CD Review of Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook, Volumes Two & Three by Various Artists

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Buy your copy from Various Artists:
Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook,
Volumes Two & Three
starstarstarno starno star Label: Bloodshot Records
Released: 2007
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Now, I don’t want to be too picky, but at least the first volume in this four-volume series, released last year, lived up to its billing in terms of folks songs updated by “notable recording artists,” with entries by Jon Langford, Robbie Fulks, John Stirrat, and a couple of other names, in addition to a bunch of numbers by the school’s longtime music instructors. On the two-disc Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook, Volumes Two & Three, 42 folk music classics are updated, and I didn’t recognize one single name. Volume Four will probably feature the bass player from some long-forgotten ‘80s one-hit wonders, the guy up the street and possibly your mother.

No matter. These are still the tunes they’ll be singing on town greens, in meeting houses and around campfires in another couple hundred years, unlike, say, “SexyBack” or “Fergalicious.” And as such, they stand up to a range of musical and sonic interpretation. It’s not all straight folk (whatever that is), not by a long shot. All the songs come from the Old Town School’s Songbook, a collection of ballads, love songs, sea chanties, pop songs, work songs, old-time religious tunes, and lots of other great music that has found its way into the Old Town School curriculum. A Chicago mainstay, the Old Town School of Folk Music has been around since 1957, offering classes and live performances from some of the world’s most respected musicians.

Not surprisingly, it makes for a great and surprisingly diverse listen. Americana fans should eat this up. And I was only half-joking about the lineup: The performances on Volumes Two and Three range from the ambient/electro treatment of “Simple Gifts” by Chicago’s the Zincs, to the heart-breakingly spare take on Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind” by Kelly Hogan and Scott Ligon. Other artists featured include James Hand, Marvin Etzioni (Lone Justice), Nora O’Connor, Amy Allison (daughter of Mose Allison), The Lost Bayou Ramblers, Foghorn Stringband, and Amy Nelson & Cathy Guthrie (Folk Uke, daughters of Willie Nelson & Arlo Guthrie).

Add a 20-page booklet with a detailed history of each song, written by Old Town School folklorist (and teacher) Paul Tyler, and you’ve got one hell of a package that’ll have you reaching for your own dust-covered acoustic guitar that’s probably been leaning against the wall longer than you can remember.

~Una Persson