So, what have I been listening to lately? Funny you should ask. Here’s about a year’s worth of recent listening, focusing mainly on new(-ish) releases.
It doesn’t seem very long ago that a friend at the local singaround told me that he was thinking of starting a record label. I thought this was a ridiculous if faintly brilliant idea, and took care to avoid either encouraging him (in case he did it and it was a disaster) or discouraging him (in case he didn’t and it would have been a brilliant success). Well, he did it, and the Folk Police imprint is the result. I think we’re looking at ‘success’. (Artistically, anyway; as I understand it he’s still got the day job.)
One of the first Folk Police releases, Oak Ash Thorn is a collection of Peter Bellamy’s settings of poems by Rudyard Kipling, originally released on two 1970s albums – Oak, Ash and Thorn and Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye. The roster of acts contributing is the proverbial who’s who of contemporary folk: the Unthanks, Jon Boden, Fay Hield, Emily Portman, Cath and Phil Tyler, Trembling Bells… the list goes on. The songs are terrific; the performances are technically superb and the production is pin-sharp.
But what does it actually sound like? I’ve listened to it a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t entirely aimed at me. Take the introduction of Sam Lee’s Puck’s Song. It’s a fine track – Sam’s got an extraordinary voice, and his arrangement is strong enough to influence my own take on the song, more or less despite myself [*]. But he opens the track with a bit of scene-setting found footage – a random bit of speech from Bob Copper, the sound of a lark and a clip of the Coppers singing a completely different song. To me it’s a distraction at best and embarrassing at worst; it just gives me the impression that the artist thinks he’s discovered this amazing new thing called ‘folk music’. This music and its practitioners really aren’t as ancient, or as alien, as all that; I’m only two degrees from Bob Copper myself, and I suspect Sam Lee is too.
Reverence for folk music, that’s what I don’t like – particularly when it takes the form of reverence for folk-rock (Trembling Bells, the Owl Service). It’s noticeable that several artists, the Unthanks and Emily Portman most obviously, take the songs slowly and delicately, without much volume but with a kind of anxious solemnity; anything less like Bellamy’s delivery of his Kipling songs would be hard to imagine.
Pace suffers most of all. Few go as far as Lisa Knapp does with The Queen’s Men – slowing down the song until the tune is lost completely – but most of the songs are taken slower than the originals. (Although Oak, Ash and Thorn and Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye were unavailable at the time this album was made, they have since been re-released – and very fine albums they are too.) Even Rapunzel and Sedayne’s Harp Song of the Dane Women – one of the better tracks here – is taken at walking pace, giving it a kind of incantatory stillness but losing the headlong weirdness of the original.
There is some excellent stuff on this album; Tim Eriksen is on noisy form, Olivia Chaney is in good voice and Jon Boden gives what’s surely the definitive reading of Frankie’s Trade (other readings are available; here’s mine [*]). It’s well worth getting if you know about Bellamy, and a must-have for anyone curious about the Bellamy/Kipling oeuvre. Even the stuff I don’t much like is good, and lots of people will like it more than I do. I guess I just find it a bit, well, polite. (James Yorkston’s Folk Songs album had a similar problem for me; Musgrave [*] shouldn’t be subdued. Brutally murdered, yes.)
My feelings about John Kelly’s second album For Honour and Promotion are less mixed. Not entirely unmixed: I’m less keen than John on songs with lines about “dear old Erin” (By the Hush) or songs in which the singer reminisces about having his way with girls by way of a combination of persuasion and judo: the words “her feet from her did glide” or similar appear in two different songs on this album, which for me was one too many. Also I can’t hear The Days of ’49 without hearing in my mind’s ear what Peter Bellamy (him again) did with it, in comparison with which anyone will suffer. But these are very minor cavils about a truly outstanding album.
John has a rich and expressive voice, accompanied on this album by his own harmonium, harmoniflute [sic], guitar and cittern; he also delivers one song unaccompanied – a superb version of When a man’s in love [*]. Whether you call all the songs on this album ‘traditional’ is one for the taxonomists, but they’re certainly all old; John lists sources including “the Scots Musical Museum (published in 6 volumes between 1787 and 1803)” and “Tipperary man Charles Kickham (1828-1882)”. As you can see from the track listing, there are English and American as well as Scottish and Irish songs here; other sources cited include the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and the Mudcat Café.
