Documentary Disks: Folksongs of Illinois

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The world, with good reason, has long known of and thrilled to extraordinary jazz, gospel, and blues music made in Chicago by African-American performers including Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Muddy Waters. The “Kentucky Mountain Boy” Bradley Kincaid, yodeler Patsy Montana, the quintessential “singing cowboy” Gene Autry, and other Anglo-American southerners have been equally celebrated for influential performances on Chicago’s WLS Barn Dance. Yet what of folk music made by other immigrant and ethnic groups teeming in the Windy City: Irish, Scandinavians, Slavs, Germans, Balts, Mexicans, and more? And what might be heard from the hinterlands, from farm country, river towns, and mining enclaves where folk music of all kinds suffused community life?

Folk Songs of Illinois Album Cover

Anyone who has ever yearned for answers, for a bigger earful of the Upper Midwestern soundscape, will welcome Folksongs of Illinois with wonder and joy. Produced by labor historian Bucky Halker—a stellar performer of roots music in his own right—this three volume series enlisted folklorists Paul Tyler and Nicole Saylor [formerly of CSUMC’s staff!] to help choose tracks and pen liner notes. Engagingly written, thronging with rare and striking photographs, the attractive booklets accompanying each CD are likewise distinguished by hard-won details concerning particular traditions, performers, and tracks, along with lyrics and, when appropriate, translations from several languages. Collectively the series’ notes unarguably offer the most comprehensive portrait to date of the state of folk music in one of America’s most significant folk musical states.

The roughly 20 tracks on each of the three CDs are drawn mostly from older recordings extending from 1927 through the 1980s. In a brilliant stroke, Halker also recruited contemporary alt-country masters Janet Bean (of Freakwater) and Jon Langford (The Mekons, The Waco Brothers) to offer fine renditions of important songs for which good recordings were unavailable. While not always as sonically pristine as such recent studio productions, the field and early commercial recordings dominating the series have been re-mastered to deliver consistently excellent sound. Volumes I and III are devoted to songs, and while some vocals figure in Volume II, the focus is on fiddlers. To their credit, Halker and associates do not herd tracks into ethnic ghettos, but scatter and intersperse traditions in a manner that parallels and salutes the adventurous spirit of the performers themselves.

Each listener will discover their own favorite tracks, but I confess to being mesmerized by the high, haunting vocals and spare-yet-powerful guitar on Henry Spaulding’s “Cairo Blues”; by Eleanor Kane’s breakneck piano pounding on a medley of Irish reels; by the wry lyrics and loopy polkabilly fusion of the Polish Mountaineers; by the fervent vocal and guitar harmonies of Ramos & Ramirez’s poignant emigrant’s corrido; by the exuberant barn dance charm of Kankakee fiddler Tommy Dandurand; and much, much more.

Issued by the Illinois Humanities Council, Folksongs of Illinois is distributed, as a three-CD set or individually, by the University of Illinois Press, or 800/621-2736.

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