Interviews & Reviews

The Sounds of the State A new CD series collects Illinois music from the past century.

Robert Loerzel, Chicago Reader

May 24, 2007

Clark “Bucky” Halker has heard just about every style of folk music ever recorded in Illinois–from blues and gospel to Mexican-American ballads, Irish reels, and polkas by forgotten Polish bands. In the past six years he’s listened to at least 3,000 songs, many multiple times. Sometimes, he says, it got to be too much for his wife. “OK, I’m not listening to one more tamburitza or Irish band,” she’d tell him after too many scratchy recordings. “Can we turn it off?” But Halker couldn’t turn it off. Whether he was behind the wheel of the car or looking out onto Lake Michigan from the living room of their Edgewater condo, he’d be listening to fiddlers, banjo players, even old comedy skits.

Six years ago Halker, a singer-songwriter, author, and senior program officer at the Illinois Humanities Council, set himself a daunting task: to find about 60 recordings that would together demonstrate the rich diversity of Illinois folk music for a three-CD project. The first two volumes of that project, Folksongs of Illinois, were finally released late last month, featuring cover art by cartoonist Heather McAdams and liner notes by Halker and folk-music expert Nicole Saylor. Some of the contemporary musicians who contributed tracks, including Jon Langford, Sones de Mexico, and John Rice, will perform a free concert June 1 at Martyrs’ to celebrate.

Halker defines folk pretty loosely, and the only restriction for a track’s inclusion was that it had to be written or performed by an Illinois native or recorded in the state. He combed through archives and asked scholars and music enthusiasts for suggestions and came up with a list of about 3,000 songs. He listened to those, whittled the list down to 1,000, and then listened some more. He kept a record of where in Illinois each song originated, the ethnicity, race, and gender of each artist, and the quality of the recording and performance–each factor playing a part in his decision making. “I probably listened to almost all of [the songs] twice, or parts of them twice, and others I listened to 10 to 20 times as it got closer,” he says.

By March 2006, five years into the project, Halker had narrowed the selection down to 300 songs, but he needed help making the final selections. He called on Nicole Saylor, who besides being a folk-music expert is the University of Iowa’s head digital librarian, and musician Janet Bean of Freakwater and Eleventh Dream Day.

“I had already had Nicki doing work for me up at the University of Wisconsin, digging up recordings, transferring them to CD, and sending down to me,” Halker says. Bean, meanwhile, had the eclectic taste he thought necessary for the job. “I wanted someone who . . . I could trust to give me an answer based on just being an instinctual but good listener,” he says. The three of them sat in Halker’s living room for two days deliberating. “All we did,” he says, “was eat Chinese food and listen to recordings over and over.”

Halker is a lifelong listener. Now 53, he grew up in Ashland, Wisconsin, a town on Lake Superior where he says most of the kids took accordion lessons–until, that is, they heard the Beatles in 1964 and started demanding guitars. His father, Gene Halker, owned WATW, a 1,000-watt AM station (the call letters stood for “At the Top of Wisconsin”) that played polka and country in the mornings and the likes of Perry Como in the afternoons. “My dad was an adamant opponent of rock ‘n’ roll,” Halker says. “He was from that generation that thought it was morally decrepit.” Nonetheless, he let the 16-year-old Bucky host his own rock show three nights a week. “Thirteen-year-old girls called and wanted to hear ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy’ and that sort of stuff,” he recalls.

Halker played guitar in rock bands all through high school, but by the early 80s, when he was a grad student in history at the University of Minneapolis, his love of John Prine, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young had turned him on to acoustic folk, both as a creative outlet and as a focus of academic study. In 1984 he finished his doctoral dissertation on American labor songs and released his first record of his own solo acoustic work.