If I start listing particularly good tracks it’ll be hard to stop, but I will mention three tracks with harmonium accompaniment: I’ve never heard a better version of The streams of lovely Nancy [*], and John’s treatments of Greenland Whale Fisheries and Canadee-i-o are a revelation. Both of these songs are taken surprisingly slowly; I’m not sure why this works as well as it does, but I think it’s something to do with the unselfconscious passion with which John delivers the songs (no solemnity here). The Child ballad Mary Hamilton [*], accompanied on cittern, is hypnotically brilliant, gripping the listener despite its considerable length. But if I had to single out one song as the best thing on the album it would be As I was a-wandering (often attributed to Burns, although John’s notes don’t mention this) [*]. Accompanied on cittern, John’s rendering of this song is simply one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, in any genre.
You owe it to yourself to hear this album if you’ve got any interest in traditional song – and if you haven’t, you should hear it to find out what you’re missing. It can be obtained from John for £10 plus postage; write to harmoniumhero at hotmail dot com.
Back to Folk Police for the label’s very first release, at least according to the catalogue number: Rapunzel and Sedayne’s first commercially-available album, Songs from the Barley Temple. I’ve got another personal connection to declare here, as I know Rachel and Sean personally & have shared quite a few singarounds with them; the night when the lights went out, a couple of verses into R+S’s Green Grow The Rushes-O, will live in my memory for some time.
As will this album, which I played until I’d worn it out with over-familiarity. (I’m planning to go cold turkey for a while and rediscover it some time next year.) It’s wonderful. Some may find the sleevenotes a bit pretentious, and to be honest I may be one of them – when Sedayne describes Porcupine in November Sycamore as an “old-time field holler in the Javanese Pelog mode” I’m left none the wiser, and I could have preferred something a bit more straightforwardly informative (perhaps along the lines of “Robin Williamson didn’t write this, but I bet he wishes he had”). But the song is superb, which is the main thing; on the album it’s 6 minutes 47, and the first time I heard it I was genuinely disappointed when I realised it was ending. (The album closes with a reprise of the song, which doesn’t seem self-indulgent or excessive; it’s just nice to hear it again.)
This isn’t an album of new compositions; only two and a half songs here are originals, while a third – Outlaws – is a setting by Rapunzel of a poem by Bonnie Parker (of ‘and Clyde’ fame). Most are traditional. Some are ‘standards’ (e.g. True Thomas [*] and a terrific Blackwaterside [*]); some are less familiar (Handsome Molly, Katie Kay, Robin Redbreast’s Testament), while one standout track is a highly unfamiliar version of a trad ‘standard’, Jim Eldon’s Owld Grye Song (more commonly known as Poor Old Horse [*]).
The songs were recorded ‘live’ and without overdubs, making for a surprisingly narrow sound palette – ‘surprisingly’ inasmuch as it doesn’t sound narrow! Rapunzel’s banjo, Sedayne’s fiddle and their voices – solo and in close harmony – are supplemented on different tracks by drum, harmonium and overtone flute, as well as by the semi-random burbling of something called a Kaossilator (which can be heard to good effect on Porcupine and Owld Grye). An unpredictable combination of elements – Rapunzel’s pure voice and banjo, Sedayne’s drones and free improvisation, the passion for the old songs which they evidently share – blends to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s a terrific album. Read another review, find out more about Rapunzel and Sedayne, and buy the CD (£10). Incidentally, the vaguely Wicker Man-ish phrase ‘Barley Temple’ has much more prosaic origins; Sean is a demon anagrammatist, and a big fan of a singer who’s already been mentioned in this review.
As it was released in 1993, this album doesn’t really belong in this post, but I’m going to include it anyway. I was slightly into folk back in the mid-1970s but only quite dimly aware of it between about 1975 and 2005; this has meant retrospectively discovering the entire careers of an embarrassing number of quite major artists (notably Nic Jones, Tony Rose, Tony Capstick and of course Peter Bellamy). What’s been even more embarrassing is the realisation that I’ve also missed out on another whole generation of folkies – essentially, people of around my own age, who started working after the Revival had more or less ebbed away, and most of whom are still going. Among whom, Jo Freya.
A caveat of sorts: as you can see from the cover art, one of these things is not like the others. This looks like the kind of generic album which used to be on sale in places like Past Times; this isn’t too surprising, as it was sold through Past Times. Gef Lucena’s Saydisc label produced a number of similar albums, including Traditional Songs of Wales (sung by Siwsann George) and Traditional Songs of Scotland (sung by Ray Fisher). In the case of this album, Gef Lucena was also responsible for the production, the arrangements (on all but one track) and the sleeve notes.
So maybe this album isn’t so much Jo Freya as Gef Lucena And Friends, Featuring Jo Freya. Either way it’s pretty good. It includes 21 songs (count ‘em), covering most of the angles in English song: love (I Live Not Where I Love [*]), war (General Wolfe [*]), love and war (The Green Cockade [*]), religion (The Carnal and the Crane), magic (the Broomfield Wager), sex (Maids When You’re Young), work (Fourpence A Day)… Jo’s in good voice throughout – on some very varied material – and some of the settings, played mainly on strings, concertina and recorders, are terrific. I particularly like the songs featuring Nigel Eaton’s hurdy-gurdy – the thoroughly daft As I Set Off For Turkey in particular – and the unaccompanied William Taylor [*], which was sung and arranged by Jo and her sister Fi Fraser.
This isn’t an album to frighten the horses (or cows); it’s tastefully done, and both the backings and Jo’s vocals sometimes sound a bit reined-in. But quiet and tasteful arrangements can work extraordinarily well in folk – think Shirley and Dolly Collins – and this album includes some really memorable versions of great songs: General Wolfe, Rounding the Horn [*], All Things Are Quite Silent, As Sylvie Was Walking, A Sailor’s Life…
You can see what Jo Freya’s been up to since 1993(!) here. You can buy this album (and much else) directly from her.
The Woodbine and Ivy Band are a kind of Folk Police house band; their debut album features ten traditional songs, each with different lead vocalists and very different sonic atmospheres. Some singers – Olivia Chaney, Elle Osborne, Fay Hield, Rapunzel and Sedayne – also appeared on Oak Ash Thorn; others include Jackie Oates, Jim Causley and Pinkie Maclure.
The album that resulted is, frankly, rather special. The producer, Peter Philipson, clearly set the controls for the heart of the Seventies, but without confining himself to the ‘folk’ shelves: the Roaming Journeyman (sung by James Raynard) is essentially “Hawkwind play trad”, while Derry Gaol (Jackie Oates) sounds like a long-lost track from an early Robert Wyatt album, complete with Mongezi Feza-esque overlapping trumpet lines. A lot of work and a lot of listening has gone into this album: no two tracks sound alike, from the tremulous hush of Under the Leaves (Elle Osborne), through the none-more-Wicker-Man Gently Johnny (the Memory Band’s Jenny McCormick), to the kitchen-sink alternative-Christmas-single Spencer the Rover (Fay Hield) [*].
There isn’t a weak track on here; my personal favourite, though, is Poor Murdered Woman [*], in which Olivia Chaney’s beautiful and affecting vocals are perfectly paired with a backing dominated by trumpet and pedal steel.
Folkies are weird. When a (relatively) young and hip band like the Futureheads released Rant – an album of unaccompanied singing, including three no-messing folk songs – I expected it to be greeted with wild huzzas; at the very least I expected an approving nod or two. (Admittedly, folkies aren’t the only people who sing unaccompanied, but we do do a lot of it; I still think it’s the only way to deliver some songs with big choruses, and some solo songs for that matter.) Instead, one of the two folk fora [Lat.] that I frequent ignored it completely – not out of pique, as far as I can tell, but because the regulars genuinely hadn’t noticed it. At the other, it was greeted with a rather ungracious note about how certain traditional songs had become clapped-out and unlistenable through overuse, specifically including two of the three traditional songs on the Futureheads album.
Well, I like it. As well as those three traditional songs – The Keeper, The Old Dun Cow and (hidden track) Hanging Johnny – the album includes four of the Futureheads’ own songs and a scattering from other sources, ranging from Richard Thompson to the Black-Eyed Peas via Sparks (The No. 1 Song in Heaven). (They don’t do Hounds of Love, but you can’t have everything.) As far as clapped-out songs are concerned, incidentally, I do know The Old Dun Cow back to front, but I’d actually never heard The Keeper before I got this album; it may have been done to death in the 70s and 80s, but I wasn’t going to singarounds back then. Nor indeed were the Futureheads.
