PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Various Artists: Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook

More songs to love and learn from Chicago's venerated Old Town School of Folk Music.

Various Artists

Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook, Vols. 2 & 3

Label: Bloodshot
US Release Date: 2007-07-31
UK Release Date: 2007-07-30

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.