Bucky Halker was born 1954, Beaver Dam, Wisconsin and raised in Ashland, WI, a worn-down iron-ore and lumbering town on Lake Superior. Took piano lessons and listened to polkas, country, and early rock and roll as a kid. At age 8 he was already on the airwaves of the family’s 1000 watt AM radio station, WATW. “I worked with Santa Claus on the air from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. He talked and I read the letters to Santa from the kids. I loved it. I was Santa’s elf and that cooler than the livestock reports and the polkas!”
Started playing guitar and gigging locally. “Girls were a big incentive! I wanted to be like Elvis or John Lennon, but I liked the way Dylan smoked.” Hit 16, discovered cigarettes, black coffee, Woody Guthrie and folk music, Lightnin’ Hopkins and acoustic blues. “Along with a democratic vision, America’s greatest gift to the world is the blues and the jazz and rock and roll that grew out of it.” Got a BA in history (1976), followed by MA and PhD. Continued to do solo acoustic gigs and front rock bands and released first album A Sense of Place in 1984, a collection of his acoustic originals.
Ten albums have followed, all of which draw heavily on country, rockabilly, folk, blues, bluegrass, and rock and roll–American roots music. Don’t Want Your Millions (1999) and Welcome to Labor Land (2002), feature Bucky’s interpretations of labor and working-class protest songs from 1865-1955, including many previously unrecorded. Bucky’s recent Wisconsin, 2-13-63, Volumes 1 & 2 (2007/2008) feature all originals and guest performances from some of Chicago’s best musicians. Both received glowing reviews in the US and Europe and made the Americana record charts as well.
A prominent scholar of working-class history, Bucky wrote For Democracy, Workers, and God: Labor Song-Poems and Labor Protest 1865-1895 (University of Illinois Press, 1991). He also the scholar-producer of Folksongs of Illinois, a five-CD series that documents the rich and diverse heritage of Illinois folk music. The CD series utilized archival, 78, LP, and contemporary studio recordings and were released 2007-2014 as a project of the Illinois Humanities Council, Illinois Arts Council, and Company of Folk (a non-profit for which Bucky serves as the Director). The recordings made the folksong record charts and drew praise for being a pathbreaking project and the model for documenting regional folksong music.
Bucky Halker is also well known for his music-history programs on Woody Guthrie and the Great Depression and working-class protest music from 1865-1950. In the last two decades, Bucky has presented hundreds of these programs at museums, historical societies, libraries, universities in the USA, Canada, and Europe. In 2009 he was inducted into the Illinois Union Hall of Fame, the first musician to join the like of Studs Terkel, Jane Addams, Mother Jones, and other leaders of labor in Illinois. Bucky also serves on the Board of Directors for the Woody Guthrie Foundation in NYC and the Illinois Labor History Society in Chicago.
Bucky’s trio The Johnsburg 3 released their new CD Caskets in the Cornfields, a collection of Illinois folksongs of disaster, death, and dying (2010). It’s a great batch of historic disaster tunes collected by Bucky over the years as part of his effort to document Illinois folksong. The boys in the band–Bucky, Don Stiernberg, and Tom Piekarski–present their deadly tunes with verve, humor, and great skill, defining their own new genre, death folk!.
Finally, and most recently, Bucky Halker joined forces with old musical pal Andy Dee to record and release The Ghost of Woody Guthrie, a double CD tribute to Woody Guthrie which features 18 Bucky originals and 4 renditions of Woody songs. After decades of performing Woody Guthrie songs, reading everything written about him, and doing research in the Guthrie Archives, Bucky decided to take a creative leap and respond to Woody and his impact on Bucky and the world. Andy and Bucky recorded the project in an empty house on Lake Superior during a November 2011 snowstorm. Appropriately, the CD was released on Woody’s 100th birthday, July 14, 2012.
What’s next? Bucky is currently working on a CD to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the execution of labor songwriter and activist Joe Hill in 1915. The CD will feature Joe Hill’s songs, many of which have not been previously recorded and a few of Hill’s uncharacteristic sentimental, romantic songs. He is also doing fieldwork to document folk and ethnic artists in Illinois and in 2014 and 2015 has an exhibit touring Illinois on folk and ethnic arts that he created with Lisa Rathje as a project of Company of Folk. Bucky is also busy as director of Company of Folk, an organization dedicated to the study, preservation, and presentation of folk and ethnic music and art in the Upper Midwest. Finally, he’s back working on a couple different book projects on working-class protest music.
For additional details on Bucky’s work see the bio section of this website.