It’s a nice album. The louder and more aggressive songs perhaps work better – there’s a limit to how much sensitivity and restraint four blokes can deliver – but the arrangements are interesting throughout and the harmonies are spot-on. In conclusion may I say, in my role as an ageing bearded folkie, that it’s an Encouraging Sign when A New Generation discovers (cont’d p. 94)
The Magnetic Fields’ Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a short album consisting of 15 short songs (they range from 2:01 to 2:39). Seven are sung by the songwriter Stephin Merritt, the other eight shared between Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms. A bit more Merritt would have been good – he has a beautiful singing voice. The sound palette is rather insistently synthesiser-heavy; TMF haven’t used any synths for their last few albums, and this is the return of the repressed, or something. According to the booklet there are a whole range of instruments being played here – guitar, piano, autoharp, cello, trumpet, flute, violin, accordion, musical saw… I’ve only been able to make out the first five of these, and some of those have been processed to the point where they sound like synth patches; presumably the rest are even lower in the mix. The dominant sound of the album is the swish, blatt and scronk of the more experimental end of mid-80s synth pop.
But all you really need to know is that there are songs on this album with lyrics like this:
“A pity she does not exist, a shame he’s not a fag.
The only girl I ever loved was Andrew in drag.”
“I’m gonna fly back to Laramie,
Let Laramie take care o’ me till they bury me.”
“Oh if only you were the only boy in town
For then I could not play the field and let you down
I would not go half-mad
For each passing lad
With eyes of blue, green, grey or brown…”
“I have taken a contract out on you,
I have hired a hitman to do what they do.
He will do his best to do his worst
After he’s messed up your girlfriend first.”
Not to mention a brief, sad, funny song called (self-explanatorily) I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh. (If that title on its own makes you laugh, you’ll like this album. It still gets me every time.)
‘Witty’ is one word for writing like this, but I don’t think Noël Coward [*] ever had this kind of emotional range; there’s frustration, bitterness and rage in these songs, as well as multiple shades of love and lust. This is great songwriting; even the slightest songs give you something to think about, and the best wring your heart out. Another time more acoustic instruments would be good, and more vocals from Stephin, but still – a fine album.
Have I mentioned the Folk Police label recently? They’ve got a compilation album out, you know. No, not that one; this is an album associated with a one-day “Weirdlore” festival, which was scheduled earlier this year but unfortunately didn’t happen.
“Weirdlore: Notes from the folk underground”: what’s that about? Nobody seems entirely sure. What you get here includes three songs about witchcraft, one about shape-shifting, one about tree-worship and one about moss. One song is about Grendel and one about Loki; there’s a song in Cornish and an instrumental with a title in Anglo-Saxon. So that’s ‘weirdlore’ for you, perhaps.
The CD booklet includes some rather unhelpful stuff about what this genre isn’t, which sometimes gives the impression of being written by people who don’t actually like folk: this isn’t “the narcissistic mid-Atlantic songwriter strummery, the same-old same-old bearded Folkistani clichés or the Coldplay-with-banjos syndrome”, nor is it “over-serious wickermania, twee faux-pagan pholklore and retro-folkadelia” (Ian A. Anderson). May I also add that these aren’t folk singers “sitting in a dilapidated pub somewhere churning out endless verses about someone with a stupid name getting garrotted” or “bottom-of-the-bill nobodies, with a battered acoustic guitar, bleating on about their crummy lives”; nor indeed are they “Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling et al pick[ing] up multiple Mercury and Brit nominations along with their royalty cheques” after making music that “has, wincingly perfectly, been dubbed The New Boring.” (Jeanette Leech)
For me all this prompts two questions: “so what do you like?” and “are you sure you ought to be listening to folk music?” Call me excessively logical, but it seems to me that if I wanted to hear music that couldn’t be confused with ‘bearded Folkistani clichés’ and ‘endless verses about someone with a stupid name getting garrotted’ I’d be best off avoiding English traditional songs altogether – and if I didn’t want to hear anything even slightly resembling ‘narcissistic mid-Atlantic songwriter strummery’ from ‘bottom-of-the-bill nobodies with a battered acoustic guitar’, cutting out songwriters playing acoustic guitars would be a good move. (And if I really hated “twee faux-pagan pholklore and retro-folkadelia” I probably wouldn’t listen to many songs about witches and moss.) The thing is, there’s an awful lot of music out there that passes the no-beardie, no-strummery, no-faux-pagan tests with the greatest of ease: I’ve listened to a lot of Underworld and cLOUDDEAD in my time, a great deal of Faust and Soft Machine, and a fair bit of Bach. So why on earth should I listen to folk, if most of it’s so bloody awful?
