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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.