Clip: Old Town School puts original songbook on CD
Old Town School puts original songbook on CD
October 22, 2006
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
The Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook is a ticket through dusty
roads and some of the darkest corners of the soul. The first songbook
was assembled in 1958 by the late Win Stracke, the school's first
director and Frank Hamilton, the school's first instructor. Stapled
together, it incorporated 117 easy-to-learn songs reflecting the North
American folk music tradition -- songs such as "Trouble in Mind,"
"Deep River Blues," "St. James Infirmary" and "Midnight Special."
While the songbook rarely exists in a bona fide physical form -- it
started as a loose-leaf binder, now it's a spiral notebook -- it's
about to shake off some of that dust and shine a little light on
America's musical traditions.
Next year, the Old Town School of Folk Music celebrates its 50th
anniversary. Next week, in advance of that milestone, the school rolls
out a four-volume CD set of music featured in the original songbook.
"Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook, Vol. 1" hits the streets
Tuesday on Old Town School Recordings, manufactured and distributed in
a new collaboration with Bloodshot Records.
The 77-minute single CD features 23 songs. The Songbook Sessions, if
you will, includes Robbie Fulks nailing the Delmore Brothers "Browns
Ferry Blues," Janet Bean turning Doc Watson's "Deep River Blues" into
high and lonesome country, John Stirrat (of Wilco) contributing a
haunting blues version of Burl Ives' "Wayfaring Stranger" and Jon
Langford's Hawaiian-tinged "Take This Hammer" (popularized by Big Bill
Ted and Marcia Johnson harmonize like the Louvin Brothers -- or people
who have been married 40 years -- when they sing Carl Sandburg's "Erie
Canal." Ted, 78, is one of the oldest Old Town School of Folk Music
teachers. He's a student, too, currently studying fiddle.
The majority of the artists appearing on the debut volume picked the
songs they wanted to do. Volumes 2 and 3 will come out in April; the
final volume is slated for next fall. In conjunction with Bloodshot,
the school also will be rolling out live concerts taped at the venue.
The good book
The school's actual songbook is periodically revised -- the last
update was in 1992. A new version will be published early next year by
Hal Leonard Inc. containing many of the same songs, plus a few new
tunes. Some songs are being deleted because they're only popular with
teachers; others are being removed because the school could not secure
Bloodshot jumped at the chance to work with the Old Town School on the
audio manifestation of the songbook.
"There's so much garbage out there and people are being assaulted by
so many different things," said Rob Miller, Bloodshot co-founder. "And
here's a simple one-stop CD of people with an instrument or two doing
very archetypal songs. If people don't pay attention, songs that are
400 years old could disappear in one generation."
There's even talk of Bloodshot releasing vinyl collector's editions of
the Old Town School songbook series, which would include all the
sessions and some cool outtakes.
The school has been snagging artists for songbook recording sessions
as they came through Chicago on tour. Bluegrass legend James Hand
contributed "Corrina, Corrina," and the Lost Bayou Ramblers cut a
French-Cajun version of "Trouble in Mind" during their visit this
summer to the Old Town School's annual folk and roots festival. (Alice
Peacock tackles "Trouble in Mind" on Vol. 1) Dan Zanes sang a bawdy
"Drunken Sailor" -- with a dash of calypso -- on a stopover through
Chicago. The roots of "Drunken Sailor" go as far back as 1841.
Started as a teaching aid
Earlier last week, in a conversation from his home in Decatur, Ga.,
Hamilton explained how the songbook took root.
"When you teach, you have to have a framework," he said. "We had to
standardize a way people could learn so we could teach more than one
person at a time. We needed to have some basic guitar and banjo
techniques. It was simple and we wanted to avoid music notation,
because that's such a turn-off for so many people. We used songs that
were kicking around at the time. Folk musicians were coming into
[Albert Grossman's nightclub] the Gate of Horn singing these songs.
And, of course, Mike Nichols had the first show on WFMT in Chicago
called 'Midnight Special,' so that would have made a difference."
Ted Johnson was studying guitar with the school's founders before the
school opened in 1957. Hamilton was teaching folk music in the living
room of Dawn Greening's Oak Park home. (In 1963, Hamilton would leave
the school to join Pete Seeger and the Weavers.) Johnson even met his
wife at the Old Town School.
"I'm sort of the ancient mariner, still hanging around here," Johnson
said during an interview at the school's back patio. "From the
beginning, we were interested in finding people like Big Bill Broonzy
and trying to reproduce what they were doing -- and teaching other
people to do that. I was part of that on opening night in a little
demonstration class. We were on stage and Bill Broonzy would play.
Frank would look at him, notate it on the blackboard and teach us to
do the same little lick."
Broonzy sang the blues on opening night, Dec. 1, 1957, at the
since-razed Immigrant State Bank Building at North Avenue and Sedgwick
near the Old Town neighborhood. (The Old Town School now resides in
Lincoln Square.) George Armstrong played bagpipes. Hamilton sang the
praises of Bess Lomax Hawes, the autoharp-banjo-dulcimer-playing
daughter of folklorist Alan Lomax.
In with the new
The Old Town School has evolved dramatically. Who would have thought
that someday the school would be recording bluegrass punk Danny Barnes
(Bad Livers) -- who tackles "Wabash Cannonball" in the series -- or
booking "non-folk" acts like Percy Sledge and Glen Campbell, who both
performed at the school last year?
Singer Robbie Fulks sat near Johnson on a school park bench. The
courtyard was filled with donor bricks reading "Ainslie Street
Membership Volunteers," "John Raitt" and "Livingston Taylor Concert
"The broadening of the folk music definition is sensible," Fulks said.
"You have people at the school singing Beatles and Rolling Stones
songs, bluegrass and country, along with wobbly songs. Pete Seeger
includes rap as folk music, and there's a case for that. For me, the
storytelling function of the song defines a lot of what goes on here:
the idea you can take a certain kind of song and make a social
occasion out of it and have 200 people singing at the same time.
"That works well with 'Yesterday' as well as it does with 'If I Had a
Hammer.' It doesn't work with an Ornette Coleman song or a lot of
so-called singer-songwriter music where [they sing], 'My uncle died
last week / and I went down to the mall.' The universal aspect of a
narrative song is what makes it eligible for this songbook idea."
Fulks came to Chicago in 1983 from North Carolina. In 1984, Old Town
School staff member Mike Miles saw Fulks performing at the now-defunct
Hobson's Choice nightclub, which was co-owned by folk singer Bob
Gibson. Miles asked Fulks to teach bluegrass at the school. Fulks was
on the school staff until 1996.
"The school lets you develop your own ideas," Fulks said. "Like, one
of my classes was 'Indigo Girls/Everly Brothers'."
Thanks Bruce and Bob
The school has seen a bounce in interest through Bob Dylan's latest
work and Bruce Springsteen's recent exploration of the Pete Seeger
songbook. The first volume of the Old Town School songbook compilation
concludes with Weavermania's version of Seeger's "Goodnight Irene."
Songbook record producer John Abbey said, "People go, 'Wait a second
-- Springsteen is doing the song I played the first week of my class.'
Sometimes it takes that outside influence to validate a [three-chord]
song like 'Pay Me My Money Down' [covered by Springsteen on the Seeger
Bloodshot's Miller added, "You'd like to think that people would
connect the dots. A few years ago when the 'O Brother' thing happened,
everyone was extrapolating how 'Ralph Stanley's not going to be able
to walk down the street in Cleveland without being mobbed by fans,'
and that just kind of went away. The unfortunate lack of curiosity
that is all-pervasive in this society from the president on down is
kind of discouraging."