I am probably one of the last people on Earth who should be allowed to review the Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook, Vol. 1, as I worked for Chicago’s venerable Old Town School of Folk Music for four years, but what’re you gonna do? Ha! Actually, my hope is that a little insight about the institution and its actual blue-and-white bound songbook will add to the credibility of the review, even if a shiny, golden numerical rating is, well, pretty damn inevitable.
[Puts pork-pie style tour-guide hat on] A little background on the Old Town School of Folk Music: the first School opened on North Avenue in Chicago in December of 1957, offering guitar and banjo classes, as well as presenting concerts by everyone from Pete Seeger to Big Bill Broonzy. A half-century later, there are now two locations of the Old Town School serving about forty times the number of students as in ‘57, but the basic premise is still the same: affordable, friendly instruction for all ages (now everything from Aztec ceremonial dance to bluegrass banjo to Taiko drumming), and a world-class concert hall featuring acclaimed performers from around the globe.
While the school has grown to accommodate yoga and bodhran, Brazilian guitar and Tuvan ensembles, there are two traditions that have endured virtually straight-up since the early days: Second Half, and the Old Town School Songbook. Second Half refers to the tradition of the school’s instrument fundamentals classes (the most popular being guitar, but also including banjo, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, etc.) meeting in the concert hall after class for what has been called the oldest hootenanny in the country. Instructors stand on stage and lead all students in singing and playing songs from the aforementioned Songbook, as well as a variety of other classic and contemporary tunes. Every day of the week, sometimes two to three times a day, hundreds of people from all professions and walks of life gather to sing “Erie Canal”, “Worried Man Blues”, and “St. James Infirmary”, participating in a tradition that’s not only culturally important, but invigorating fun.
With the help of Bloodshot Records, the Old Town School has begun recording the audio equivalent of the Songbook, prominently featuring school faculty and staff, but also some famous friends, such as Robbie Fulks, Wilco’s John Stirratt, and Freakwater’s Janet Bean. And though the partnership with Bloodshot will surely bring more exposure to the school and the performers on the disc, there is absolutely no guile or motive to be heard on the record other than sharing and communication. The Songbook cares not for notions of alt-country cred or trad-purity; it’s about everyone and anyone singing along on this, the first volume of hopefully many. The songs were produced and recorded at the Old Town School by musician/instructor John Abbey, all basking in the same warm, acoustic ambience. Devil in a Woodpile’s Rick Sherry delivers a fun, randy “Salty Dog” that builds on its acoustic blues beginning into a washboard-and-harmonica stomper. “Don’t This Road”, performed by Andrea Bunch and Aerin Tedesco, is plaintive and high-lonesome, a showcase for their warm country harmonies.
Other highlights include Chris Walz’s “Worried Man Blues”, which features fluid fingerstyle guitar and fiddle by Steve Rosen, whose take on “Cripple Creek” is another standout. With just Rosen’s voice and banjo, “Cripple Creek” is the most sparsely recorded song on this volume, and if I have one suggestion on how to improve on the disc for Volume 2, it would be to include more such solo performance. While the collaborative nature of the record and the School is inspiring, Rosen’s “Cripple Creek” speaks to the joy of singing and playing for one’s own amusement, audience or no.
I got a gal at the head of the creek
Go up to see her ‘bout the middle of the week
Kiss her on the mouth just as sweet as any wine
Wrap myself around her like a sweet potato vine
Goin’ up Cripple Creek, goin’ on a run
Goin’ up Cripple Creek, to have a little fun
Goin’ up Cripple Creek, goin’ in a whirl
Goin’ up Cripple Creek, to see my girl
This is the strength of songs that weren’t written to move units, to soundtrack teen dramas, or to satisfy a bottom line. “Cripple Creek”, for all of its charming regionalisms, is still for anyone, anywhere, anytime to sing and enjoy. Whether alone in your car driving on a similar mission to visit your beloved, or around a campfire, or wherever—the songs collected here are, for the most part, literally everyone’s. With one or two exceptions, all of the songs are traditionals, sturdy enough to withstand the cruel passage of time, yet malleable enough to be interpreted in innumerable ways. Folklorist Paul Tyler provides generous notes on each song in the CD booklet, giving concise mini-histories on origins and other curious facts. Like the School itself, Tyler’s notes are educational but accessible, inviting novices to the history of our musical heritage and even opening the eyes of a few wizened folk music vets as well.