Today, songs of love (good, bad, and faery-haunted), rooted in the ballad tradition of the British Isles.
Above: "Orfeo" (Child Ballad #19), performed by the American folk/bluegrass duo Anna & Elizabeth, with a shadow puppet video created by the musicians themselves. This rendition of an old Scots faery ballad is from their debut album, Anna & Elizabeth (2017).
Below: "Polly Vaughan" (Roud Ballad #166) performed by The Furrow Collective at the Halifax Square Chapel in West Yorkshire. The group is composed of four English/Scottish musicians who also have strong solo careers: Alasdair Roberts, Emily Portman, Rachel Newton, and Lucy Farrell. The song is from their second album, Wild Hog (2014).
Above: "Sylvie" (also known as "Sovay" or "The Female Highwayman," Roud Ballad #7), performed by Rachael McShane & The Cartographers (Matt Ord, Julian Sutton, & Dan Rogers). The song will appear on a new album of re-worked ballads in 2018.
Below: "False Lady" (also known as "Young Hunting," Child Ballad #68) by the North London band Teyr (Dominic Henderson, Tommie Black-Roff, and James Gavin). The song comes from their fine first album, Far From the Tree (2016).
Above: "Anyone But Me," a contemporary ballad by the English alt-folk duo Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, from their second album, Fire & Fortune (2013). The song is performed at The Crossroads in London, a venue which pairs cross-genre musicians with an in-house chamber orchestra and choir.
Below: "Three Fishers," a ballad based on a poem by Charles Kingsley (1819-1923), performed by Fara. The band is composed of Scottish musicians Jennifer Austin, Kristan Harvey, Jeana Leslie and Catriona Price. The song is from their lovely first album, Cross the Line (2016).
The art today is by Florence Susan Harrison (1878-1955). She was born in Brisbane, Australia, but spent much of her childhood at sea (her father was a sea caption) and at a great-aunt's school in England. It's not known where (or if) Harrison formally studied art, but she established a very successful career as an illustrator for the Blackie & Son publishing house (Glasgow and London) from 1905 onward.
My apologies for being away for so long, dear Readers. I was in high spirits just a month ago, after visiting friends on the Isle of Skye -- but then life turned around and clobbered us from an unexpected direction. (For family privacy sake, I can't be more explicit.) Now we're picking ourselves up off the ground, a bit bruised but eager to return to the things that shine a light in hard times: books and art and puppets and theatre, and the community (both near and far) that sustains us.
I'm back in the studio today, with Child Ballads by Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer on the stereo: a lovely reminder of the folklore traditions that lie at the roots of the Mythic Arts field. When the album first appeared in 2013, there were listeners on this side of the Atlantic nonplused to hear classic British ballads sung in American accents -- forgetting that such songs made their way over to the New World with Anglo-Scots immigrants and are part of America's folk heritage too. Francis Child, the famous ballad collector, was an American himself: a scholar of literature, language and folklore at Harvard University. (For more information on the man, and on the ballads, go here.)
Above: Mitchell & Hamer perform an unusual version of "Tam Lin," Child Ballad #39. This variant omits the role of the Fairy Queen in stealing Tam Lin away, but includes a part of the song often elided in other renditions: Janet's intent to get rid of her unborn child (by the use of magical, poisonous plants) until Tam Lin dissuades her.
Above: Mitchell performs "Clyde Waters" (Child Ballad #216) on the Prairie Home Companion program, backed up by the great Chris Thile on mandolin and Sarah Jarosz on vocals, among others.
Below: a song from Mitchell's extraordinary folk opera Hadestown, based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Hadestown first appeared as a concept album in 2010, and was turned into a theatrical production by New York Theatre Workshop in 2016.
Although written almost a decade ago, Mitchell's Hadestown song "Why We Build the Wall" is especially relevant today, in the age of Trump. And so, sadly, is the final song: "Deportee" by Woody Guthrie (from 1948), which Mitchell performed a few months ago with Austin Nevins.
Today's music comes from the brilliant British folk singer and folk song collector Sam Lee. I'm completely in love with this young man's music -- as well as with the wide variety of collaborative projects he instigates or contributes to. If you ever have the chance to see him live, please don't miss it. His recordings of old ballads and Gypsy Traveller songs are wonderful, but hearing them live -- as they are meant to be heard -- is just extraordinary.
