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Old Town School rolls out historic song archive

The Old Town School of Folk Music has had a lot of legendary and influential artists pass through its doors during its 55 years, and many of them have been documented on recordings that up until now have been available only to the school’s music students and teachers.

Now Old Town is beginning to roll out some of that huge archive to the public, with an initial batch of 127 songs, “Live at the Old Town School” Vol. 1-4, available at several digital stores (iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby). These include performances from Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Andrew Bird, Jeff Tweedy, Toumani Diabete, Pete Seeger, Steve Earle and Mahalia Jackson, among others. They make up a thrilling you-are-there hodge-podge of roots music, culled from street tapes made by fans to sound-board digital recordings by professional mixing engineers.

There are only about 66,000 more songs to go. The school hired a small army of fledgling lawyers to clear the licensing on each of the songs in the initial offering, says Bau Graves, Old Town executive director. He’s hoping for changes in copyright law that will simplify the process and allow archivists to pay a blanket fee to clear the rights. In lieu of that, it could take years before the bulk of the archive becomes widely available.

“It’s a treasure trove of music,” he says. “We’d like more people to be able to hear it.”

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