- Folksongs of Illinois #1 by Clark "Bucky" Halker and Nicole Saylor, and: Folksongs of Illinois #2 by Paul Tyler
The three-volume Folksongs of Illinois CD series was produced by the Illinois Humanities Council, the organization explains, in order to view the state's "diverse cultural heritage through the lens of Illinois musicians and songwriters" (http://www.prairie.org/news/third-volume-groundbreaking-lt-i-gt-folksongs-illinois-lt-i-gt-cd-series-released-illinois-huma). The first two volumes were released in May 2007 and are addressed in this review; the third volume was released in November 2007. Volume 1 includes an eclectic mix of primarily vocal genres, while Volume 2 offers recordings of diverse styles of fiddling from throughout the state. The tracks, which were taken from archival, home, and field recordings, as well as 78 rpm discs, LPs, contemporary CDs, and new [End Page 212] recordings made in the studio, are contextualized by introductory essays and extensive liner notes by folklore scholars.
These volumes take us far beyond the musics for which Chicago is most well known—blues and jazz—to consider a wide range of musical practices. Indeed, the breadth of material on these CDs is impressive and probably surprising to those who are not familiar with Illinois's long history of migration and immigration. The scholarly essays at the beginning of both booklets, which are not paginated, begin by providing a picture of what "most Americans" (Vol. 1) believe folk song or fiddling to be. The authors then go on to explain how the diversity of the lives of the musicians makes the reality so much broader than popular belief or stereotype.
For music scholars, folklorists, folk musicians, and Illinois residents, these CDs include accessible examples of many rarely heard and hard-to-find tracks. The discs present recordings from the 1920s through the present, and the differing periods are evenly represented. Of the nineteen tracks on Volume 1, six are from the 1920s or 1930s, four are from the 1940s or 1950s, four are from the 1970s or 1980s, and four are from the 2000s. Of the twenty tracks on Volume 2, six are from the 1920s or 1930s, one is from the 1950s, seven are from the 1970s or 1980s, and six are from the 2000s. It is noteworthy that the second volume offers only one track from the period from the 1930s through the 1970s, but this is unexplained in the liner notes.
While I found listening to the wide range of sources somewhat aesthetically jarring—the crackly distance of a recording from the 1920s coming right after a slick contemporary studio production—the juxtaposition of sources aptly illustrates that these songs are part of a long history of folk song in the state and part of a living, breathing tradition. Many of the newer recordings are contemporary interpretations of older songs; for example, "Mississippi Flood" (Vol. 1), which chronicles the 150-day flood around Cairo, Illinois, in 1927, was first recorded in September of that year by Vernon Dalhart, who is identified in the liner notes as "the first 'singing cowboy' star of country music." The 2006 recording on this CD, by alt-country musicians Jon Langford and Kelly Hogan, is just one of many re-recordings of this song since the 1927 disaster. The layout of pictures in the liner notes visually reinforces the point that all of the tracks and featured musicians are part of a long, continuous, non-static tradition. Both contemporary and older pictures are harmonized in sepia tones, overlapped, and juxtaposed in interesting combinations. I particularly like the bright, attractive folk art illustrations by Heather McAdams, featuring a pair of musicians from each of the CDs, which are laid on top of the sepia photographs for the front cover.
The first volume of the set is notable for the variety of genres, ethnicities, languages, regions, time periods, genders...