Above: A BBC profile of Lee's "Singing With the Nightingales," an annual series of events in which folk, classical, and jazz musicians collaborate with nightingales in their natural habitats. As the website explains, guests at the nightingale gatherings are invited "not just to listen to these birds in ear-tinglingly close proximity, but to share an evening around the fire, delving into your hosts’ and guest musicians' own funds of rare songs and stories." After supper by the fire, the small audience for each event is lead "in silence and darkness into the nightingale’s habitat, not only to listen to these majestic birds, but to share in an improvised collaboration; to experience what happens when bird and human virtuosi converge in musical collaboration."
Above: "Blackbird," a traditional British Traveller song peformed by Lee in Amsterdam -- with Jonah Brody on piano, Joshua Green on percussion, amd Flora Curzon on violin.
Above: "Lovely Molly," a gorgeous rendition of a Scottish Traveller song by Lee, Brody, and Green for The Lullaby Project at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds.
Above: "The Blind Beggar," performed by Lee with Lisa Knapp and Nathaniel Mann at the Foundling Museum in London as part of their Broadside Ballads project. A broadside, the three musicians explain, "is a single sheet of inexpensive paper printed on one side, often with a ballad, rhyme, news and sometimes with woodcut illustrations. Broadside ballads, from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, contain words and images once displayed and sung daily in Britain’s streets and inns. Although part of living traditions of folksong, popular art and literature, these illustrated printed sheets are now rare and preserved in only a few libraries." In developing the project, they spent time researching the ballads at the Bodleian, and then created new contemporary arrangements for these historic songs.
Below: "Lord Gregory" (Child Ballad #76) performed by Sam Lee with the Choir of World Cultures (directed by Barbara Morgenstern) from Berlin.
For more on Sam Lee's work with Gyspy ballads, see this previous post from 2015, and a video talk about his work here.
Below: Ye Vagabonds again with "Barbara Ellen" (Child Ballad #84).
Above: "The Holland Hankerchief" (Child Ballad #272) performed by The Morning Tree, an Irish-Italian-American folk trio based in Dublin. The group consists of Eoghan O’Shaughnessy (guitar), Consuelo Nerea Breschi (fiddle and bouzouki), and Lindsay Straw (guitar and bouzouki).
Below: The magical video for "Hiljainen Suru," a Finnish folk song, by Slow Moving Clouds, a Dublin trio that draws inspiration from both the Irish and Nordic traditions: Danny Diamond (fiddle) and Kevin Murphy (cello), and Aki (nyckleharpa).
And an instrumental piece to end with: "Devil's Polska" by Slow Moving Clouds.
On a quiet December morning in Devon, here are quietly lovely songs from Scottish singer Siobhan Miller to start the week.
The daughter of a folk musician and a folk artist, Miller grew up in Penicuik (near Edinburgh), studied Scottish music at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, and has twice won Singer of the Year in the Scots Trad Music Awards. She's released an album with her former band, Salt House (Lay Your Dark Low, 2013), an album with fiddler Jeana Leslie (Shadows Tall), and a debut solo album (Flight of Time, 2015), all of which are worth seeking out.
Above, the video for Miller's recently released single: a cover of "One Too Many Mornings" by Bob Dylan.
Below, an acapella peformance of "The Swan Swims Sae Bonny" (a.k.a. "Twa Sisters," Child Ballad #10), from 2013.
Above, Miller and her band perform "Bonny Light Horseman," a broadsheet ballad from the Napoleonic Wars.
Below, Miller and Jeana Leslie perform "Tom of Bedlam" (a.k.a. "Bedlam Boys"), a ballad in the "mad song" tradition, possibly dating to the 17th century.
Oh heck, here's one more:
Below, Miller and her band perform "If I Had Known" in Stirling earlier this year. The song is by Miller, but rich in folk imagery -- a nice blend of old and new.
Photograph: Tilly on a quiet morning. The beautiful quilt is by Karen Meisner. The songs today are for Amal & Stu.
Today, new renditions of old, old ballads about love, right and wrong. (Mostly wrong.)
Above: "Raggle Taggle Gypsy" (Child Ballad #200) performed by folk singer & music scholar Fay Hield, based in Sheffield. This Scottish border ballad about a runaway wife appears on Hield's new album, Old Adam, which I highly recommend. The video art is by Nick Hayes, animated by Kristina Pulejkova.
Below: "Katie Cruel" performed by Rue, from Dublin, Ireland. The best known version of this American folksong was collected in New England in the 18th century, but its origins are believed to be Scottish, and a good deal older.
