ATLANTA -- Clear, young voices reverberated through Annistown Elementary's gymnasium as 250 grinning schoolchildren sang along with the three homespun musicians on stage.
"Let the Midnight Special shine its everloving light on me," they blared out, clapping, clearly enthralled with this traditional folk song thought to have originated at a prison where inmates sang of the midnight train, believing that the one caught in the engine's light would next be freed.
Silver-haired guitarist Frank Hamilton beamed, his angular features aglow with the excitement of sharing the music he loves and the memories of his folk start as a Los Angeles teenager. Still vivid, he said, are cool Topanga Canyon evenings and the intimate communion of harmonizing "Down in the Valley" with the late actor Will Geer, folk legend Woody Guthrie and other members of the 1950s folk movement.
As his group, Meridian, shifted into a railroad work song, the students eagerly followed, none having any idea that the man leading them learned harmonica from Guthrie and was a member of the Weavers, granddaddy of contemporary folk groups.
Hamilton, 56, never discusses his roots unless asked. His priority these days is to bring traditional folk music to new listeners.
"What we're doing is giving kids a sense of their heritage, an alternative to the boom box and television," he said. "Kids need to know about their roots -- who they are and where they came from -- and this music is living, breathing history that tells them."
Hamilton is worried that children live in a "cultural prison ruled by Ninja Turtles" and a media that sells rather than cultivates. The courage and values of the people who built the nation are embodied in folk music, he said, but are forgotten in a "bloodless" culture increasingly defined by advertisers.
"This music represents the guts of America, and it's being ignored," he said. "We're digging into what culture really is."
For three years, Meridian has played several instruments and traditional American folk for Atlanta-area schools. Hamilton's road to this destination has been a living chapter of history that began at age 14 when he listened to Library of Congress folk recordings made on-scene.
His curiosity led him into the McCarthy-era folk scene in Los Angeles of social politics and blacklisted writers and actors. One was Geer, who is best remembered as "Grandpa Walton" on the Waltons television series and owned a spread in Topanga Canyon, where people gathered to share songs and ideas. Guthrie had taken up residence in Geer's seed shed, where he and Hamilton sometimes spent days talking and making music.
"The clock stopped when you were with Woody," Hamilton recalled. "If you had an appointment, you just forgot about it. He liked the way I played banjo, so we sat around and picked."
Hamilton's mother, a composer and teacher, tried to persuade him to stay in Los Angeles and continue studying mainstream music. His father, Frank Sr., had died at 59 shortly before his only son was born. Perhaps stirred by the blood of his father, a rambling philosopher and traveling companion of author Jack London, young Hamilton hit the road with his guitar. He wandered the country, developing his talent in New York City and New Orleans, and landed in Chicago in 1957 with a revered musical reputation.
"Frank Hamilton is one of the most talented musicians I know," folk patriarch Pete Seeger, 71, said in a telephone interview from his house in Beacon, N.Y. "In addition to doing some very traditional things, he'll suddenly come up with something you've never heard before."
Encouraged to share his skills, Hamilton co-founded Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music in 1957. Now it has become an international folk institution and spawned renowned performers including John Prine and Roger McGuinn, guitarist for the Byrds.
During that time, Hamilton worked as house musician at Chicago's famed Gate of Horn, the nation's first folk club and a springboard for Peter, Paul and Mary; Judy Collins, and others. When Seeger left the group in 1963, the Weavers asked Hamilton to replace him on banjo. "I thought I had died and gone to heaven," he said. "This was something I'd dreamed about since I was a kid."
After two years with the Weavers, highlighted by concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, Hamilton returned to Los Angeles to teach music. He specialized in helping accomplished musicians hone their skills, he said, but felt a nagging emptiness after two failed marriages and what he called overexposure to the fast-paced music scene there. So he returned East to renew folk friendships and immersed himself in traditional New England and Irish music. He married his third wife, Mary, in 1983.
Weary of harsh winters, Hamilton said, the couple moved here six years ago because he felt a strong need to perform and share his rediscovered cultural values. He formed Meridian, which came as no surprise to Bess Hawes, folk art director for the National Endowment for the Arts.
"Frank was and is an astonishing virtuoso, but he hasn't taken on the solo role as other people much less musically gifted have done," she said. "He prefers the sociability of making music to being the virtuoso he could have been."
Hamilton agreed: "It's the nature of the music to bring people together with good feelings. It connects you to humanity and culture." Judging by its impact, Meridian passed that spirit to Annistown's pupils. Rosemary O'Toole, 6, said she "really loved the singing and clapping."
Annistown principal Joy Marsee said, "I've gotten more positive comment about them from students and teachers than any other performance we've ever had."
Hamilton said he is content to let this sort of response be his reward and a measure of his success.
"Folk music is not an exclusive club," he said. "It's an honest expression created not for commercial reasons, but to celebrate culture with a small 'c.' The songs I grew up loving I'm now able to convey to a generation after me, and that's a good feeling."