What seems to be at work here is a rhetorical device that people often use to promote a new variety of something to a sceptical audience, outflanking the punters’ resistance by endorsing their prejudices instead of challenging them – “Don’t like folk? Think it’s tedious rubbish? Well, you’re right – most of it is tedious rubbish! But not this kind of folk…” (See also BrewDog.) I think it’s a really bad idea, on more than one level. Most obviously, it’s not doing any favours to all the other folkies in the world; you’re either on the bus or yah boo sucks, boring same-old twee Folkistani nobodies! (See also BrewDog.) I also think it’s not a good look on an emotional level: it’s based on maintaining a constant level of negativity, with every blessing offset by a curse, instead of trying to move the conversation away from what’s bad altogether. Plus it plays havoc with your critical vocabulary: once you’ve come out with blanket condemnations like the ones I’ve quoted, what will you do if you hear an unknown singer-songwriter with an acoustic – or a bearded folkie doing a full-length Young Hunting [*] – and you actually like what you hear? (Answer: you’ll probably end up using the word “different” a lot, falling back if necessary to regroup at “indefinably different”.)
On a more positive note, Ian Anderson describes music of the ‘weirdlore’ school as “diverse, original, fascinating and occasionally delightfully eccentric stuff” which is “indefinably [sic], umbilically connected to our sometimes odd English folk traditions or reflect[s] their spirit”. So I guess that’ll have to do: it’s all different, it’s original, it’s indefinably umbilically connected. Weirdlore: it’s new, it’s interesting, it’s vaguely sort of folk…ish.
I should probably review the album, shouldn’t I? There’s a fair amount of reverence on display here, unfortunately. Unlike Oak Ash Thorn, there aren’t many acolytes in the temple of folk-rock on this album, but there are several people who have looked back a little further – to West Coast psychedelia, to Roy Harper, to Nick Drake, to early Jethro Tull (sorry, Ian) and especially to the Incredible String Band. There are a few introspective finger-pickers, singing about who knows what; then there are those three songs about witches, along with several others whose sound can only be described as “wifty-wafty”. Several of the contributors here seem to have watched The Wicker Man a hundred times without ever getting as far as the last scene. (Christopher Lee’s the villain, people! It’s a horror film, not a holiday programme!) Moving up the scale a bit, there are some acts – Wyrdstone and Foxpockets in particular – who are basically doing interesting variations on indie; I’d give them a Peel session, or whatever the equivalent is these days.
