Review: Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volume 1 - Various Artists

OTSFMSongbookVol1.jpgI begin here by noting my tremendous affinity for Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, or at the very least, for the Wiggleworms CDs they've released -- longtime readers will know I'm a big fan. That doesn't even get to the School itself, which for fifty years has provided countless hours of musical instruction and performance for Chicago-area residents, old and young alike. Jealous? Me? Living hundreds of miles away? Just a little. (OK, a lot.)

So with great enthusiasm that I gave their Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volume One, released by Bloodshot Records (another Chicago institution, though not quite as old), a spin and held my breath -- could it somehow meet my expectations? And the answer is, well, yes. Over the course of 23 songs in 77 minutes, the album puts together songs well-known and not, from artists well-known and not. There's so much here to listen to that singling out a few songs seems unfair to the album, but life's not fair, which is itself a lesson that's heard on a few songs here. So then, three songs:

"Take This Hammer" -- Jon Langford gives an exuberant reading of this folksong, first collected in 1915, his raspy voice accompanied by his guitar and Rick Sherry's jug and percussion. It's an old song, but it sounds tailor-made for the 21st century.

"Drunken Sailor" -- Dan Zanes shows up with his band in full "Sea Music" mode, giving a idiosyncratic mid-tempo version of the song. It's not the full-tempo, punk-pirate version one commonly hears, but the band's musicianship and their voices -- I love that band's set of pipes -- actually help you hear the lyrics and appreciate them.

"Salty Dog Blues" -- If "Drunken Sailor" is the song you're not sure you should be playing for your 5-year-old but you do anyway, Rick Sherry's rendition of "Salty Dog Blues" is not safe for the younguns, lest you be asked to explain what it means to be someone's "salty dog." (I, on the other hand, as a fully-capable adult, think the cut is great.)

There are some songs that seemed too reverent for my tastes, but that's a personal thing, and all the tracks are well-done. People more familiar with the folk canon may have different views, but I also think the album really begins to pick up speed in the second half where the songs are more familiar -- "St. James Infirmary," "Down in the Valley," an excellent "Wayfaring Stranger" from John Stirratt.

Even setting aside "Salty Dog Blues," there's little here lyrically that would engage younger kids, so I think it's probably most appropriate for kids ages 8 and up. (Not saying that there aren't tracks appropriate for younger kids, such as Erin Flynn's reading of "Amazing Grace," just that this probably isn't your first choice.) You can download a couple tracks from the CD at Bloodshot's page for the album. (And here's my own suggestion, free of charge, for the School -- a bound, printed version of the Songbook, with chords and lyrics, would rock.)

Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volume 1 is a solid collection of folksong recordings that reflect not only the strength of America's musical heritage but also of the School itself. Families with older kids should definitely check it out. The name "Volume 1" implies that more are on the way, and for that, I can't wait. Recommended.