A new CD series collects Illinois music from the past century.
CLARK “BUCKY” HALKER has heard just about every style of folk music ever recorded in Illinois—from blues and gospel to Mexican-American ballads, Irish reels, and polkas by forgotten Polish bands. In the past six years he’s listened to at least 3,000 songs, many multiple times. Sometimes, he says, it got to be too much for his wife. “OK, I’m not listening to one more tamburitza or Irish band,” she’d tell him after too many scratchy recordings. “Can we turn it off?” But Halker couldn’t turn it off. Whether he was behind the wheel of the car or looking out onto Lake Michigan from the living room of their Edgewater condo, he’d be listening to fiddlers, banjo players, even old comedy skits.
Six years ago Halker, a singer-songwriter, author, and senior program officer at the Illinois Humanities Council, set himself a daunting task: to find about 60 recordings that would together demonstrate the rich diversity of Illinois folk music for a three-CD project. The first two volumes of that project, Folksongs of Illinois, were finally released late last month, featuring cover art by cartoonist Heather McAdams and liner notes by Halker and folk-music expert Nicole Saylor. Some of the contemporary musicians who contributed tracks, including Jon Langford, Sones de Mexico, and John Rice, will perform a free concert June 1 at Martyrs’ to celebrate.
Halker defines folk pretty loosely, and the only restriction for a track’s inclusion was that it had to be written or performed by an Illinois native or recorded in the state. He combed through archives and asked scholars and music enthusiasts for suggestions and came up with a list of about 3,000 songs. He listened to those, whittled the list down to 1,000, and then listened some more. He kept a record of where in Illinois each song originated, the ethnicity, race, and gender of each artist, and the quality of the recording and performance—each factor playing a part in his decision making. “I probably listened to almost all of [the songs] twice, or parts of them twice, and others I listened to 10 to 20 times as it got closer,” he says.
By March 2006, five years into the project, Halker had narrowed the selection down to 300 songs, but he needed help making the final selections. He called on Nicole Saylor, who besides being a folk-music expert is the University of Iowa’s head digital librarian, and musician Janet Bean of Freakwater and Eleventh Dream Day.
“I had already had Nicki doing work for me up at the University of Wisconsin, digging up recordings, transferring them to CD, and sending down to me,” Halker says. Bean, meanwhile, had the eclectic taste he thought necessary for the job. “I wanted someone who . . . I could trust to give me an answer based on just being an instinctual but good listener,” he says. The three of them sat in Halker’s living room for two days deliberating. “All we did,” he says, “was eat Chinese food and listen to recordings over and over.”
Halker is a lifelong listener. Now 53, he grew up in Ashland, Wisconsin, a town on Lake Superior where he says most of the kids took accordion lessons—until, that is, they heard the Beatles in 1964 and started demanding guitars. His father, Gene Halker, owned WATW, a 1,000-watt AM station (the call letters stood for “At the Top of Wisconsin”) that played polka and country in the mornings and the likes of Perry Como in the afternoons. “My dad was an adamant opponent of rock ‘n’ roll,” Halker says. “He was from that generation that thought it was morally decrepit.” Nonetheless, he let the 16-year-old Bucky host his own rock show three nights a week. “Thirteen-year-old girls called and wanted to hear ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy’ and that sort of stuff,” he recalls.
Halker played guitar in rock bands all through high school, but by the early 80s, when he was a grad student in history at the University of Minneapolis, his love of John Prine, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young had turned him on to acoustic folk, both as a creative outlet and as a focus of academic study. In 1984 he finished his doctoral dissertation on American labor songs and released his first record of his own solo acoustic work.
In the mid-80s Halker won a fellowship from the Newberry Library to continue his research in Chicago, and his book For Democracy, Workers, and God: Labor Song-Poems and Labor Protest, 1865-95 was published by the University of Illinois Press in 1991. He’d written it partly in response to the narrow-mindedness of 20th-century scholars who considered folk music to be rural ballads from England and largely ignored other countries and ethnic groups. “I have a tendency to go at it like a punk and blast away at these scholars,” he says. “Illinois got passed over. They had these puritanical ideas of what folk music was.”
In 1996 Halker took the job as program officer for the Illinois Humanities Council, where he manages grants and organizes seminars for K-12 teachers on topics ranging from horror literature to Native American artifacts. The job, plus the touring he did as a musician, took him all around the state, exposing him to a variety of local musical styles. He observes that Illinois has a rich musical history in part because Chicago has been home to so many immigrant groups: “They’re pouring in from all over the world,” he says. But, he adds, “There are so many good musicians who never get recording contracts, even from indies, and if they do get contracts, they don’t get the attention they deserve.” He cites Skokie mandolinist Don Stiernberg as just one example: “I think he’s the greatest mandolin player in the United States, but no one really knows him.” In 2001 Halker approached Kristina Valaitis, the executive director of the Humanities Council, with the idea for the series, and she gave him the go-ahead.
The older tracks on Folksongs of Illinois, Volume 1 include Henry Spaulding’s 1929 “Cairo Blues,” Carl Sandburg singing “Jay Gould’s Daughter” in 1950, and WLS National Barn Dance stars the Girls of the Golden West crooning “Lonely Cowgirl” in 1933. WLS claimed that the Girls, sisters Millie and Dolly Goad, were born in Muleshoe, Texas, but they were actually natives of Mount Carmel.
Volume 1 also includes covers of old folk songs by contemporary artists such as Bean, Langford, and Kelly Hogan; Halker himself makes an appearance singing Woody Guthrie’s “The Dying Miner,” accompanied by Stiernberg. Some original recordings, Halker says, were in such bad shape they had to be ruled out, while others were excluded for copyright reasons. “In some cases,” he says, “you can’t even find who has the rights.”
Halker decided against paying royalties to a company in Austria that claimed to own the rights to “Cairo Blues” after an attorney and local record-label owners told him the claim was dubious. He couldn’t find any surviving relatives of the singer, Henry Spaulding, a Robert Johnson-era bluesman. “The last thing I’m going to do is give money to some white guy who lives in Austria,” he says. “I’d be better off going down to Cairo and throwing the money out the window.”
Folklorist and musician Paul Tyler, who teaches at the Old Town School of Folk Music and National-Louis University, coproduced Volume 2, which focuses exclusively on fiddle music. “The fiddle is a key instrument because it’s portable and every ethnic group played it,” Halker explains. Tracks include a medley of Irish reels by Chicago-born Liz Carroll, who won both the junior and senior All-Ireland Fiddle Championships while still in her teens and now lives in Round Lake, and a 1989 recording of “Windy City Rag” by Alison Kraus, who grew up in Champaign. On one song Tyler plays with his former bandmate in the Volo Bogtrotters, Lynn “Chirps” Smith of Grayslake, and 11-year-old Glenview native Stephanie Coleman, who studies with Smith in an Illinois Arts Councilsponsored apprenticeship.
Volume 3, tentatively scheduled to come out this fall, will be another eclectic sampler. Its theme, according to Saylor, is: “We had so much good stuff, here’s another one.”