And then there’s the really good stuff. In roughly ascending order: Pamela Wyn Shannon‘s Moss Mantra is hypnotic, magical and rather funny – although, given that it comes from an album called The Phantasmagoria of Plant Mantras, not all of these effects may have been intended. Alasdair Roberts‘s Haruspex of Paradox – the song about Loki mentioned above – is entrancing; it very nearly justifies that awful title. (Let’s not revive prog, eh?) Hora by the wonderfully-named Boxcar Aldous Huxley is a rackety rendition of a traditional Eastern European dance tune, featuring klezmer-ish clarinet and musical saw. (‘Hora’ is a style of dance – it’s a bit like calling a track Jig.) It sounds great – reminiscent of Barry Black, one of the great lost albums of the 90s – although the folkie old fart in me can’t help thinking they’d sound even better if they put some hours in, found some dancers to play for and did it properly. (My daughter, who dances to this kind of thing, heard it and said “yes, if you sped it up it would sound like a hora”. Out of interest, I’ve tried speeding it up using Audacity; about 60% faster, it sounds terrific.) Harp and a Monkey are an odd band, who seem to look back to an altogether different corner of the 1970s. Forty years ago the Northwest of England was awash with folk acts, mostly playing working men’s clubs, with a bias towards jokey and local material. This was where Mike Harding came from, not to mention Tony Capstick and half a dozen other ‘names’ who you probably wouldn’t have heard of. Singing topical and political songs in their own accents, with a folkie d-i-y vibe (a child’s xylophone is a central part of their sound), Harp and a Monkey seem to evoke that lost period in British folk and bring it into the twenty-first century. Unusually, on this album they perform a traditional song – the shaggy-dog story/dirty joke The Molecatcher. They claim, scrupulously, that the chorus and some of the verses are their own additions; I would never have known. A terrific rendition – more please. Sproatly Smith are a wonder and a mystery; I don’t know who they are, how many of them there are or what they play. The image which came to mind on hearing their Rosebuds In June, and which has refused to be dislodged ever since, is “it’s like something from the Wicker Man, if the Wicker Man had been a 1960s children’s TV series about time travel”. On reflection… yep, that’s precisely what it sounds like. Finally, there are Rapunzel and Sedayne, appearing for the fourth(!) time in this post, and on this occasion playing an absolute blinder. R+S excel themselves with The Innocent Hare – a lolloping, languidly exuberant reading of a hunting song from the Coppers’ repertoire. Sedayne’s fiddle and the interplay of his and Rapunzel’s voices have never sounded better; it’s a wonderful track. (The hare gets away, in case you were wondering; the hunters give up, go off to the pub and drink her health (hares are always female). Happy ending!)
My advice? Bearing in mind my own strictures on people who accentuate the negative, let me just say that an EP consisting of the six tracks listed in the previous paragraph would be worth a tenner of anyone’s money. (It would also have a much more cohesive sound and feel than the full album. Just saying.) All that and another nine tracks, several of which are thoroughly listenable (I am available for ads and poster campaigns), and some of which you’ll probably like more than I did. Yours for £10 from Folk Police.
When it was released last year, every review of King Creosote and Jon Hopkins’ Diamond Mine seemed to include the word ‘folk'; one even described the songs as ‘typical folk songs’. This sparked off the original idea for this post, which was going to set Diamond Mine alongside John Kelly’s album and perhaps one of the Folk Police ones, with a view to working out what ‘folk’ meant in this context.
Then I forgot all about it, and ended up writing a review of eight different albums without even mentioning this one.
First things first: the first song on this album genuinely sounds as if it could be a traditional song, or at least a song written in the neighbourhood of traditional songs. At least, it does to begin with:
Today John Taylor starts his month away
On a boat 110 miles East of Aberdeen
A dozen men, thirty days with 24 hours in each
Of shattered boyhood dreams and not much sleep
I’d much rather be me.
No! Tell us about John Taylor! Tell us about the life of a North Sea fisherman! Don’t tell us how you feel about it all – why would anyone care how you feel about it all, especially when all you can think of to say is that you’re glad it’s not you? We know that already – that’s practically the entire point of telling us about a hard life like John Taylor’s, to sympathise with him, praise his fortitude and endurance, and thank the Lord it’s him going out there and not us. “I’d much rather be me” – is that it? Is that the depth of your imaginative identification? What a falling-off – a verse and a chorus and we’re out of Shoals of Herring territory and into me-me-me. Bloody singer-songwriters…
Such were the thoughts that went through my head, particularly when KC got through the second verse and embarked on a ruminative section built on the tried and tested “I’d much rather be me”.
Hey ho. There are seven tracks on this album: an opening instrumental, John Taylor’s Month Away, then four deeply personal songs written in chains of semi-private semi-metaphor (“For after our accident we lost our no claims/And now I hate those pastel shades”). The last song, closing the album, is the shortest and simplest, and perhaps the best:
It’s your young voice that’s keeping me holding on
To my dull life, to my dull life
Beautiful and affecting. And this is, above all else, a beautiful album. KC’s voice is the voice of an angel, and Jon Hopkins’s arrangements and production are elegant and sometimes startlingly inventive. (My Blackwaterside is heavily influenced by the production of Your Young Voice.) The whole album has a still, untroubled atmosphere; songs emerge from the hush and gradually merge back into it. But the songs themselves – wordy, playful, always spoken by an “I”, always addressed to “you” – have more in common with the songs on the Magnetic Fields album than with any of the traditional songs I’ve mentioned. (The situations in the Magnetic Fields songs are fictionalised vignettes described straight, in the show-tune style; the KC songs take real situations and describe them opaquely, in the singer-songwriter style. But the two forms are very closely related: they’re both about revealing while not revealing, and in both cases what’s being revealed and not revealed is an emotion felt by the writer.)
