“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 was born in 1954 and grew up in Ashland, Wisconsin, a declining blue-collar, iron ore, lumber town on Lake Superior. Fish fry Fridays, country music, Swedes, polkas, Finns, Indian reservations, Poles, 12-foot fishin’ boats, girls with transistor radios, and 40 bars on main street. 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 his time between gigs and and footnotes, Bucky came back to the Midwest in 1976 and earned his MA and 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, followed in 1986.
He joined The Remainders, an eclectic Chicago band performing zydeco, Tex-Mex, New Orleans R&B, and Bucky’s originals. A popular Midwest act, the band drew considerable 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 went back in the studio in 2004 for two CD original-song project, Wisconsin 2-13-63. Bucky recruited his core band, but also called on an impressive roster of guest artists: the 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 immediately hailed the recording as “the Lake Superior alt-country twanger’s superior CD. An exceptional CD!” Wisconsin 2-13-63, vol. 2 was released in early 2009.
Bucky also produced a 4-CD series on Illinois folk music, Folksongs of Illinois, with support from the Illinois Humanities Council (#1-3) and the Illinois Arts Council (#4). The series features tracks from archives, old 78s, LPs, and contemporary recordings. There’s polkas, traditional ballads, fiddle songs, tamburitza kolos, Irish reels, ethnic musical comedy, and gospel tunes. Jon Langford, Kelly Hogan, Janet Bean, Bucky, Special Consensus, Alison Krauss, Liz Carroll, Johnny Frigo, The Girls of the Golden West, Eddie South, the Prairie Ramblers, and a host of great artists past and present all make appearances. A truly great collection of material that highlights the rich legacy of Illinois music. Folksongs of Illinois #4, released in the spring of 2011, highlights the folk and ethnic music of Chicago since 1945.
What’s Bucky working on for the future? Bucky’s busy promoting his new double CD The Ghost of Woody Guthrie in 2012-2013 and look for Folksongs of Illinois, #5 in 2013. Bucky’s also busy as director of Company of Folk, an organization that works diligently to promote 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 the Midwest Folklife Festival. Since 2011, Company of Folk has received awards from the Illinois Arts Council, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Puffin Foundation, Shure Incorporated, and the Dew Foundation.
Bucky Halker currently serves as the Archie Green Fellow with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. In that role, Bucky is documenting the story of Chicago iron workers, the men and women who literally built downtown Chicago.