In the mid-80s Halker won a fellowship from the Newberry Library to continue his research in Chicago, and his book For Democracy, Workers, and God: Labor Song-Poems and Labor Protest, 1865-95 was published by the University of Illinois Press in 1991. He’d written it partly in response to the narrow-mindedness of 20th-century scholars who considered folk music to be rural ballads from England and largely ignored other countries and ethnic groups. “I have a tendency to go at it like a punk and blast away at these scholars,” he says. “Illinois got passed over. They had these puritanical ideas of what folk music was.”

In 1996 Halker took the job as program officer for the Illinois Humanities Council, where he manages grants and organizes seminars for K-12 teachers on topics ranging from horror literature to Native American artifacts. The job, plus the touring he did as a musician, took him all around the state, exposing him to a variety of local musical styles. He observes that Illinois has a rich musical history in part because Chicago has been home to so many immigrant groups: “They’re pouring in from all over the world,” he says. But, he adds, “There are so many good musicians who never get recording contracts, even from indies, and if they do get contracts, they don’t get the attention they deserve.” He cites Skokie mandolinist Don Stiernberg as just one example: “I think he’s the greatest mandolin player in the United States, but no one really knows him.” In 2001 Halker approached Kristina Valaitis, the executive director of the Humanities Council, with the idea for the series, and she gave him the go-ahead.

The older tracks on Folksongs of Illinois, Volume 1 include Henry Spaulding’s 1929 “Cairo Blues,” Carl Sandburg singing “Jay Gould’s Daughter” in 1950, and WLS National Barn Dance stars the Girls of the Golden West crooning “Lonely Cowgirl” in 1933. WLS claimed that the Girls, sisters Millie and Dolly Goad, were born in Muleshoe, Texas, but they were actually natives of Mount Carmel.

Volume 1 also includes covers of old folk songs by contemporary artists such as Bean, Langford, and Kelly Hogan; Halker himself makes an appearance singing Woody Guthrie’s “The Dying Miner,” accompanied by Stiernberg. Some original recordings, Halker says, were in such bad shape they had to be ruled out, while others were excluded for copyright reasons. “In some cases,” he says, “you can’t even find who has the rights.”

Halker decided against paying royalties to a company in Austria that claimed to own the rights to “Cairo Blues” after an attorney and local record-label owners told him the claim was dubious. He couldn’t find any surviving relatives of the singer, Henry Spaulding, a Robert Johnson-era bluesman. “The last thing I’m going to do is give money to some white guy who lives in Austria,” he says. “I’d be better off going down to Cairo and throwing the money out the window.”

Folklorist and musician Paul Tyler, who teaches at the Old Town School of Folk Music and National-Louis University, co-produced Volume 2, which focuses exclusively on fiddle music. “The fiddle is a key instrument because it’s portable and every ethnic group played it,” Halker explains. Tracks include a medley of Irish reels by Chicago-born Liz Carroll, who won both the junior and senior All-Ireland Fiddle Championships while still in her teens and now lives in Round Lake, and a 1989 recording of “Windy City Rag” by Alison Kraus, who grew up in Champaign. On one song Tyler plays with his former bandmate in the Volo Bogtrotters, Lynn “Chirps” Smith of Grayslake, and 11-year-old Glenview native Stephanie Coleman, who studies with Smith in an Illinois Arts Council-sponsored apprenticeship.

Volume 3, tentatively scheduled to come out this fall, will be another eclectic sampler. Its theme, according to Saylor, is: “We had so much good stuff, here’s another one.”

Halker celebrates labor and protest songs at Folk Club

Dan Pearson, Pioneer Press (Tribune Broadcasting)

January 15, 2009

For those interested in American roots music and protest songs, singer-songwriter and historian Bucky Halker is a walking encyclopedia.

The Wisconsin native who has lived in Chicago since 1986, makes his debut at the Lake County Folk Club at the El Barrio Restaurant & Lounge in Mundelein this Sunday, offering a lively evening of passion, politics and pearls from the past all performed on an acoustic guitar.

"There is all this great roots music out there right now. It just takes a little more work to find it sometimes," said Halker who has nine albums to his credit that include "Don't Want Your Millions" and "Welcome To Labor Land."

