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Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volumes Two & Three

Rating: 9/10 ?

July 30, 2007
Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music is one of the city's most established and renowned music institutions, emphasizing tradition and craft in a business obsessed with hyped acts. The school, which hosts concerts, music classes for adults and children, and operates a music store, is being honored on its 50th birthday by Bloodshot Records with the release of Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volumes Two and Three . The first volume, a collection of 20 songs, was released in October of 2006.

Like volume one, volumes two and three consist of folk songs performed by established artists or teachers who work at the school. Paul Tyler, a music scholar and fiddle teacher at Old Town, provides well-detailed commentary in the linear notes, explaining the origin and significance of each song. The songs in this collection are varied - some are popular folk songs that have been covered by several famous musicians (Donovan's "Colours," "South Australia," "Wild Rover," "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," "Corrina, Corrina," "Greensleeves," and "Water is Wide"). Others are lesser-known folk standards (at least to the untrained ear) that are no less important.

When listening to the more familiar songs, it's interesting to hear how each musician handles the material, and Tyler's notes provide good background describing how the song has evolved. The rowdy Irish standard "Wild Rover," for example, was actually a broadside ballad that also has been sung in Australia and the Canadian Maritimes, according to Tyler's notes. Compared to rowdy versions by The Dubliners or Dropstick Murphys, Chicago folk rockers Sunnyside Up treat it as a ballad with lovely results. With a slower tempo and simple acoustic backdrop, the song is more sorrowful, especially paired with female vocalist Erin Flynn.

"When the Saints Go Marchin' In" - often associated with jazz music and marching bands - actually started as a hymn, and the song is treated delicately by Lost Bayou Ramblers.

Though a lot of people may not immediately recognize some of the lesser-know songs, they can actually be more interesting to hear and understand.

Chicago favorites The Zincs provide a notable version of "Simple Gifts" (note the light percussion in the background); with intertwining voices, Kelly Hogan and Scott Ligon provide a lovely version of "Last Thing on My Mind;" Ted Parrish's "(When Things Go Wrong) It Hurts Me Too," recalls the blues in folk music; The Glowworms give soul to the groovy "Tell Old Bill"; and "Cindy," performed by Hump Night Thumpers, features one of the funniest lines in the collection ("I wish I was an apple a-hangin' on a tree and every time my Cindy passed, she'd take a bite of me").

In volume three, Chicago singer Nora O'Connor (who has sung with Andrew Bird, among others) provides a beautiful version of "Home on the Range." O'Connor has one of those voices that sounds contemporary but perfectly channels folk standards to make them sound fresh. Also notable is "Hard and It's Hard" performed by Catherine Hall and Michael Miles' version of "Shine On, Harvest Moon."

At 42 songs (21 for each volume), the collection can be exhaustive to get through, but it certainly gives you a strong introduction into the dense history of folk music - all through the eyes of the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Reviewed by Sheila Burt
A contributing writer for LAS based near Chicago, Illinois.

See other reviews by Sheila Burt



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