Interviewed in 2008, James Yorkston disclaimed the label of ‘folk’ for his own work:
Folk is a word that means something different to practically everyone you ask, from the music in the fields passed down from mouth to ear to all the different music that’s out there. For me the word “folk” has always meant traditional folk so for me the word “folk” doesn’t describe what I do because I write pop songs, even though they’re not very popular. One may say it’s folk and that’s one’s opinion and that’s fine but it’s not my opinion, folk has always meant traditional folk. It’s not a big thing, it’s not a war cry or anything.
To put it another way, if Diamond Mine is folk, then ‘folk’ means two completely separate things. It’s simpler and more straightforward, surely, to say that KC also writes pop songs, even though they’re not very popular. Still – nice album.
So, to sum up, “Buy my mate’s records.”
– Not entirely! Four of these nine albums are on the Folk Police label (and I paid for all of them except Weirdlore). Hand on heart, the Woodbine and Ivy Band and Rapunzel & Sedayne CDs are great albums; the other two I didn’t rave about particularly. The one album you should get before any of the others is John Kelly’s.
He’s not a mate as well, by any chance?
– Well, I know him to talk to. I’m more of a fan.
While we’re doing Qs and As, what’s so great about all this traditional stuff anyway?
– I always say it’s the words, which may explain how I can rave about John Kelly and Stephin Merritt in the same post. Listening back to some of these songs, it occurred to me that that’s literally true – often what anchors a song in my mind is a single word, usually one that’s not quite right. Boney’s Lamentation: “We marched them forth in inveterate streams“. Inveterate streams! The Innocent Hare: “Relope, relope, retiring hare!” Relope! More generally, what you get quite consistently in traditional songs is turns of phrase which snag in your mind because they’re just rhythmically and musically perfect. The Innocent Hare is full of them; a favourite of mine is “Go tell your sweet lover the hounds are out”. Why ‘sweet’? Why does ‘sweet’ make it such a good line? Lines like this have been polished through repetition and re-remembering over the years – polished till the pebbles shine.
The songs aren’t all that great, though. And they haven’t all been preserved through oral transmission for any length of time, for that matter.
– Everyone’s a musicologist all of a sudden.
No need to get narky. I’m arguing with myself, remember.
– I’m hardly likely to forget.
– Moving along. There’s obviously something about the impersonality of traditional songs – the way that they’re not in the singer-songwriter style – that appeals to me. This may not apply to anyone else, but then again it may: I suspect that once you’ve got the taste you never quite go back. But I think what I really love about folk music is that it’s a participative art form, based on a collective sharing of the material: Jo Freya sang William Taylor, so did John Kelly and so have I. They’re totally different renderings – they even have different words and tunes to some extent – but it’s the same song. And the song’s still there for the next singer to pick up. That’s the real point of all those asterisked links up there; they’re not (just) a cheeky attempt to drive traffic to my 52 Folk Songs site. Everyone can contribute; everyone can do the very same songs. Folk is really unusual in this respect. When singers contribute to an album of songs by Leonard Cohen, you get a Leonard Cohen tribute album. When singers contribute to an album of traditional songs, you get a folk album.
And what do you get when one person records a traditional song every week for a year?
Moving along… Final question: why now?
– The idea for this post has been buzzing around for a while, which is probably why it’s ended up being so long. It had to be written now because I’ve just succeeded in tracking down a copy of the Magnetic Fields’ monumental triple album 69 Love Songs – in name at least, a definite influence on my own project – and expect to be immersed in it for some time. Which means it’s going to be Goodbye, Piccadilly, farewell, Leicester bloody Square on the trad front for a while.
You think it’s going to be good, then?
– I already know five of the 69 songs, and three out of those five are among my favourite songs in the world. I think it’s going to be good.
– Or too much.