Legacy Park is home to a musical legend, building community one student at a time.
It sounds like the set-up for an elaborate joke: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn, Linda Ronstadt, Don McLean, and Martin Luther King walk into a bar…
Except it’s not a joke. It’s the prelude to a pretty good story. One where a legendary collection of 20th century old and new folk performers have a connection in common with the father of the American civil rights movement.
And that connection, who in various ways has managed to inspire each and every one of them, is Frank Hamilton, Decatur resident and co-founder of his eponymous school of music at Legacy Park.
Outside their new home at Legacy Park, students at the Frank Hamilton School enjoy an afternoon jam under the shade of an old tree. PHOTO: Madeleine Henner.
Brought into the world nearly 89 years ago, Frank Hamilton grew up a west coaster who fell in love with American Folk Music and the burgeoning Los Angeles scene that was developing around it.
It was there that he first came to know and perform with a who’s who of folk legends. Woody Guthrie. Pete Seeger. A host of the era’s luminaries, cultivating a life-long passion for live performance and the sharing of music wherever he went.
That passion eventually led him to Chicago where he co-founded the Old Town School of Folk Music in 1957, an institution of such influence that it’s still thriving today. There, through his fondness for group teaching, he began inspiring a new generation of aficionados — performers like Roger McGuinn, who went on to form The Byrds; Linda Ronstadt who ventured out to LA’s Troubadour club scene to help shape the region’s signature country/rock sound; and Don McLean, best known for his timeless classic, “The Day the Music Died.”
Along the way, an old Gospel number called "I'll Overcome Some Day” was making its way into the repertoires of artists like Seeger, Joe Glazer, and Frank himself. With each new interpretation and each new performance the song shuffled through an ongoing state of evolution, ultimately emerging as the now well-known anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” Frank’s thumbprint on the final arrangement is so pronounced that he remains one of its four copyright holders.
Today “We Shall Overcome” holds a place among the signature sounds of the civil rights movement, its lyrics achieving immortality through their inclusion in Martin Luther King’s final speech before his assassination in April, 1968.
Clockwise from top left: With The Weavers, source here; with Pete Seeger, source here; with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Guy Carawan, Lee Tom and Perry Horton, source here; and album, "Frank Hamilton Sings Folk Songs," source here.
A legend comes to Atlanta
Frank Hamilton has been a local now for over 30 years and, surprising no one, he’s continued to bring musicians together — performing, sharing and learning — since the day he arrived. But this alone failed to fully satisfy his passion for teaching.
Nonetheless, the wisdom of his years with Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music was at his disposal. That meant building a successful operation from scratch wasn’t just an abstract proposition. It was in his blood. So together with his friend Bob Bakert, he co-founded the Frank Hamilton School in 2015, setting up shop shortly thereafter in auxiliary space at Oakhurst Baptist Church.
Finally, in 2021, the school made its move to the Gillespie Education Center at Decatur’s Legacy Park. Now fully settled in, they’ve created a warm and welcoming community space where everyone, from beginners to masters of the fretboard, can come together through music.
“There is a tradition of music that runs through the South,” says Frank. “Georgia is a musical place.”
The Jam Room at the Frank Hamilton School after the space was cleaned up and repaired by school staff and volunteers. Credit: Maura Nicholson and Carol Statella.
New home, new possibilities
“When we looked at the space we just felt like we were home,” says Maura Nicholson, the school's executive director.
Legacy Park’s 77 acres of urban green space includes an impressive campus of buildings, many historic and in need of updating. Legacy Decatur, the non-profit foundation that manages the property, is charged with making productive use of those buildings — adding value to the community while producing revenue to sustain park operations and improvements.
The Frank Hamilton School, occupying the former Children’s Home infirmary, is now one of eleven non-profit, community-serving organizations that occupy buildings or office space around the park. Each of these tenants has made investments in cleaning up, painting and maintaining their space.
“The building needed to be cleaned, we ripped out wall-to-wall carpeting, we had some asbestos removal," says Nicholson. They further added a handicapped accessible bathroom, increasing the value of the space for any future occupant.
For Legacy Decatur, the success of its non-profit tenants is critical, not just to the park but to the community overall. The ongoing creation of connections that, in time, become interdependent relationships is core to the organization’s mission.
The school's role in these ambitions is significant. “We’re not just about learning to play an instrument,” stresses Nicholson. “It’s learning how to play an instrument with other people. That creates a community that comes back just to play with others.”
With their new home, the institution has grown and classes have increased. “We’ve been able to grow quite nicely,” she adds, “and the community’s been great. We’ll have people walking through the park and they’ll just sit down and listen to us play if we’re outside. We’ve even had people come by and say, ‘Can I go get my guitar?’”
That’s music to the ears of Legacy Decatur executive director Madeleine Henner, whose responsibilities include the cultivation of community in and around the park.
“We’re so fortunate to have Frank and the school here,” she says. “His notoriety may be in the folk world but to us he’s a bona fide rock star.”
COVER PHOTO CREDIT: Maura Nicholson and Carol Statella
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