Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook, Vol. 4, is the final chapter in a series of recordings commemorating the 50th anniversary of Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, following a first volume released in 2006 and a double-CD set comprising the second and third volumes released earlier in 2007. As was true of the previous discs, this one is filled with traditional folk songs and some venerable originals written by folk-based singer/songwriters dating back to Woody Guthrie, and annotator Paul Tyler fills the CD booklet with notes about the songs' origins while saying little about the actual recordings. On previous volumes, that could make for quite a dichotomy, as contemporary singers and musicians sometimes took great liberties with the folk classics. That is less true on the fourth volume, which might be called the most "Chicago-like" of the collections in the sense that many of the contributors are artists originally from or long based in and around Chicago, such as Tom Paxton (who sings Guthrie's "So Long It's Been Good to Know You" with Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer), Frank Hamilton (one of the first teachers at the school), Michael Smith, Steve Goodman, and John Prine. If there is any dominant voice on a nearly 80-minute disc with a different performer on each of the 20 tracks, it may be Goodman, more than 20 years dead, who is heard playing his signature song "City of New Orleans" in a live recording from the '70s that originally appeared on the album Live at the Earl of Old Town and who also chimes in on the final track, Sons of the Never Wrong's rendition of the hymn "I'll Fly Away." Other singers often seem influenced by his reedy voice and plain-spoken delivery in presenting these well-known songs, and they are the better for that. The songbook albums are never too stuffy, despite the scholarly approach because the performers are so enthusiastic about the material, even when they are re-creating the sounds of earlier artists, such as Devil in a Woodpile, which evokes the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in a lively reading of Gus Cannon's "Stealin'." The fourth volume is anything but the leftovers of the series; on the contrary, some of the best has been saved for last.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann