When classically trained musicians get their hands on folk songs, strange music may result; ballads with simple vigor can become recital-room orchids or unintentional comedy. A few longhairs, however, have a feeling for traditional song–Judy Collins, who started as a classical pianist, comes to mind, and certainly Kathy Cowan, a singer’s singer who performs in concert this Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music with her accompanists Shinobu Sato and John Rozendaal, on guitar and viola da gamba.

Though she’s at home with opera, legitimate theater, and Gilbert and Sullivan, Cowan specializes in Celtic (Scottish, Irish, and some Breton) song, a genre too often populated by pub groups, florid tenors and sopranos, or grimly serious unison instrumentalists.

“I don’t like the way some classical musicians do folk,” Cowan admits. “They seem to lose the excitement. I like to keep it interesting through staying true to the traditional sound; folk song uses a certain style of note bending, scoops, and delays”–what is often referrred to as “singing off the beat”–“just as jazz and blues have their own scoops and delays. The irony is that these are the very vocal mannerisms that classical singers strive to strip away from their singing.”

Cowan makes her Celtic selections with an equal eye to lyrics and music–“I choose the poem, and I choose the melody. I love the unusual traditional things in interesting modes like Dorian, or in uncommon times–‘What Brought the Blood’ is written in 3/4 signature but feels like 4/4 every other bar.”

A love of Irish music is in Cowan’s blood; her father Denis Cowan was an Irish tenor who taught Kathy her first Irish song, “The Minstrel Boy”; he was also a classical singer best known in Chicago for singing Bach, not ballads. He taught music in colleges to augment his income as a singer, so though she was born in Chicago, Kathy moved around quite a bit. She spent most of her youth in Mount Carroll, where Denis taught at Shimer College. Cowan eventually settled back in Chicago.

With the exception of a trip to Ireland to study traditional singing with Paddy and John Tunney, she’s been here ever since, working onstage in varied venues and winning occasional contests. One of Cowan’s current consuming projects involves the many unknown local singers who perform Irish traditional song–highly decorated melodies sung a cappella–in parlors, pubs, and kitchens. She’s interviewing, taping, and photographing these singers in an attempt to preserve this rich trove of Celtic song for future generations.

Within the context of Celtic music, a dedicated eclecticism is Cowan’s trademark; her first album, The Red-Haired Man’s Wife (on the Despard Helps label), was mostly arranged by Mike Kirkpatrick, who’s also the guitarist for the Drovers. Kirkpatrick plays on the album along with Sato, Rozendaal, harpsichordist David Schrader, penny whistler Tim Britten, Irish fiddle champion Liz Carroll, and folk fiddler Jenny Armstrong. Sato now arranges most of Cowan’s songs, and can be expected to perform solo during the course of Saturday’s concert. A special treat is when Sato feels confabulatory onstage; his monologues can be sidesplitting.

Years of hard work have given Cowan’s beautiful soprano the air of effortlessness and ease that is a trademark of the good technician. That technique is resulting in an ever-increasing demand for Cowan as a coach; she now gives classes five days a week at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and her students run the musical gamut–from balladeers to rock singers.

She performs tomorrow, May 16, at the school, 909 W. Armitage, at 8 PM. Tickets are $8; call 525-7793 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.