During the past five decades, Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk has amassed an impressive collection of live recordings by some of the biggest names in the folk, American roots and world music categories. On December 13th, 2011, Old Town School of Folk will release part of this archive under the title Live from the Old Town School of Folk. The 127 tracks will be sold digitally on iTunes and Amazon.
I received a CD sampler that gives an idea about the music selection. This collection is an excellent introduction to American roots music (folk, blues, bluegrass, Gospel, country, etc.) and singer-songwriters. Live from the Old Town School of Folk contains pieces by legendary singers and instrumentalists such as Joan Baez, Donovan, Pete Seeger, Taj Mahal, Odetta, Martin Carthy, Steve Earle, Doc Watson, Mahalia Jackson, Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott.
In the area of global music you’ll find exclusive recordings by Malian stars Toumani Diabate and Oumou Sangare, Mexican-American sensation Lila Downs, Conjunto Cespedes, Los Pleneros de la 21, and Joaquin Diaz.
“These are all performers who know how to communicate with the audience in a very personal way,” says Colby Maddox, librarian/archivist and teacher at the Old Town School, who led the project and attracted support for it from the Donnelley Foundation. “They don’t need that distance, that huge arena. They want to get down close and make people happy. And they are all coming from well-established traditions, all different, but all strong.”
Old Town School of Folk is one of most respected venues of the Chicago music scene . “You can feel the immense energy in the concerts and what we’re presenting,” explains Maddox. “Take Andrew Bird’s show. He was called in as an opening act on short notice, and he put together a band last minute. All these great musicians ran in to play with him, and you can really feel the spontaneity and excitement of that show in the recording.”
“We once did a show with Robbie Fulks and Cowboy Jack Clement, the rockabilly producer from Sun Studios who wrote, ‘I Guess Things Happen That Way,’ for Johnny Cash,” says Jon Langford of The Mekons, an alt-country and punk legend in his own right and a longtime supporter of the School whose cover of Procol Harum’s “Homburg” is part of the Live From collection. “At the end of the night, he joined us onstage for a ragged version, then played his ukulele for us all the way back to the dressing room, even in the elevator.”
Live from the Old Town School of Folk was possible thanks to Maddox and Paul Tyler, Maddox’s predecessor. Tyler methodically copied early live tapes at the radio station that had become an unknowing repository for the School’s first concert recordings. “They had accumulated hundreds of tapes of performances and interviews. I would tuck our rack-mount DAT under my arm and hop on the El,” he recalls with a chuckle. In addition to the older archives Tyler made, the School kept a collection of digital recordings, started at the turn of the early 21st century.
Getting the rights to release this collection was no easy task. Some established artists, like folk rocker Donovan, were highly skeptical at first, but finally agreed to participate as they got mixes from Maddox and his team. Some composers, like the Puerto Rican songwriters behind some of Los Pleneros de la 21’s tracks, could not be found, no matter how hard the team tried.
“We transferred thousands of hours of music,” Maddox recalls. “I couldn’t cut it off; there was just so much good stuff. I knew this might be the only time we’d get to do this. I didn’t want to tell anyone no!”
Live from the Old Town School of Folk is a phenomenal collection of traditional and contemporary folk and world music recordings made at an essential venue in American music history.
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Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.