Above: "Courting is a Pleasure" (a.k.a. "Handsome Molly"), an Irish ballad that can also be found in the American Appalachian tradition. This version is performed by Jarlath Henderson, an award-winning musician (and practicing doctor) from Northern Ireland. The song appears on his highly addictive new album, Hearts Broken, Heads Turned.
Below: "False Lady" (Child Ballad #68), a song also known as "Young Hunting" in Scotland, "Earl Richard" in England, and "Love Henry" in America. It's performed by here by Teyr, a folk trio based in London, filmed at the launch of their fine new album, Far From the Tree.
It's a quiet, misty morning here on Dartmoor, too chilly to sit outdoors for long, but there are lambs in the fields, ponies on the Commons and primroses all along the winding path up to my studio...so it must be spring, and the warmer days we've been longing for will surely come soon.
Video above: "I'd Rather Be Tending my Sheep," a West Country folksong from the collective's first album, At Our Next Meeting (2014). This one is for Delia Sherman (and all you other knitters out there), and for Cynthia Rose on her sheep farm in Wiltshire.
Below: "Many's the Nights Rest," a lovely informal performance filmed just last month. The song can be found on The Furrow Collective's new EP, Wild Hog in the Woods.
"‘I stumbled across ‘Many’s the Night’s Rest’ in a journal of the Folk-Song Society from 1905," says Portman, "and was struck by the resolute tone of the chorus ‘Many’s the night’s rest you’ve robbed me of, but you never shall do it again’. It’s Roud No. 293 – a version of ‘Bonny Boy’ and Lucy Broadwood collected it in 1901 from a Henry Hills in Sussex. I imagine this song representing a woman finally washing her hands of her cheating boyfriend and moving on, though you could draw other, darker conclusions depending on your temperament."
Above: "Green Gravel," a deliciously dark children's song recorded by Fay Hield, who is both a folk singer and lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the University of Sheffield. It comes from her latest album, Old Adam (2015), which I highly recommend -- along with Hield's excellent Full English project, and her 2014 TED Talk, "Why Aren't We All Folk Singers?"
"Green Gravel" is associated with children's games in Britain and North America; this particular version comes from Alice Bertha Gomme's The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland. "The song has links to burial ceremonies," Alex Gallacher explains, "with green gravel representing the newly turned grave; though there is no suggestion this rhyme was performed at burials, more that children took the ideas of life, love and death into their own sphere."
To end with, a beautiful, almost hypnotic rendition of "The Grey Selchie" (Child Ballad No. 113) by Maz O'Connor, from Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria. This new video, released a few weeks ago, was filmed for The Blue Room Sessions in the Netherlands. O'Connor has recorded three lovely albums of original and traditional tunes, the latest of which is The Longing Kind (2016).
The first two photographs above were taken by my friend Helen Mason. The third one is mine. A related post: The Folklore of Sheep. Previous Monday Tunes by Fay Hield can be found here. By Maz O'Connor, here. By Emily Portman, here. By Rachel Newton, the last two videos here.
Well, so much for plans. I'd scheduled an off-line Work Retreat for last week, my intent being to catch up on all the writing and correspondence that I've fallen behind on due to health problems over the summer. I'd been planning this Retreat since September (postponed several times), so I woke up early Monday morning excited and eager to begin at long last...and within an hour I was back in bed again, knocked off my feet by the latest lurgy (a virulent cold-flu combo) making the rounds of our village.
"It's just not fair!" I wailed to my patient husband...or, rather, croaked to him, since by this time my voice was disappearing rapidly. I'd barely left the house for many months precisely to avoid catching anything like this while in a weakened state of health -- but the week before I'd finally reached a level of recovery where I could start to live a more normal life. I went out exactly twice that week: to dinner at a friend's house and to a Sam Lee* concert at a small local venue...and, alas, that's all it took to put me back in bed again.
All of which is to say that I don't know when Myth & Moor will resume...it depends on how long this lurgy lasts. I've barely been able to read this week, let alone write; I can only hope the coming week will be kinder.
Also, I send my deepest apologies to those of you awaiting for correspondence from me; I will get to it as soon as I possibly can, and I'm grateful for your continued patience.
Finally, to the Video Fairies (you know who you are) who have been showering me with videos out of the blue: your timing couldn't have been better, and I'm touched indeed. More personalized thanks will be coming your way as soon as energy permits, and I love you all.
