bars and on street corners.
In 1953, in Los Angeles, Hamilton formed The Dusty Road Boys with fellow folksters Guy Carawan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. He was the house musician for Chicago’s Gate of Horn, the first folk music club in the U.S. In 1957, Hamilton, Win Stracke and Dawn Greening cofounded the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.
Hamilton was viewed as the dean of the school, which attracted such guest artists as Pete Seeger, Odetta, Studs Terkel, Doc Watson, Mahalia Jackson and Bill Monroe.
Hamilton played with Woodie Guthrie at the artist colony in Topanga, California, founded by Will Geer (who later became “Grandpa” on the television series The Waltons), appeared at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and was a member of the seminal folk group The Weavers in the early 1960s, taking the chair once held by Pete Seeger. He has recorded for Folkways Records, along with several other labels. Seeger has called Hamilton “one of the most creative musicians in the country.”
Hamilton has resided in Atlanta since 1985, and today, at age 82, continues to perform both folk music and jazz guitar, in addition to teaching. In the fall of 2015, Hamilton and friend Bob Bakert cofounded the Frank Hamilton School, modeled after the Old Town School. It quickly outgrew its first location and now meets at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur. With a new term of the Frank Hamilton School kicking off next week, ArtsATL recently spoke with Hamilton about his life, philosophy and music.
ArtsATL: How would you summarize your musical life in just a few words?
Frank Hamilton: Rebellion.
I started off with a mother who is a classically trained pianist. She tried to give me piano lessons, and I was forced to do recitals when I was young but I couldn’t do it because my fingers wouldn’t do Chopin or Scriabin or any of those things. As a result, I kind of rebelled against classical music for a long while and decided to go with folk music and jazz. My life has been a source of two factors in music: one is inclusion, with a social orientation, and the other is dissension — dissenting from the academic music school approach. Those two major primes are symptomatic of my musical interests.
ArtsATL: It sounds like a strong focus on the ear.
Hamilton: On the ear, and also on the social aspect because I’m very interested in politics. I’m a lefty. I see music as political. I see even nonpolitical people as political because they’re expressing an agenda. Today we see a corollary between the time that I grew up, as a young man, from Trumpism to McCarthyism. I grew up during the McCarthy era, and I see a lot of parallels. From a very early age I got interested in the left-wing movement and folk music, which is an outgrowth of the left-wing movement. If it wasn’t for the left-wing, there wouldn’t be a folk revival.
ArtsATL: I think of the Lomaxes, the Carawans, the Crawfords and the Seegers, among other families, who were influential in the mid-20th century when it came to folk music and left-wing politics.
Hamilton: They became friends. I began to know them and be very interested in what they were doing. From that standpoint a lot of the people that I knew, growing up in the McCarthy era, were blacklisted, out of jobs. People like Will Geer, the actor, and Earl Robinson, a folk-singer from Seattle who I used to know, [and] Pete Seeger, of course, of The Weavers. They were all blacklisted, so it became a badge of honor.
ArtsATL: Were you blacklisted along with them?
Hamilton: Well, I have an FBI dossier that I can’t seem to find. I would love to be able to find that, because it is an important thing when we, as musicians, look at the field of music as an art form, as well as a way of just getting along putting groceries on the table. It’s important we look at how it diverges from the general commercialized corporate culture — and music has become a corporate culture, in the sense [of] modern popular music, rap music and all of that. Some of it is valid, but most of it is corporate, and when it’s corporate it becomes diluted. It no longer has the social aspects or popular aspects that it needs for expression, but becomes a pandering to the masses.
ArtsATL: How do these thoughts apply to the mission of the Frank Hamilton School?
Hamilton: One of the things about the school, I will always have to make a disclaimer: I don’t want to express or project my feelings, politically or any other way, on the school. We like to keep an open door policy, so, as a result, we don’t talk about politics or religion because we want everybody to be a part of what we’re doing. What we’re really all about, and my own approach to music, has always been a social orientation. I feel that [if] people can learn to sing and play music together they can learn to talk to one another, which in this present climate is pretty rare.
ArtsATL: The thing about folk music is so much is passed on orally, in a community-type situation rather than something that is kind of handed down to us by an academic school or arts institution.
Hamilton: In a way it’s kind of the enemy of academia and the copyright laws, because folk music is the process. It’s meant to be changed; it’s meant for people to participate in it, and my feeling always is that if people can own music, they’ll support it. The way they own it is to be involved in it in some way or another.
What we think of now as traditional folk music has changed a great deal. First of all, it has become less antiquarian, and much more vital. The new tradition in folk music that’s not coming from Appalachia, sitting on a front porch — which is valid too — or coming from Slovenia or wherever you happen to be and doing local folk dancing. [It’s] a new kind of tradition that’s coming out of America. My mission now is to bring these songs of labor and content to the public, if I can. I’d like to have them sung, and tell the stories behind them.
ArtsATL: How long would you say this “new folk tradition” has been growing?
Hamilton: I would say it really started to come to fruition through the popular front, which was in the early 1930s and growing through the 1940s. There are a lot of songs that reflect that, too, even a lot of rural songs about the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] and the electrification program in the country. Pete Seeger has been a strong catalyst, and of course he was my mentor. He’s a person who has influenced so many people. I don’t think I would have gone as far as I could in the folk music field if it hadn’t been for Pete, because he was the Johnny Appleseed.
