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Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007 09:26 pm

Smorgasbord of sound

Folks Songs of Illinois provides an excellent introduction to many kinds of music

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Bucky Halker served as producer for the Folk Songs of Illinois CD series.

It’s 1927, the Jazz Age, with poet Carl Sandburg toting a funny little guitar and strumming carelessly to the old tunes: “Whisky Johnny” and “Where O Where Is Old Elijah?” The Galesburger-Chicagoan published his wildly popular
Folk Songs of Illinois Illinois Humanities Council, University of Illinois Press, three-volume CD collection, $12.99 per disk
class="text311">American Songbag with 280 songs from sailors, cowboy, railroad hands, pioneers, prisoners, and preachers. Sandburg, motivated by The People, yes, finds democratic merit in these common songs. Next, in 1931, John Lomax, a musicologist at the Library of Congress, begins lugging gear out into the field to document “real” American music. Lomax and Charles Seeger, father of young Pete, start a musical ethnography project that continues to affect the music scene. It was the Depression, it was government make-work, it was a nonsensical waste of the taxpayer’s buck. Lomax and Seeger went a-mining for music across the American South, the West, the North and the East. In Illinois, a similar search for historic folk songs took place in the 1950s at Southern Illinois University under the leadership of Dr. David McIntosh. At the University of Illinois, librarian Archie Green helped orient the university press toward publishing popular music titles connecting with the folk boom. The Old Town School of Folk Music began its first classes in Chicago in 1957. Harry Smith, inveterate record collector, a guy who scouted dusties across the continent, came after the Library of Congress team. Smith’s collection of thousands of old 78s was sorted and shaken to yield songs for his epochal Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. This collection helped sparked the 1950s and 1960s folk boom. The impact of Lomax, Seeger, and Smith is seen in the music of Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Judy Collins; Odetta; Peter, Paul and Mary; the Byrds; Joni Mitchell; Neil Young; the Grateful Dead; Bruce Springsteen; and Tom Petty. Entering the digital age, Roger McGuinn’s Folk Den project tosses out 24/7 folk music by way of the Internet. Just released this year is a three-disk collection, the Folk Songs of Illinois, published by the Illinois Humanities Council and distributed by the University of Illinois Press. (Interestingly enough, 2007 also saw the publication of Dear Old Illinois, a book-and-CD set by Garry Harrison, with hundreds of old songs from within the state’s borders.) What comes to mind with this title? Sodbuster songs? Coal-miner songs? Under the auspices of IHC program officer/musician Bucky Halker, we find a far-reaching collection of songs. The collection veers right and left, and up and down, holding to no firm notion of what constitutes a folk song. We find home recordings, field recordings, and commercial recordings, of all kinds and makes, of all types of music (except rock & roll), some newly taped and some quite old, all thrown together one after another. Just what is a folk song? Who writes them? Is Pete Seeger the only guy who can tell you this? Here, what counts is that the music is by an Illinoisan or recorded in the state. In this sprawling collection are proud fiddling Norwegians, husky-voiced gospel singers, Irish and their jigs, Czechs going full-tilt, Chicago blues, and union songs. There is song for everyone. If you merely listen to music, you’ll find more than a few that you like, and a number you simply won’t want to hear again. If you are a musician or a student of music, this set will be much more to your taste: here are gobs of musical notions and ideas, specimens of musical styles, and enough content worth weeks of study.
Illinois, says Halker, is one and everything, with people and their music coming and going. The story of Illinois music includes the Poles, the Mexicans, the Slavs, the Swedes, the Irish, the Southern bluegrassers and the German fiddlers, and the Old Town School. The popularity of commercial country music began with the old WLS National Barn Dance. Adding heft to the state’s musical clout was Chicago’s role as a music-publishing center. Folk Songs of Illinois holds this smorgasbord of sound. It’s worth noting some of the better-known performers and groups here: Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Big Bill Broonzy, Mahalia Jackson, Win Stracke, Art Thieme, and Janet Bean. Groups include Special Consensus, the Staples Singers, the Prairie Ramblers, and Alison Krauss and Union Station. Disk two of the collection is devoted to fiddle tunes, the popularity of which soared during the 1920s and 1930s. Frankly, some of the fiddle tunes are reminiscent of old Popeye-cartoon soundtracks, yet some help you recognize the utility of the fiddle in various kinds of folk music.
Folk Songs of Illinois makes an excellent surprise introduction to many kinds of music. This is rarely heard music, so much of it’s sure to be new to you. If you like to play music, you’ll find interesting stuff here. If you’re stuck in a rut in your listening, here are plenty of suggestions. The CD booklets are a nice bonus: You get a great little music history lesson in each one, along with extended program notes. Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag called itself “a ragbag of strips, stripes, and streaks of color from nearly all ends of the earth.” Give it a listen: The Folk Songs of Illinois collection has this same, ear-opening, sound-exploring appeal. You’ll find something you like and then some.
Folk Songs of Illinois is available at www.prairie.org/music. 

Todd Volker, who lives in Ottawa, has been  
picking at cheap guitars since age 17 and hasn’t gotten much better. A Knox College graduate with a penchant for history, he’s collecting old materials connected to the 1950s folk boom and playing bluegrass music at tiny venues in northern Illinois.
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