Illinois is not the first state that comes to mind as a leading mine of folk songs or folk music in general. Or, at least, it certainly doesn't come to mind as much as more high-profile states esteemed as sources of such material, like Texas or Mississippi. Illinois, however, was one of the country's densest melting pots, both because of the many people of different origins who passed through the territory (and often settled within its borders), and because of the many immigrants it drew from diverse foreign countries. While at first glance it might seem like devoting an entire CD (and this is just the first volume) to Illinois folk songs might be stretching the concept, in fact this turns out to be a surprisingly eclectic and satisfyingly quality listen. There's "folk" in the singers-with-acoustic-guitars sense that many people think of when they hear the term, but there's also bluegrass, rousing gospel, polka, Irish reels, a Mexican-American corrido, country-blues, and even (in one of the disc's unexpected highlights) a strange long vaudeville sketch with heavy (and heavily accented) German origins. The chronological range of the collection is impressive as well, stretching from the 1920s to the early 21st century. There are, too, some actual renowned performers here, none more so than the Staple Singers, here represented by their '50s gospel recording "I'm Coming Home"; other noteworthy artists include Jon Langford (who duets with Kelly Hogan on "Mississippi Flood"), Janet Bean (half the pioneering alt-country group Freakwater, here covering a late-'20s ballad inspired by "The Death of Charlie Birger"), and poet/folklorist Carl Sandburg (singing and playing guitar on the traditional song "Jay Gould's Daughter"). It's the older recordings that arouse the most fascination, like Henry Spaulding's sharp 1929 acoustic blues "Cairo Blues," the tamburitza of the Tamburitza Orchestra Javor's "Prijedorska Carsia," or the scratchy fiddle-strewn Cajun-like sounds of the Prairie du Rocher Singers' "La Gui-Annee." But everything here is at least respectable, and it's programmed and annotated (with a 24-page booklet) by the Illinois Humanities Council with as much professionalism and scholarship as releases on Smithsonian Folkways. If others are spurred by the liner notes' "hope that other states will be inspired to follow our path and issue similar recordings highlighting their musical heritage," they'd do well to use this series as a fine model to follow.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Richie Unterberger