While a member of the Illinois Humanities Council, this prolific singer-songwriter with a Ph.D. in American history, initiated an ambitious arts project by listening to over 3,000 local songs in order to select the material for "Folksongs Of Illinois," a three volume CD set. "That was a dream and a nightmare," said Halker, a former front man and songwriter for the eclectic Chicago bar band "The Remainders," which broke up in 1993.

As an undergrad in Minnesota, Halker said thinking about the labor movement in musical terms was a good fit for him. "I started playing a few of the songs and pretty soon it mushroomed into this key area of interest in my life," he said, "and now it seems to have taken it over.

"When scholars and people consider labor music," he continued, "they look at the 1930s and think of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seegar, Leadbelly stuff. Others would look at the I.W.W, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies who were active through World War I."

Back to 19th century

Halker's research lead him back further to the mid-19th century and the 1991 publication of "For Democracy, Labor & God: Labor Songs-Poems and Labor Protest 1865-1900." "There were just this huge mass of songs and poems out there hidden away in archives and memoirs and little chapbooks," he declared. "They were in the labor papers every day in that period. It was a way to understand what was going on in The Gilded Age. After the Civil War the Industrial Revolution really takes off in the United States. It was a way to look at what was going on in worker's heads during that time."

Halker promises to perform songs by such legends as Guthrie and various Illinois labor anthems as well as his own original material, which includes selections from his latest CD's "Wisconsin: 2.13.63," Volumes One and Two.

Those particular numbers hold a personal significance in the naming and design of this CD, he said. When Halker was eight years old a front page photo in the local paper on February 13, 1963 featured a man pointing out the Highway 2, 13 and 63 road signs that could be found right in front of Halker's home in Ashland Wisconsin.

"I thought at the time I am not going to be around the next time that highway signs is going to match that date," he saidm adding, "The interesting thing about the guy in the photo is that he died on Feb.13 last year and they had copies of the Volume One CD up by the casket."

One of the songs on the just released "Volume 2" CD is "Gender Bender Blues." "It was kind of a funny blues tune I wrote back in 1980s. Blues tend to be very male oriented and I thought one day maybe I can turn this on its head. And rather than the guy complaining that his girlfriend or his wife isn't doing what she is supposed to do, I have him complaining that he is tired that is doing the dishes and the vacuuming. And the women get it right away."

Born in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, Halker, 54, said he was tagged with the nickname Bucky almost since birth.

"The mascot for the state of Wisconsin is Bucky the Badger so a couple of friends of my parents thought it would be a cute nickname for a kid from Wisconsin," he said.

"My real name is Clark and that was an even worse name to have. Kids would tease me because Superman was such a big deal then and Clark Kent was such a geek. So the Bucky worked a lot better."

As a teen, Halker acquired a strong interest in American labor history and a variety of music growing up on the shores of Lake Superior.

"My grandfather on my mother's side worked in the stockyards in Chicago going back to the 1930s," he explained. "To me if you going to try to figure out how a society runs you still have to come back and look at the economy and issues with workers and management and ownership. Between my family and my own political inclinations, that's how I ended up with the music thing."

Halker finished recording his latest album in November."When I working on the `Folksongs Of Illinois' CDs I discovered a lot of songs related to death and dying. So we recorded 14 songs from Illinois going back to the early 19th century all the way through to the 1940s. Floods, fires, gangsters, railroad accidents, Great Lake ships going down, there are a lot of ways to die in Illinois."

