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Title:Music as a birthright: Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music and participatory music making in the twenty-first century
Author(s):Lee, Tanya S.
Director of Research:Turino, Thomas R.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Turino, Thomas R.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Solis, Gabriel; Magee, Gayle S.; Barrett, James R.
Department / Program:Music
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
participatory music making
folk revival
American music
urban music
arts organizations
Chicago history
music ethnography
music education
arts management
community music
Abstract:The Old Town School of Folk Music (OTSFM), founded in 1957 on Chicago’s North Side, has over the course of its history developed pedagogies and social practices to transform its urban, cosmopolitan students from music consumers to music participants. By the 2000s, it had become the largest not-for-profit folk arts organization in the United States, offering affordable classes in a wide variety of multiethnic music and dance traditions to about 6,000 adults and children each week, as well as a concert series, a music festival, and other events and services. Despite its scale, engendering tensions between the discourses of late-capitalist, corporate management styles and those of egalitarian, anti-commercialist folk revival values, it continued to foster and sustain intimate, music-based communities within its walls. Fundamentally, my dissertation is a biography of an institution. It illustrates the way that institutional structure and strategy can facilitate and even shape face-to-face, amateur, participatory music making, in a society where music is most commonly understood to be a professional pursuit. The Old Town School has consistently committed to the core principle, rooted in the leftist values of the Popular Front of the 1930s and 1940s, that music is a social, participatory experience accessible to all, not the preserve of a professionalized elite, but everyone’s birthright. This dissertation explores the processes and means—cultural, pedagogical, historical and material—by which OTSFM has pursued this principle. It has three purposes: the first is historical, tracing the Old Town School’s story from its roots in the 1930s through the end of the twentieth century; the second is ethnographic, examining social music-making and learning at the School in the early twenty-first century; and the third is biographical, to show throughout how learning to become social participants in music changes individual human lives.   I contextualize OTSFM’s history within several larger narratives of U.S. and Chicago music and social history, highlighting Chicago’s distinctive contribution to the folk revival and how the School has been implicated in neighborhood gentrification processes. Drawing connections from the political and popular strains of mid-century folk revivals to the rise of rock music, world music, and other trends of the late twentieth century, I argue, through the example of the Old Town School’s story, that the most enduring legacy of these folk revivals is in the musical and social processes it introduced into middle-class, cosmopolitan America, a legacy that extends far beyond the original political or aesthetic orientations of the revivalists. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork I conducted in 2004-2005, I show how the Old Town School’s participatory ethos, which values music making as inclusive, social, egalitarian, and rooted in tradition, and has promoted an educational approach that prioritizes orally-based group learning, as exemplified by OTSFM’s distinctive tradition of the Second Half, a nightly, multi- level sing-along and jam session, as well as classes and other social and educational environments. This is a study of fun and friendship in music, exploring how the skills for building musical friendships can be developed in place of competitive models of music learning, and how this contributes to the overall well-being of individuals, relationships, and communities.  
Issue Date:2011-05-25
Rights Information:Copyright 2011 Tanya S. Lee
Date Available in IDEALS:2011-05-25
Date Deposited:2011-05

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