Frank Hamilton, the People’s Musician

Against the Current, No. 224, May/June 2023

David McCullough

Left to right on guitar, banjo and guitar the three vagabonds who hitchhiked through the South collecting songs in the 50s: Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Frank Hamilton, and Guy Carawan. Taken at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, TN. Coal miner Lee Tom plays fiddle. Perry Horton, father of the founder of Highlander, Myles Horton, listens in.

“DON’T THINK,” Frank Hamilton said when asked how to improvise a jazz solo.

How did a man who co-founded the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago 65 years ago, which remains today the largest folk music school in the country with 13,000 students a year; a man who knows as much music theory as any Juilliard graduate; a man who likes to rearrange and reharmonize both folk and jazz tunes come up with the advice “Don’t think?”

As it turns out, once you know where Frank is coming from it sounds as natural as Lenin’s “Every cook can govern” does to a Marxist. I can’t speak for Frank, but I can tell what I derived from playing and talking with him for many years.

Frank was raised in Los Angeles. His father, a hobo-philosopher sidekick of Jack London, rode the rails, joined the IWW, and organized a Marine Cooks and Stewards strike in Oakland. He died just before Frank was born. At Fairfax High and in city college bands Frank first played trombone, going for a Kid Ory sound, next to future stars like jazzman Horace Tapscott. Like Nashville, L.A. is full of musicians like the Wrecking Crew who play rock, pop, movie and tv music, whatever it takes to make a living, but play jazz for pleasure.

Frank Hamilton and the Folk Revival: from Woody Guthrie to We Shall Overcome is a one-hour documentary and oral history of socialist folksinger Frank Hamilton, that will be shown on Monday, April 17, 10PM ET on Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Created by Bert Elliott, Chris Moser and Bob Judson it may also air on national public television. Musicians like Don McLean, Roger McGuinn and Sparky Rucker describe his influence on the American Folk Revival and today’s Americana music. Frank recalls his friends Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Photos and music clips take us from the protests of the ’50s to today. Check out Frank Hamilton and the Folk Revival website for updates; watch the film.

Frank, now a skilled guitarist, also absorbed the folk music scene like a sponge. At left-wing parties, he would hole up in a corner with Woody Guthrie and jam. Frank was shy and Woodie didn’t like to talk politics. Young Frank and folksinger Guy Carawan hung out at Black Baptist church services to learn the gospel sound. Frank joined The Weavers, America’s popular folk ensemble of the ’40s and ’50s, when his mentor Pete Seeger left the group to go solo. Pete said that if you pushed Frank Hamilton out of an airplane, by the time he landed he would be singing the songs of that land. Frank taught at the Old Town School and at Barney Kessel’s Music World in the ‘60s. Some of his students, like Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, went on to fame and fortune.

Fame and fortune to Frank meant abandoning music in favor of business. Playing clubs in L.A. and on the road soured him on commercial music. Ed Pearl, who ran the folk music club The Ashgrove, told me of his frustration with Frank for not capitalizing on his talent. But Frank saw being a star in folk music as a contradiction. His comment on fame: “Fame and money: two illusions that fade like mist. Emily Dickinson wrote a poem ‘I’m nobody. Are you nobody too?’ Why the hell not [be nobody too]?”

Frank turned 88 in this summer of 2022, having spent his entire life eking out a living with music while avoiding the music business. As I write, in September, 2022, at the Frank Hamilton School of Folk Music in Atlanta he is teaching a class called Protest Songs. This month, musician and producer Bert Elliott has completed an hour video history of Frank’s life and work bound for public television. I’m not going to tell that history here because the video does it much better [sidebar provides details]. Wikipedia lists a fair number of his credits.

