In the music world, there are few bad stories that begin with the discovery of a shoebox packed with mystery tapes.
"They've been here since I arrived in 1999," says Colby Maddox, archivist at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, describing the two boxes he found in the school's basement. "We had just moved to this building [on Lincoln Avenue], and I finally got into it one day. They were DAT tapes, obviously transfers of a lot of old reel-to-reel recordings. A lot of it proved to be just junk, but" -- he chuckles -- "some of it was pretty great."
After 10 years, three grants and countless man hours deciphering the tapes, editing down the good stuff, transferring it all to digital files and getting legal clearances, these long-neglected recordings of Old Town School concerts will be available to the public as a four-volume, digital-only "box set" plainly titled "Live From the Old Town School," available Tuesday on Amazon, CD Baby and iTunes. The 127 selections span the decades, from Mahalia Jackson in the 1950s and Win Stracke, the school's co-founder, in the 1960s to Jon Langford in the '90s and Andrew Bird in this century.
The designation "from the Old Town School" is fluid. Many of the performances were captured in the listening room at the school's current Lincoln Square locale, but others spotlight songs and hootenannies from the school's earlier Armitage Avenue base, as well as Frank Hamilton singing "Motherless Child" at the Immigrant State Bank Building on North Avenue in 1962, Pete Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy running through "Midnight Special" at Northwestern University in 1956, or a medley by Guy & Candie Carawan during an intimate show at George and Gerry Armstrong's home in 1978.
The shoeboxes are at the core of this set, but numerous other cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes in a basement cabinet provided more material, each the legacy of a soundman who had the foresight to press the record button as the concerts began. Maddox's predecessor, Paul Tyler, also managed to copy many tapes from the library at WFMT-FM (98.7), a previous partner of the school; some Old Town School recordings still fuel the station's continuing "Folkstage" program.
"They had accumulated hundreds of tapes of performances and interviews" in conjunction with the school, Tyler said in a statement. "I would tuck our rack-mount DAT under my arm and hop on the L."
"There was a window where they let Paul do that, and boy, he worked at it," Maddox says. "'FMT and Old Town had a very close relationship. Before the station went classical, you couldn't tell the difference between the folkies here and there. But before that, Paul got on the L regularly with a DAT deck -- not a little one, mind you, a big one -- and filled these shoeboxes with transfers. So the picture we have is fairly complete."
Once everything had been digitized, Maddox loaded the whole collection into the school's iTunes account -- 11,220 songs. Teachers, students, folklorists of various stripes began poking through it, advising what was good, great, amazing.
"This was always meant as a curriculum initiative for us," Maddox says. "We wanted to pull out things that could be teachable, that showed songs in different lights, stuff that was good but entertaining and also comes out of this tradition of community music. It's not something to put out as musical wallpaper. This is stuff to listen to -- and learn [from]. That's kind of our whole deal."
Those thousands of songs were winnowed down to these four batches and mastered by Grammy-winning producer Michael Freeman (Pinetop Perkins).
The first set is titled "Family," though it's a loose definition. It opens with "Stewball," but this isn't that whimsical racehorse you wish was yours: It's the Leadbelly version -- about desperately wagering on a winner. Rory Block's tale of the doomed "Titanic" follows, as does a mature love song from former rocker Peter Case.
"The 'Family' section was curated mostly by me, and it wasn't supposed to be a kids' section," Maddox says. "I grew up singing 'Titanic' and making up verses to it. To me, that's kids' music. This is the version from the [1952 six-volume set] 'American Anthology of Folk Music,' too, so it's a national treasure."
Likewise, the "New Folk" section is also loosely defined, spanning Joan Baez to Steve Earle, encompassing anything that was "discernible from the music that was predominant before Dylan showed up and blew it apart," Maddox says. The "Traditional Folk" section features some of those pre-Dylan artists, as well as contemporary players who work within that older style.
The fourth set focuses on world music, and here a majority of the sessions date from within the last 15 years that brought the school's expanded international focus.
Why a digital-only release? Cost was the main factor. Plus, this is the medium of the moment.
"All our shows are recorded direct to hard drive now," Maddox says. "I get three a week."
In other words, no more shoeboxes -- but fans can expect more music to come.
Five great tracks from the set
(Click here to listen to them!)
The 127 songs on "Live From the Old Town School" are a cross-section of local and American folk history during the last 55 years, from social statements to commercial successes. Here are some standout track:
Steve Goodman, "The 20th Century Is Almost Over"
WFMT studios, broadcast in 1992
Co-authored with fellow local native John Prine, Goodman's 1977 paean to the previous century remains a great sing-along, not to mention it's still relevant and prescient ("Winter's getting colder, summer's getting hotter").
Jeff Tweedy, "Three Is a Magic Number"
Old Town School, 4544 N. Lincoln, Feb. 17, 2002
Leave it to the Wilco leader to pull out this song for a family show. The first of the "Schoolhouse Rock" songs is full of math, which Tweedy jangles through with tuneful ease.
Mahalia Jackson, "Move on Up"
Venue unknown, 1956
Jackson opens this performance by introducing the songwriter, a local teacher who "don't teach gospel, she teaches that high-class stuff." But Jackson, supported on piano by Thomas Dorsey, elevates the tune with her superlative voice in this clear recording.
Pete Seeger, "Roll the Union On"
People's Church, May 17, 1986
Seeger appears elsewhere in the set, namely in a 1956 duet with Big Bill Broonzy on "Midnight Special," but he's still so spirited in this later concert. "A song like this has been sung on so many picket lines you forget what a really good song it is," Seeger says, indicating how many of these songs are a wellspring for the spaces we still Occupy today.
Andrew Bird, "Dear Old Greenland"
Old Town School, 4544 N. Lincoln, Sept. 15, 2000
Four songs from this concert appear on the set, featuring indie-fave Bird thrown onstage to open for Dan Hicks at the last minute with a band he hadn't rehearsed with. But all four songs, like this arch ode to the tundra, are fine folk tunes straight from the school's repertoire -- no pop, no whistling. A must for fans seeking to fly farther.