Review: Anywhere But Utah – Songs Of Joe Hill (Revolting Records, 2015)

Folker Magazine, Germany


This Americana revue features five spoken-word recordings and sixteen songs (many previously never recorded), illuminating the life and music of union activist, singer, and songwriter Joe Hill. Undertaken with a team of first-class studio musicians, the album is musically somewhere between Vaudeville Music Hall, church hymns, folk and country, and equipped with insightful liner notes. Excellent! (Folker magazine, Germany 2016)

Americana-Revue mit fünf gesprochenen Zeitzeugenaufnahmen und sechzehn Liedern (viele bislang nie aufgenommen) beleuchten das Leben und die Musik des Gewerkschaftsaktivisten, Sängers und Liedermachers Joe Hill. Aufgenommen mit einer Riege erstklassiger Studiomusiker, ist das Album musikalisch zwischen Vaudeville Music Hall, Kirchenhymne, Folk und Country angesiedelt und mit erhellenden Linernotes ausgestattet. Exzellent!

Musician Halker helps to preserve Guthrie legacy

Rick Kogan's Sidewalks, Chicago Tribune

January 19, 2012

There were many notable births in the year 1912 — there are many notable births every year — and one of them took place in the tiny Oklahoma town of Okemah on July 14 when Nora Belle Tanner and Charles Edward Guthrie had a boy. They named him Woodrow Wilson, after the man who 12 days before had become the Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States.

By the time Wilson was elected that November everybody was calling the baby "Woody," and Woody it would be for the rest of his song-filled life.

Bucky Halker was born in 1954, a Wisconsin boy (his given name is Clark but he was nicknamed Bucky almost immediately, after Bucky Badger, the University of Wisconsin mascot). Woody Guthrie died in 1967, and Halker would go on to become an accomplished musician and performer, passionate historian, ardent voice for labor unions and the working class … walking in the footsteps of and ever influenced by Guthrie.

Three years ago when Halker was plowing through the Guthrie archives then in New York City, he found a telegram Guthrie had sent to his wife: "Got to Chicago in 20 hours. … I am at the home of Louis Terkel." This was, of course, Guthrie's friend Studs Terkel (also a 1912 baby), radio host-actor-activist-writer who, after Guthrie's death, wrote introductions to a couple of his biographies.

Halker also found the lyrics to a song that he had never heard of about Chicago.

"I was stunned," he says. "I have been working for a long time on a book about Guthrie and Illinois. He spent a considerable amount of time here, even serving in the military at (Scott Air Force Base) and often coming up to Chicago."

The Chicago song was a wildly spelled "Old Chy-Car-Go."

"Guthrie loved to fool around with language, with words," says Halker, who believes the song was written in 1947. "I wish there was a recording so I could know exactly how he pronounced it."

But no such thing existed. Indeed, though Halker later learned that such performers as Utah Phillips and Fred Holstein sometimes performed the song live, no one had gone into a studio to record it.

In 2010, Halker did, with a band and the great bluesy singer Cathy Richardson.

"I wanted to give it a different feel, not do it in a typical old folkie way," says Halker, who arranged the song. "I wanted it to have a late night, Rush Street sort of feel."

They do the slightly bawdy song and Guthrie proud, playfully delivering lyrics such as:

"I wish I was an evenin' breeze
So I could tickle 'round the knees
Of my chick-a-dees
In old Chy-car-go"

The song is one of more than 20 on "Folk Songs of Illinois #4: Chicago Since 1945," a stunning and freewheeling collection that also features a "Hoodoo Man Blues" duet by Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, a Jethro Burns/Don Stiernberg bash on "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, and Terkel reading "The Lumberjack's Prayer," a poem written by T-Bone Slim (nee Matt Valentine Huhta).

Halker has been involved in the previous "Folk Songs of Illinois" CDs and is putting the finishing touches on the fifth volume. He continues to feel the influence of Guthrie, stronger than ever in this centenary of his birth.

Listen to New City editor/co-publisher Brian Hieggelke, authors Brendan Sullivan and Rick Kaempfer, and comic Ken Severa on "The Sunday Papers With Rick Kogan," 6:30-9 a.m. Sunday on WGN-AM 720.

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"Bucky Halker plays music that strikes a particularly American chord. Halker's music is brash, refreshing, and tells a mean story.” Rock and Roll