For Frank Hamilton, music is the provenance of the people, like breathing or talking. He thinks everyone is a musician, everyone can sing. It just needs to be brought out. Music—folk, hip hop, jazz, whatever—is a language, Frank and his late wife Mary used to say. You learn it mostly by mirroring, they thought, listening to others then imitating it for yourself, as we learn English. It is passed down over the generations and diasporas. The African diaspora gave us blues, gospel and jazz. The Roma diaspora gave us hundreds of ethnic musics, most built around back beats. As in science and math, you can take music structure as deep or specialized as you want, as “classical” composers and bebop players have, and non-Western musics do. Frank’s son, Evan, is a guitar wizard in the complex stratosphere of bebop, but he jams with the rest of us swing musicians and we with him. Music is a universal language with many streams and eddies.

So when it comes your turn to play a solo, you just say what’s in your mind using musical notes, adding your bit to the general conversation. When you sing to yourself in your head, your fingers will find the right notes, Frank said. From each according to their ability. Bert Elliott told me that he comes to our jam sessions just to see what chord Frank will pull out of the air to end a tune.

In a coffee shop conversation no one thinks what they are going to say, they just say it. There is a context that constrains the back and forth. In a jam session, that might be a standard tune, or it might be a riff someone plays to kick things off. We improvise, respecting the context. Respecting the speaker in a conversation, we nod our heads, move our bodies, keep it going. The ground rule of a jam session whether folk or jazz is “Do no harm.” What people want to hear is you. You are unique, even if everything you have is borrowed or handed down. That’s why musical quotations can be so much fun: you’re singing “Goofus” but throw in another tune. “Can’t read notes but I play anything by ear… ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ whisper… that I used to hear…” Ella Fitzgerald was a master at that and flying away from the lyrics altogether to scat singing. Just Ella being Ella. And you and I being us. Frank tells us that what he heard ordinary people, not professionals, sing about in their folk music catalyzed his commitment to socialism. You can sing about exploitation even without having to define it.

Music for Frank Hamilton is folk art, a collective activity created from the bottom up by people who are not taking orders or trying to be someone else. It’s socialist, made for use not for profit. The civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” is a case in point. It has been a church song, a chant of tobacco workers, and universal protest song. It belongs to no one. The copyright lists Zilphia Horton, Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, and Frank Hamilton. Zilphia, music director of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, brought the song to the school from striking Black women in a South Carolina tobacco factory and taught it to Pete Seeger, who took it north. New England grammarian that he was, Seeger changed the lyric “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome.” Seeger credits Carawan and Hamilton with giving it the rhythmic pulse we all know today, African 12/8 beat. Frank crafted the chord structure, Guy took the song to SNCC organizers in North Carolina, and they told him “Thanks, white boy, we’ll take it from here.” The four musicians copyrighted the song to prevent commercial exploitation. Royalties from the song went for 50 years to the “We Shall Overcome” Fund to support grassroots African American organizing. Now the song is in the public domain.

Though I started by talking about jazz solos in jam sessions, with their undeniable hierarchy of skills the musicians bring with them, solos are not their main use value. Jams are all about interaction, give and take. A dialectic where the emergent whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

As a socialist brought up in the Hal Draper and Stan Weir tradition of organizing from the bottom up, jazz jams and folk jams as I learned them from Frank Hamilton and friends are my microcosm of what socialist life could be. Everyone contributes at their own level, which improves over time. Leaders now are alternately followers. Everyone can lead. Every cook can govern. Little kids can dance around, clap their hands, learning the rhythms and melodies. Participation is dynamic. We never step in the same river twice. That’s why jam sessions are such fun. They exemplify my definition of socialism: less work and more fun.


    1. Great subject. Sunday I took Frank to a music lesson. At 88 he is still learning. He wanted to improve his mandolin tremolo. Fortunately, the lady with the the world’s best tremolo is a mutual friend. He paid her the going rate.

  1. April, 2024. Frank Hamilton received the Paul Robeson Artist/Activist Award from the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame. Other inductees included Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, the Byrds, the Weavers, Bob Dylan and others.

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