Some of the best musicians in Iowa City and environs are not chasing a career in music. Keith Reins, for example, is a player and collector of folk songs who also works as a professor of English at Kirkwood Community College. After hours, you’re likely to find him at folk music sessions around Iowa City: at Hilltop Tap, Mickey’s or Uptown Bill’s Coffee House.
Reins is the guitarist at the session who slips jazzy passing chords into traditional Irish and Scottish tunes — verging on folk heresy — but always in ways that deepen and add texture. Reins approaches the depth of virtuosity and artistry of performers as revered as Bert Jansch and Nic Jones. There’s a nonchalance and ease to his playing that comes from countless hours sitting in a circle, playing with others just for the joy of it.
Folk Songs You Never Sang In Grade School is accompanied by a website of essays written by Reins that comment on folk music in general and the songs on the album in particular.
He collaborates here with Coralville violinist Tara McGovern, a fellow member in Reins’ band the Beggarmen. McGovern is every bit his equal as a folk musician, and she plays with the refined technique of someone with classical training but without any of the stiffness of a classical musician “slumming it” as a folk musician. Her singing — and Reins’ — are in the folk tradition, but delivered with impeccable intonation and phrasing. Jon Cooper adds uilleann pipes to three tracks.
The album opener “Oh, The Wind And Rain” shows off Reins’ well-worn baritone. The middle part of the performance interpolates “The Quail it is a Pretty Bird,” a well-known fiddle tune, led by McGovern’s violin and Cooper’s pipes.
McGovern sings another standout “George Collins.” This song and “Oh, The Wind and Rain” are remarkable for the particular melodies chosen, which are different from any of the other recordings of the songs I could find. Asked where he found the melody for “George Collins,” Reins said, “I think I heard someone play it in the 1970s.”
There are also instrumental sets that stitch together traditional Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes, and songs like “The Twa Sisters” that segue without break into instrumental tunes. Folk Songs You Never Sang In Grade School gives the listener the sense of being at a traditional folk session, where each song is part of an ongoing conversation, changed and polished by the singing and playing.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 226.