Various Artists – Old Town School Recordings, Songbook, Vol.2 & 3

Keith Harris

By Keith Harris

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Folk music has never been a fixed entity. It's a process, the means by which individual musicians pass down songs and styles, one to another, throughout the years. Like the music itself, this process has evolved over time, especially after technology enabled performers to learn from recordings rather than specific mentors. And since 1957, the Old Town School of Folk Music has forged some valuable links in that evolutionary chain, not the least of which is its Songbook, a textbook from which the Chicago organization's students could learn landmark songs of that tradition.

The least boring textbook you’ll ever hear.

Now, the Old Town School has once more redefined the folk process for a contemporary age, gathering friends of the school and its teachers, musicians both well- and lesser-known, to record a huge chunk of the Songbook's titles. The result is called (duh) the Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook.

While Volume 1 was frontloaded with bigger names such as Jon Langford and Robbie Fulks, the latter two volumes allow the school's teachers to shine. It also introduced to the Old Town fold several new artists, even if they had familiar names Abbey flew out to New York to record two young pedigreed musicians — Willie's daughter Amy Nelson and Woody's daughter Cathy Guthrie — who harmonize perfectly on “Wildwood Flower.” And they're not the only second generation interpreters — Mose's daughter Amy Allison contributes her own plaintive take on “Shenandoah.”

But the album's standout tracks originate from a little closer to home: Chicago indie rockers the Zincs contribute an eerie, electronic take on “Simple Gifts,” an old Shaker hymn used by Aaron Copland in the Martha Graham ballet Appalachian Spring. “We're not toeing the folk music line,” says Medich. “There are folk purists who say, ‘This is the way Pete Seeger did it, this is the way it's got to be done.'We're going to go with the unusual and expected.”

In fact, Medich argues, transforming the styles is an effective way of preserving the songs themselves, “If these songs are presented in their normal manner, in a style that's typical for performance, the song can go past you, cause you're hearing the genre, you're not hearing the song.”