ArtsATL: How did you first encounter the music of Pete Seeger?
Hamilton: I first discovered Pete Seeger on a 10-inch record called “The Peekskill Story” about the problems in Peekskill, [New York,] where they had a meeting for the civil rights group featuring [Paul] Robeson in a concert and a convention up there, and the townspeople went berserk. When the people left the concert they were pelted with bricks and stones, broken windows and a police force that laughed at the whole thing, and the epithets were screaming “Commies,” the “n word” and all kinds of things. That was the Peekskill [riots] in 1949. That was the first time I ever heard Pete Seeger.
I was also very influenced by another person who doesn’t even know that he influenced me, a man by the name of Waldo Salt. Waldo was a screenwriter in Hollywood, he was blacklisted, and he had gone on to write the screenplays for Midnight Cowboy and Serpico. He established his credentials later on, but at the time I knew him he was kinda struggling along, and he would say, “Hey Frank, go out, to get some of these left-wing bookings where they want people, folk singers, to play and sing songs and talk about the issues.” And I said, “You know, that’s a pretty damn good idea. I’m gonna do that.” So I started singing for left-wing causes.
ArtsATL: You’ve lived in Atlanta for a while, but you grew up elsewhere, and you’ve traveled extensively, even hitchhiked the whole country.
Hamilton: I hitchhiked across the United States twice, and I learned to play the five-string banjo, oddly enough, true to form, in a boxcar. A friend of mine was shipping out on the Great Lakes and wanted to go up to the merchant marine place where he could do that. We hitchhiked then we took a boxcar in the Santa Barbara yards through the San Joaquin Valley, and I had a little banjo swung over my back. [I] finally swung into the boxcar and was able to practice, and that was a very colorful way to practice the five-string banjo, learning the basic strum. It was a kind of romantic idea.
My biological father, Frank Strawn Hamilton, was a labor organizer and a philosophical hobo. He got around on the old rattlers in those days [a railroad train consisting of freight cars], and finally wound up in New York doing lectures on socialism and anarchism. He was a mentor for a novelist by the name of Jack London. I grew up with my parents reading me White Fang and The Call of the Wild. I knew of Jack London through his socialist connections, and [was] dismayed to find out that in later life he did a 180-degree turn with the Bohemian Club in San Francisco and turned out being more like Ann Coulter than anybody else.
ArtsATL: How did you wind up in Atlanta?
Hamilton: I was in California. I’d lived in Los Angeles most of my life, and wanted to see the country. I’d been across the country a couple of times, and I came back and settled for a while in L.A. and then married. I’ve been married three times. My latest wife passed on a couple of years ago. She was wonderful. The other two were, I guess, an apprenticeship for me, learning how to be married. What happened is that I went to Boston one time to fulfill a relationship I was having at that time with a young folkie, and that didn’t work out. I found myself in Boston and finally I met my “real wife.” She worked for Delta Airlines, and that explains the whole thing.
ArtsATL: How has Atlanta treated you, musically?
Hamilton: I’d say they’ve treated me very nicely. Musicians, the people I’ve gotten to know and became friends with and played music with, have treated me very well. I can’t say that the city’s cultural leaders or founders or fathers, as it were, are very attuned to what’s going on in their city. It’s really a shame because Atlanta is a hotbed of cultural activity. I mean, there are some prime musicians in this town. Fine composers [and] performers and really solid-thinking people in the arts and politics and literature, but they’re not being recognized, not by the city.
ArtsATL: Why are they flying under the radar, so to speak?
Hamilton: It’s a microcosm for what’s going on all over the country. Right now we have a very rigid institutionalized government that is not really for the benefit of the people. That’s my opinion. This climate has created a vacuum. People can come in and fill it, so we have a tremendous underground that’s happening where people are really interested in doing things that will effect social change.
ArtsATL: What can we do about it to make it less under the radar?
Hamilton: The model is the intersection of politics. Musicians should get together and share the common denominator of loving the music and wanting to express something of importance. I like to see groups of that nature happening.
What we’re trying to do at the school is foster an interest in not the commerciality of music but the tradition of music. We are trying to do this on a social level where people can feel that regardless of their level of expertise or skills they have a place in our school [whether] as a rank beginner, or somebody who wants to cultivate an advanced skill level. We want to accommodate all of them, and we want diversity. We want to have Hispanic people in the school, we want to have African-American people in the school, we want people from Slavic regions and the Middle East, wherever they come from, to share their folk music with us, and for us to learn their music as well. It’s extremely important that we think of ourselves [as] a community of people [who] are not being dictated by monetary concerns or commercial success, or trying to get the next gig.
My mission is to see the music as a form of social expression. Politically and ideologically, I don’t want to force my views, or shove them down anyone’s throat. At the same time I want to be able to express myself as a human being. My orientation now toward music is to explore the history of the United States from the standpoint of dissent, the labor movement, protest songs, songs that kind of indicate the theme that “change can happen.” I think a song can change the world.