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Feature Review: Live from the Old Town School of Folk Music

Also comes in strawberry, blueberry, and green apple flavors.

Various Artists
Live from the Old Town School of Folk Music

For nearly 55 years, Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music has played a key role in popularizing, promoting, and (of course) teaching folk, blues, and world music. Over the six decades of its existence, the school has put on thousands of concerts, and seem most of the luminaries of the acoustic music world pass through its doors. Thanks to a grant from the Donnelley Foundation, OTSFM Archivist Colby Maddox began digitizing not only the school’s tape archive, but a wealth of recordings of school performances housed at Chicago radio station WFMT.

This four-CD set compiles 127 performances that epitomize the school’s mission of promoting music that matters. The performances are grouped into four thematic discs entitled “Family,” “New Folk,” “Traditional Folk,” and “World Music.” The artists represented run the gamut from Old Town school founders like Frank Hamilton, Win Stracke, and Big Bill Broonzy through contemporary artistes like Andrew Bird and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (who contributes a solo acoustic version of “Three is the Magic Number” from Schoolhouse Rock, sung to a group of kids) with an amazing menagerie of folk, blues, world, and traditional performers in between.

The Old Town School has always counted some of the region’s best musicians among its faculty, and many of these folks are included in the compilation, including singer-songwriter Mark Dvorak, eclectic songstress Ella Jenkins, alt-country guru Robbie Fulks, blues shouter Ginni Clemmens, and Mekon front man Jon Langford, who delivers a soulful solo version of the Procol Harum chestnut “Homburg” as well as a rousing, slightly off-kilter version of the traditional sing-along “The Fox.” Old Town’s formidable songwriters of the seventies are well represented by Tom Dundee’s wistful “Delicate Balance,” Fred Holstein’s sentimental “All the Good People,” Bonnie Koloc’s sensuous “Roll Me on the Water,” and Steve Goodman’s witty/sad “The Twentieth Century is Almost Over.”

Virtually all of the icons of folk music have trod the boards of the OTSFM more than once, and this compilation includes most of them, including Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Martin Carthy, Odetta, Doc Watson, Dan Hicks, Malvina Reynolds, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Donovan. Contemporary singer-songwriters are represented by Peter Case, Steve Earle, Tim O’Brien, Guy Clark, and Rani Arbo. Possibly the weakest disc is the World compilation, which nonetheless includes stunning performances from artists including Grazyna Auguscik, Toumani Diabate, Lila Downs, Hamza el Din, and Oumou Sangare, and a quartet of 1962 duos between Frank Hamilton and Valucha De Castro.

Curiously missing are many of the east coast singer-songwriters of the last quarter century who have been some of the most frequently booked artists at the school. Maddox had a seemingly impossible task winnowing down literally thousands of performances for this initial compilation, but he did a good job of sequencing the wealth of music, often including mini-sets of three or four tunes by a given artist. Among the sublime surprises included are a stunning version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” by Mahalia Jackson and an unlikely duet between Bruce Molsky and Bill Frisell on “Peg and Awl.”

The recording quality is first rate, even for the archival recordings from the 1950s and 1960s.

—Michael Parrish (San Jose, CA)

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