Review: Folksongs of Illinois, Vols. 1-3

Folksongs of Illinois, Vol., l, ll, lll (Bucky Halker, Producer)
Reviewed by Gregory Hansen
Western Folklore (Spring/Summer 2009)

The three compact discs in Folksongs of Illinois showcase an amazing variety of Illinois musical traditions and artists recorded between 1927 and 2006.  The first volume is an overview of regional and ethnic musical traditions characteristic of the folk music genres performed in Illinois.  The second volume is a compilation of the incredibly varied fiddling traditions and virtuoso fiddlers of the state.  The third volume augments the first in presenting additional folk musicians from eclectic backgrounds.  Each CD stands on its own as a compelling introduction to the state’s musical heritage.  Taken as a whole, the series is a vibrant musical portraits of the state’s musical culture, interestingly situated in sociohistorical context, and it merits repeated listening.

On first listening, the name acts and folk music stars from Illinois stand out.  The Staple Singers’ 1957 “I’m Coming Home” is a stirring gospel song, performed in a soulful R&B style that draws the listener to this talented family’s artistry.  The great Irish fiddler Liz Carroll offers a medley–a reel by Paddy Fahey paired with a lively tune called “The Tempest.”  Bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss and her band Union Station offer an excellent version of “Windy City Rag,” a tune Kenny Baker wrote while performing as a sideman with Bill Monroe.  Most folk-music fans will recognize the voices of Burl Ives, Ralph Chaplin, and Pete Seeger in the Union Boys’ version of “Solidarity Forever.”  Many will also appreciate Carl Sandburg’s performance of “Jay Gould’s Daughter,” a rare addition to the project.  Blues aficionados will appreciate Big Bill Broonzy’s stirring rendition of “Black, Brown, and White Blues.” A well-chosen excerpt from an interview with Broonzy introduces a song and provides a poignant context for its authorship.  Even listeners unfamiliar with the musical heritage of Illinois will recognize Mahalia Jackson and will be inspired by her performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Folksinger Ella Jenkins is present through a live recording of her song, “A Neighborhood is a Friendly Place,” which she recorded with a young, enthusiastic audience.

Upon a second listening–and a perusal of the liner notes–lesser-known musicians will being to stand out.  Bucky Halker’s emotionally powerful performance of Woody Guthrie’s, “The Dying Miner,” commemorating the Centralia mine disaster of 1947, includes actual words that miners left behind on scraps of paper as their oxygen was running out; Halker’s rich voice portrays their plight in a compassionate interpretation that is realistic, avoiding maudlin excess.  Pappy Taylor’s spirited performance of the old-time fiddle breakdown “Wolf Creek” displays his masterful touch.  “Knox County Stomp,” an excellent performance from a relatively little-known African-American fiddling tradition, features Martin Bogan and Howard Armstrong.  The Sones de Mexico ensemble offer listeners a fine version of “Cielito Lindo,” full of rhythmic complexity and a strong vocal performance.

With subsequent listenings–a still closer readings of the liner notes–the Folksongs of Illinois project is further illuminated by obscure gems.  Many of these selections celebrate the state’s ethnic diversity.  Herr Louis Weaselis and the Hungry Five provide an example of “Stage Dutch” schtick in an early radio sketch about working in a pickle factory.  A bouncy Finnish folksong entitled “A-ha-A-ha,” performed by the immigrant Julius Silk and his band, is isued in communal singing that the liner notes describe as a “taunt.” Czech, Polish, German, and Scandinavian folk music add sparkle to all three volumes, and a beautiful fiddle tune, “Vallerskogsvalen,” performed by the Nordic Cowboys, represents the Scandinavian waltz tradition.  These ethnically diverse selections are blended effectively into the mix, and the liner notes include good introductions and clear translations that help novice listeners appreciate the variety of music without exoticizing the performers.

The appeal of this project is that it gives listeners, who will surely enjoy many more of the fifty-seven selections than those highlighted here, the chance to forge their own connections with the artists.  The packaging is designed to foster deep listening and to heighten appreciation for traditional music.   Bucky Halker and Nicole Saylor’s introductory notes on Volumes I and III provide a context for the music and the project as a whole.   Paul Tyler’s notes in Volume II provide an overview of the history of Illinois fiddling, followed by a reflective essay about the multi-faceted personas of Illinois fiddlers.  In all three CDs, notes about specific recordings constitute a surprisingly expansive introduction to a wide variety of folk music genres.  The project, richly detailed and varied, can be profitably explored with relation to the Smithsonian’s River of Song documentaries on Chicago blues musicians, and the growing array of sampler projects from other states.  The Illinois Humanities Council is to be congratulated for bringing this fine project to a wide audience.

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