Recently, Chicago’s venerated Old Town School of Folk Music entered the Guinness Book of World Records by teaching the world’s largest music lesson in Welles Park, just a block south of its primary location/music venue. That’s a bit more glory than the institution is used to seeking, generally preferring to generate its accolades one happy class or concert at a time. But it’s nice to see such a unique and vital organization receive recognition on a wider scale, outside of Chicagoland and into communities that would be well-served by like-minded not-for-profit education centers. Chi-town’s Bloodshot Records is doing its part to spread the word in celebrating 50 years of OTSFM, releasing a generous double-volume set of the school’s faculty, staff, and friends performing selections from the Old Town School Songbook, the requisite text for many of the school’s instrumental and voice classes.
Volumes Two and Three (available as a single, double-disc release) are right in line with the first in presentation, quality, and depth. While the discs feature a few well-known associates like the Zincs and Nora O’Connor, the greater bulk are names you might not recognize, but who deliver lively and impassioned versions from a rich and diverse legacy of people’s music. Old Town School’s resident folklorist Paul Tyler’s detailed liner notes provide history and context from the oldest song in the book (“Greensleeves”, circa 1580) to the more recent cowboy and work songs.
The educational and artistic aspects of the project blend naturally and without seams. Cat Edgerton’s version of the ubiquitous “Water Is Wide”, for example, emphasizes the singer’s clear tone and judicious use of flourishes backed by Songbook producer John Abbey’s gentle, atmospheric mellotron. The performance is honest, subtle, and distinctly modern in its approach, and makes the fact that the song dates back to at least the early 18th century even more impressive and meaningful. At its best, the Songbook proves that folk music is neither museum piece nor a convenient trend for I-IV-V-strumming college kids, but a tradition that continues whenever we sing or pick up an instrument for the sheer joy of sharing with others.
The 42 songs spread across two discs might be overwhelming if the performances weren’t as unpretentious and fun as they are. The banjo tune “Cindy”, credited here to the Old Town School Jug Band Ensemble, a class taught at the school by Arlo Leach (also known as the Hump Night Thumpers) is loose and delightful, with a singalong chorus that would make Pete Seeger proud. Mary Peterson’s “Sportin’ Life Blues” has both swagger and polish, in the tradition of luminaries like Mavis Staples and Maria Muldaur. The Zincs deliver the set’s most creative interpretation, a swirling take on the Shaker anthem “Simple Gifts”, while Steve Doyle shoots straight and true on cowboy classic “Git Along Little Doggie”. Bill Simmons’s solo classical guitar version of “Greensleeves” focuses on the timeless beauty of its central melody, while Scott Besaw’s “Nine Pound Hammer” is all about multi-layered harmonies and vocal sounds linking the song’s work-song origins to doo-wop and R&B. Each approach is unique to the performer; no direction is the wrong way to go, as folk songs by design bend to the artist’s will and whim.
The only objections to certain songs in the collection are likely to come from previous aversions, though even if you feel you’ve heard “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” eleven too many times, it would take a cold soul indeed not to warm to the fresh, jubilant performance of the Lost Bayou Ramblers, or to be intrigued by Tyler’s notes. At the very least, every song on the compilation invites listeners to join in, or devise their own rendition, in the best spirit of the School and its never-tiring mission.