This year, the Illinois Humanities Council began releasing a series of Folksongs of Illinois collections of folk traditions. The first two volumes, an overview and a collection of fiddle music, reveal the nature of the series. Each disc contains 19 or 20 pieces, and the liner notes are smart and extensive, including essays on the topic and notes on the individual performances, including (where relevant) transcriptions, lyrics, and translations. The combination of good or emblematic performances with the academic context makes for a strong example of folklorist work.
Volume 1 provides a wild introduction, containing everything from the blues to polka to corridos to comedy. The strong performances make the CD enjoyable from start-to-finish, but also make it almost too much of a hodgepodge. You can hear some musicologist in a dusty archive shouting, “Yes! Many things happened in Illinois!” (which may or may not, coincidentally, be the title of a Sufjan Stevens outtake). The mishmash can be hard to process, but fortunately the amazing notes go a long way toward tying everything together.
The great oddity about Volume 1 is the source of much of the music. Several of these pieces are contemporary performances (the historians working throughout the series seem as interested in who’s keeping the traditions alive as in what the content of the traditions is; the upcoming Volume 3 looks to have more to say on this matter). That in itself isn’t too odd, but the selection occasionally is. For example, “Mississippi Flood” reaches us via Jon Langford and Kelly Hogan. The song stems from a 1920s flood in Cairo, Illinois, in which relief efforts were hindered by class and race issues — so it’s still relevant — but the chief performers come originally from Wales (Langford, of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers) and Atlanta, Georgia. It doesn’t detract from the song’s relevance to Illinois folk tradition, but it’s disconcerting (though not surprising) to notice it was produced and arranged by Bucky Halker, a senior program officer at the IHC as well as the producer behind Volume 1 of this series (and an artist who performs a Woody Guthrie track on it).
While that’s an egregious example of a bizarre inclusion, much of the music appears practically necessary. Carl Sandburg shows up, as do the Staples Singers (from their early gospel days). Other tracks are taken from home or field recordings, or are from hard-to-find recordings from early in the 20th century. The ethnic comedy skit feels completely out of place (and would be better served on a collection of oral or comedic traditions), but otherwise the disc’s inclusiveness works well. Mixing in a polka with traditional Irish tunes with clawhammer banjo with a corrido with an eastern European tambura piece makes Illinois feel like an absurdly active and varied state (and the notes’ emphasis on migration argues further for the likelihood such a condition).
While this first disc almost gives us too much information to process, the rest of the series has the chance to refine that knowledge. The second volume begins that process by focusing solely on fiddlers. This disc, like its predecessor, merges quality with variety, but given a particular instrument to key on — what’s going on with the fiddle — makes for a more focused experience. Folklorist Paul Tyler begins the liner notes by positing the typical stereotype of the fiddler (“homespun” and “roughhewn”), and quickly disabuses us of that concept, expanding the areas where the fiddler can show up, including bluegrass, Irish reels, Swedish folk music, jazz, and blues.
The appearance of another tamburitza piece especially pleases. The music on Volume 1 hits as exotic, an interesting footnote to Illinois musical history. Here, on Volume 2, with a song giving freedom to the fiddle and our attention drawn to it, it’s easier to put a more obscure (at least in the US) sound into an appropriate context. But the familiar can also become obscure, as with Johnny Frigo’s work on “What a Difference a Day Made”. This jazz number takes on a haunting, surprising feel by turning itself over to the fiddle, rather than more expected jazz instruments.
With instructive and enlightening liner notes, the music on Volume 2 coheres even as each track points to a distinct style or tradition. It’s this type of academic and accessible work that makes the exploration of historical traditions exciting for those who aren’t musicological or folklorist enthusiasts. You don’t need to be the next Alan Lomax to appreciate the work accomplished so far on this series, but you might end up wishing you were.