Review: Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Vol. 2 & 3 - Various Artists

OldTownSchoolSongbooksVol2_3.jpgCan sequels upstage the original?

The Chicago institution Old Town School of Folk Music released its Songbook Volume 1 last year (review), and the title implied that more was on its way. But could what followed surpass that solid collection?


Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volume 2 & 3, released last week by Bloodshot Records, is its predecessor's equal in every way, and betters it. Over the 2 hours and 20 minutes on the 2-CD set, the School's instructors and friends breathe fresh life into 42 mostly traditional folk songs. These aren't really kids' songs -- they're folk songs (of many sources, from gospel to sailing to bluegrass), written for general audiences. But with few exceptions they're totally OK for kids and families.

In many cases, the artists take a mostly traditional approach, with a healthy dose of banjo, fiddle, and and/or guitar instrumentation. But others take some risks -- the Zincs turn in a spare, quasi-electronica version of the traditional Shaker tune "Simple Gifts," while Scott Besaw engages in some multi-tracking to make his solo recording of "Nine Pound Hammer" sound very full. As sung by Mary Peterson, "Sportin' Life" could easily be a long-lost track from Patsy Cline.

And some of the tracks are just luminous. Laura Doherty's rendition of Donovan Leitch's "Colours" is simple and sweet. "Lonesome Road," as performed by Back Off the Hammer, would fit right in on a Gillian Welch/David Rawlings disk. Cat Edgerton's "Water is Wide" should find its way onto many a lullaby mixtape. If I had to pick a single track from the bounty here, though, it'd be Jacob Sweet's take on Stephen Foster's "Hard Times." The timeless melody and lyrics, combined with Sweet's voice and the harmonies, are enough to give the listener goosebumps. There are a few tracks I'll skip over because I don't like the vocal style, but those are definitely the exception, not the rule.

Even more so than the original, this collection is appropriate for kids, with very little in the way of subject material parents might object to. Call it appropriate for kids ages 4 on up. You can download Nora O'Connor's excellent recording of "Home on the Range" here, and listen to samples elsewhere on this fabulous thing called the Internet, about which you won't hear a single song here. I'd also note that you can get this album for less than $15 in most places. It's a great deal.

Songbook Vol. 2 & 3 is chock-full of renditions of classic songs that are part of the American song DNA that will please many an ear. If this is how good the sequel is, then Volumes 4 & 5 had darn well better be in the works. Highly recommended.