Yodeling at Breakneck Speed

By Scheuerman, Dan | Humanities, January/February 2008 | Go to article overview

Yodeling at Breakneck Speed


Scheuerman, Dan, Humanities


It drives you crazy," says Bucky Halker.

After combing archives, listening to more than three thousand scratchy 78s, and grinding down any good will his wife once harbored toward the Irish jig, he was bogged down by record company indifference.

Inspired by the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Halker, a musician and labor-song historian in Chicago, has spent the last six years compiling a recorded anthology of Illinois folk music. Finding the music was the fun part. The bureaucratic nightmare of tracking down its original copyright holders, sometimes a half-dozen bankruptcies removed, and getting them to care-now that was a challenge. "They are not going to go back and put out some Swiss record from the I 93Os. They're not going to put out a tambuntzo band from whenever. There's not going to be big money made in that."

After six years of digging, listening, researching, and pleading, Halker arid the Illinois Humanities Council have produced an exhaustive threevolume compilation. Folksongs of Illinois reels through country ballads, polkas, Mexican comdos, labor anthems, waltzes, gospel hymns, Croatian kotos, and bluegrass tunes over the course of sixty songs. What emerges-aside from disbelief at the manic energy and virtuosity of traditional dance tempos-is an aural ethnology of the state.

If folk music is, as its German root word volk suggests, the music of a given people, the folk music of Illinois represents the musics of several distinct peoples. Before World War Il galvanized American culture into a discernable nationality, Halker says, the lines between immigrant groups were quite pronounced. Illinois itself was a cultural Frankenstein. It had gone through life as a French colony and then a British one; accepted wave after wave of Irish, Polish, Croatian, German, and Mexican immigrants; and attracted multitudes of African Americans during the Great Migration. "The state served as a crossroads between East and West, North and South," say the liner notes, written by Halker and University of Wisconsin folklorist Nicole Saylor.

Groups that found themselves foreigners in Illinois often used their native styles to maintain a connection to the Old World. Folklorist and musician Paul Tyler notes in his essay from Volume 2 that Slavs, Poles, and Se r bo-Croatian s "chose to conserve their music and cultural identity through conscious separation from the mainstream." Serbo-Croatian tarnburitza music brought families together for kolos, or circle dances. The music is played on tombura, stringed instruments related to the lute that are made out of hollowed-out gourds. "Prijedorska Carsija," a song performed by Tamburitza Orchestra Javor, captures the style, and sheds light on immigrant nostalgia with its lyrics romanticizing a marketplace in northwestern Bosnia.

Tyler's essay details a similar homesickness in the story of Sigurd Olsen, a Swedish fiddle player who arrived in Chicago in 1927. …

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