Folk School thrives in Duluth

0703.F.DBN_.Ryley_.FolkBano.LakeKyleHandcrafting, building community and having fun. These were the ideas important to Brian French and Tim Bates when they saw other successful folk schools around Minnesota and decided to start the Duluth Folk School.

The school offers a diverse list of courses, allowing people to learn skills such as basket making and knitting without having to leave town.

“For years I always thought this would be a great thing to do,” French said. “Finally in 2015 we decided to stop talking about it and actually make it happen.”

Since its beginning, the Duluth Folk School has held popular classes in bike maintenance and beekeeping. Since they don’t yet have a building of their own, they hire local instructors and use spaces throughout Duluth to hold the classes.

Running the school has been a learning experience in itself. Many classes have sold out immediately, but a few have been canceled.

“We’ve discovered that some classes are seasonal,” French said. “People only want to do knitting as a fall-and-winter activity and not as a summer activity. I didn’t realize that was the case, but you live and learn.”

The Duluth Folk School started online and for now uses a website as its main hub. However, they have a lot of goals for the future and are heartened by the positive feedback from the community so far.

“Our long-term goal is to be able to have a full year’s calendar all set to go, to have our own building and to be able to do community outreach,” French said. “Right now we are doing as much as we can to get the word out.”

The next class held by the folk school is an old-time banjo class instructed by local musician Kyle Ollah at Hartley Nature Center July 12-15. Ollah plays string band music in various groups, including for Charlie Parr, and performs a solo show every Monday at the Thirsty Pagan in Superior. He plans to teach old-time American banjo to people with little-to-no experience.

“Banjo started as a way for families and communities to come together and make music,” said French. “Kyle is going to teach folks to play a few chords and create music together, even if they can’t read music.”

While the banjo exists in most genres, Ollah will focus on the folk aspect for his class. He hopes that people will be able to get around the technical part of playing and develop a social outlet through the music.

“We are going to learn a couple of string band tunes because those are like a good card game in your pocket,” Ollah said. “If you go to an old-time jam you can kind of be sure that people will be able to play these tunes or something similar.”

As the Duluth Folk School becomes increasingly popular, music classes could become something that sets it apart from other folk schools.

“I talked with Brian about how other folk schools near us don’t have a big emphasis on music,” Ollah said. “I think that this kind of music will lend itself well.”

Those interested in this class or other Duluth Folk School courses can sign up online at

Check out our 360 music video with Kyle Ollah performing Amazing Grace here.

By Ryley Graham as published in the Duluth Budgeteer News.