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Sample Track 1:
"Andrew Bird's Irene Goodnight" from Live from Old Town School, Volume 3 - Trad Folk
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"Toumani Diabate's Jarabi" from Live from Old Town School, Volume 4 - World
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Old Town School of Folk Music, Live From the Old Town School (Old Town School Recordings) View Additional Info

The Vaults of (Roots Music) Heaven: Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music Unlocks the Lost Gems and Wild Creativity of its Live Archives

Venerable vernacular music institution releases 127 live tracks by the best in American and global music from last half century.

On a stack of DATs in a shoebox lay the history of American music. There were local legends and major icons, global musicians and indie rockers. Some captured beautifully from the board, some gleaned quietly from the dusty archives of a radio station, the recordings held wildly creative decades of sound from Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, a roots-music touchstone for nearly 55 years. And no one had heard them.

Joan Baez and Donovan, Big Bill Broonzy and Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger and Taj Mahal, Martin Carthy and Steve Earle, Doc Watson and Mahalia Jackson: It was a literal who’s-who of folk, gospel, country, bluegrass, blues, and world music, caught in hours of exciting performances. But someone had to put the pieces together—all 127 tracks worth—and someone had to clear all the rights with 85 different artists.

They succeeded, against odds that would have stopped others in their tracks. Live From The Old Town School (Old Town School Recordings; release: December 13, 2011) reveals not only the venerable institution’s storied start, but its role in the recent infusion of new energy into the roots music world, with everyone from Toumani Diabate and Oumou Sangare to Andrew Bird and Lila Downs.

This crucial collection of rare live gems is available for download from iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby, with most of the proceeds going to benefit the School’s educational work with children and adults. And though very diverse, the tracks share a common quality.

“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 spearheaded 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.”


“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.”

Immense energy and deep commitment are at the heart of the Old Town School’s work, past and present. From humble, grassroots beginnings in the lessons and singing circles during the folk revival’s heyday, the School became an established part of the thriving Chicago folk scene, a scene that temporarily rivaled New York and Berkeley in its vibrancy. At the School, folk stars of the day crooned, moved audiences, and even jokingly imitated each other.

Behind the scenes, even as the School became a highly respected fixture of the Chicago music scene and a sought-after venue for many musicians, the spirit of its origins remained. Jam sessions would go on all evening, in the dressing rooms, hallways, and elevators. Annual parties would last all night. Unlikely duos and trios would perform at unforgettable one-off shows, fortunately caught on tape (and now released for all to enjoy). Moments like Odetta’s striking version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” or Jeff Tweedy of Wilco’s unexpected cover of Schoolhouse Rock anthem (and De La Soul inspiration), “Three Is the Magic Number.”

“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,” recalls Jon Langford of The Mekons, an alt-country and punk legend in his own right and a longtime supporter of the School whose gritty 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.”

But to bring these key moments and gorgeous relics to light also demanded intense energy. Maddox’s predecessor, Paul Tyler, meticulously 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 remembers with a chuckle. Tyler grabbed tapes sitting in the station’s warehouse and recorded what he could in a vacant studio while his welcome lasted, gleaning famous performances from the late 1950s and 1960s. In addition to the older archives Tyler created, the School itself harbored shelves of digital recordings, started during its second heyday at the turn of the early 21st century.

Then they had to get the right to release the highest quality tracks. Some established artists, like eccentric folk rocker Donovan, were highly skeptical at first, but came around as they got mixes from Maddox and his team. Some composers, like the Puerto Rican songwriters behind some of Los Plenaros de la 21’s hot numbers, could not be found, no matter how the team tried. Months of back and forth, and they had their 127 choice tracks, merely the tip of the iceberg, Maddox notes.

“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!”

<< release: 12/13/11 >>

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The Vaults of (Roots Music) Heaven: Chicago’s Old Town School of ...
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