“The living heir of Woody Guthrie . . . Halker reaches into his strings and conjures up the passionate fire of John Steinbeck.” (Allgemeine Zeitung Mainz, Germany)
Bucky Halker (b. 1954) grew up in Ashland, Wisconsin, a blue-collar, iron ore, lumber town on Lake Superior. At 13 Bucky plugged in his guitar and was giggin’ at teen rock dances. At 16 he discovered Woody Guthrie, blues piano, songwriting, and solo gigs. He skipped town for college in cowtown Idaho, learned how to read, and got hooked on caffeine, cigarettes, and history books. Dividing time between gigs and and footnotes, Bucky came back to the Midwest in 1976 continued to perform and earned a Ph.D. in US labor history at the University of Minnesota.
Troubador and professor, Bucky roamed the Heartland for a decade, performing, writing, teaching, doing odd jobs, and falling in/out of love. In 1984 his recording, A Sense of Place, an LP of original acoustic material, was released. Step ‘n Blue, an admixture of blues and acoustic originals, recorded in Ashland, WI, followed in 1986.
In Chicago, Bucky joined The Remainders, an eclectic outfit performing zydeco, Tex-Mex, New Orleans R&B, and Bucky’s originals. A popular Midwest act, the band drew praise from critics. Bucky also pursued his interest in labor activity and working-class protest music.
The University of Illinois Press published his book For Democracy, Workers, & God: Labor Song-Poems and Labor Protest in 1991. Critics called it a “pioneering and invaluable assessment” and a “major contribution to working-class cultural studies.” Bucky followed in 1993 with a solo CD of stripped-down acoustic originals, Human Geography, and a much more pop and R&B-inspired band release, The Remainders.
After a year on the Maine coast in 1993-1994, Bucky returned to Chicago with Passion, Politics, Love (1996). The CD combined alt country, folk, blues, and rockabilly, and stellar tracks from the Complete Unknowns and guest artists. Then Bucky put his music skills and labor song research to work on a series of projects. The legendary Ella Jenkin’s invited Bucky to work with her on the Smithsonian-Folkways release Ella Jenkins and A Union of Friends. The recording earned a Grammy Nomination in 1999 for Best Musical Album for Children. Bucky’s 2000 release Don’t Want Your Millions included honky tonk, folky, roots rock renditions of Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, and lesser-known worker bards, 1886-1955. With funding from the Illinois AFL-CIO, Bucky followed with Welcome to Labor Land in 2003, a collection of Illinois working-class protest songs.
Bucky was back in the studio in 2004 for a two-CD original-song project, Wisconsin 2-13-63. He recruited his core band and an impressive roster of guest artists: legendary jazz violinist Johnny Frigo, Brazilian guitarist Paulinho Garcia; bassist Pickles Piekarski (John Prine); vocalists Kat Eggleston and Sue Demel (Sons of the Never Wrong); saxophonist Paul Mertens (Brian Wilson and Poi Dog Pondering); and pedal steel guitarist Brian Wilke (Hoyle Bros.), among others. Wisconsin 2-13-63, Vol. 1 was released in 2006 in Europe and early 2007 in the USA. A U.K. critic hailed the recording as “the Lake Superior alt-country twanger’s superior, exceptional CD!” Wisconsin 2-13-63, vol. 2 followed in 2009.
Bucky also produced a 5-CD series on Illinois folk music, Folksongs of Illinois (2007-2014). The series features tracks from archives, old 78s, LPs, contemporary recordings, and new studio sessions with polkas, traditional ballads, fiddle tunes, tamburitza, samba, Irish reels, Japanese taiko, gospel songs, and more. Jon Langford, Studs Terkel, Nicolae Feraru, Bohola, Janet Bean, Bucky, Angel D’Cuba, Special Consensus, Alison Krauss, Liz Carroll, Johnny Frigo, The Girls of the Golden West, Eddie South, the Prairie Ramblers, Cathy Richardson, and a host of great artists appear. A truly great collection of material that highlights the rich legacy of Illinois music. Folksongs of Illinois #5, released in the 2014, features folk and ethnic music of Chicago since 1970.
Bucky’s trio, Johnsburg 3, released a very quirky, off kilter CD in the summer of 2010 entitled Caskets in the Cornfield. Bucky had collected folksongs from around Illinois and noticed a large number songs related to death and disaster. Well, he couldn’t resist recording a batch of these songs and letting people in on “Illinois song noir.” He recruited his musical comrades Don Stiernberg (mandolin/fiddle/vocals) and the late Tom Piekarski (bass/voclas) and after an afternoon rehearsal they went into the studio and out came this CD!
Besides touring the USA and Europe, he served as the Archie Green Fellow with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in 2011-2012. Bucky’s also been promoting his double CD The Ghost of Woody Guthrie (2012) and Folksongs of Illinois, #5 (2014). In 2015, after touring with the Joe Hill Roadshow, Bucky released Anywhere But Utah: Songs of Joe Hill, a tribute to martyred labor songwriter Joe Hill (1879-1915). The project received support from the Swedish Council of America, the Illinois Arts Council Agency, and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. In 2016 Bucky was a guest professor at Carl von Ossietzky University in Germany, where he offered courses on American protest music and labor history.
Bucky’s most recent project has joined the talents of kids (ages 4-18) and adult musicians and resulted in an illustrated book and musical CD entitled Chicago Kids Play and Sing Hoagy (2020). The CD features children’s songs by the legendary composer Hoagy Carmichael, the author of some of America’s most notable jazz and pop standards. The kids do all the lead vocals and also add instrumental parts to the majority of the tracks. The CD features many of the city’s well known jazz, rock, folk, bluegrass and world music performers.
Bucky’s the always-busy director of Company of Folk, an organization that promotes folk and ethnic arts in the Upper Midwest through research and public programs, including the Folksongs of Illinois CD series, fieldwork on ethnic and folk artists in Illinois, and music festivals. Since 2011, Company of Folk has received awards from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Puffin Foundation, Shure Incorporated, and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.