What Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook, Vol. 1 looks like at first is yet another of those Smithsonian/Folkways collections of recordings from the Great Folk Scare of the late 1950s and '60s: on the cover is a group of earnest, young urban kids sitting in a small circle, one with an acoustic guitar, all intently studying what can only be the Music of the People. But look more closely and you see something different: a song list that could have come straight from one of those Smithsonian/Folkways albums ("Shady Grove," "Trouble in Mind," "St. James Infirmary" -- even, heaven help us, "Old Dog Tray") -- but with an artist roster that includes members of the Mekons, Wilco, Eleventh Dream Day and Bad Livers. It's a motley crew and they provide a motley array of performances: Alice Peacock's rendition of "Trouble in Mind" is brilliant, as is Janet Beveridge Bean's cool and deliberate take on "Deep River Blues," and Kathy Cowan manages to make a gentle and unassuming silk purse out of a sow's ear with her unaffected rendition of the maudlin "Old Dog Tray." Sadly, a few of the singers can't resist the temptation to ham it up: Chris Walz over-emotes embarrassingly on "Worried Man Blues," and Pete Special hijacks "St. James Infirmary" and turns it into a showcase for his (poor) Dr. John impression. But overall, these artists tend to shed new light on some of the most familiar songs in the folk revival canon, so good for them.
AllMusic Review by Rick Anderson