*Footnote: If you have a chance to see Sam Lee perform live, please don't miss him. The concert that friends and I attended (down a windy, muddy track in the wilds of Devon) was not recorded, but here's am earlier film of Sam discussing his work as a singer/song collector, including a 4-year apprenticeship to a master singer of Scottish Traveller ballads. He does a wee bit of singing towards the end of the talk, but you'll find more of his music in this previous post.
Related to this, as Sam talks about being a Jewish lad from London singing Gypsy songs, I'm reminded of the words by Ellen Kushner in this post: "The Cauldron of Dreams."
Art above: Sleeping Beauty byHonor Appleton (1879-1951) and Tokyo-based painter Toskiyuki Enoki.
This week, the Celtic year comes to a close, the clocks are turned back (at least here in England), and the nights are drawing in. Halloween is approaching: the time of the year when the borders between the worlds grown thin, when the dead return, the old gods stir, and the faeries ride in procession through mortal lands. In honor of the dark, dangerous aspects of British folklore, our music this week is drawn from the bloodier side of the ballad tradition: songs of murder and mayhem, seduction and sorrow, treachery and tragedy. Such ballads are our ancestors' version of the horror stories and films that so many people shiver to today.
Above, "The Outlandish Knight" (also known as "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight"), Child Ballad No. 4, recently performed by singer/songwriter Kate Rusby, from Yorkshire. If you are unfamiliar with the Child Ballads, go here for a previous post on the subject.
Below, "Johnny o' Bredislee" (also known as "Johnny the Brine"), Child Ballad No. 114. This version comes from Aleyn, the eleventh solo album by the great June Tabor, from Warwickshire. No one does dark balladry better than June.
Above, a fine rendition of "Twa Corbies" ("Two Ravens"), Child Ballad No. 26, by Old Blind Dogs, from north-east Scotland. It's from their second album, Close to the Bone.
Below, "The Bold Knight" performed by Seth Lakeman, from Devon, backed up by the BBC Concert Orchestra. It's an original song in ballad form, reminiscent of "Twa Corbies" but based on a local Dartmoor folk tale.
Above, "Reynardine," a broadside ballad dating back at least to the 18th century. This version comes from Country Life, the ninth studio album by Show of Hands, who are also from Devon. It's a song about a murderous, shape-shifting were-fox, related to the Mr. Fox folk.
Below, "Clyde Waters" (also known as "The Drowned Lovers"), Child Ballad No. 216, a bittersweet song that crossed the ocean centuries ago with Scottish immigrants to the New World, and then turned into a bluegrass ballad in the Appalachian mountains of eastern America. It's performed here by Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer , from Vermont and Colorado respectively, and can be found on their album Child Ballads (2013), which I highly recommend.
The beauty of folk music, for me, is that it has one foot in the past and one foot in the present, as each generation takes up its traditions and crafts something fresh, something old and new all at once. This week's tunes are all new releases from contemporary folk musicians here in the UK.
Above, the title track from Stone's Throw, a new album by Rachel Taylor-Beales (based in Cardiff, Wales) containing her deeply folkloric song-cycle, "Lament Of The Selkie."
"I’d been exploring the character and persona of Selkie," she says, "a shape-shifting seal-woman re-imagined from Orkney folklore, as she struggled to live her life on land away from her natural habitat of the ocean. More and more Selkie’s internal turbulence seemed to echo the real life struggles of people, both in the news headlines and that I met personally. These were the stories of refugees and displaced people, far from home with all the loneliness and chaos, grief and loss that comes with enforced migration. In the legends, in order to marry a Selkie woman her sealskin had to be captured while she was in human form, and kept hidden from her lest she find it and take the opportunity to return to her home in the sea. The woman of the legends, taken out of her natural environment, longing for home, misunderstood by those around her that did not understand her culture or her grief and who knew nothing of her life before she lived on land, became synonymous in my mind with these real time stories of refugees of the last few years. The video was filmed by my artist husband, Bill Taylor-Beales, and features Isla Horton, who achingly portrays a displaced mother separated from home and family."
Below, "Hasp" by Stick in the Wheel (based in London), whose new album, From Here, comes out later this month. “We see [traditional] music as part of our culture," says lead singer Nicola Kearey; "we’re not pretending to be chimney sweeps or 17th century dandies. A lot of people are really disconnected from their past, and this is part of what we’re addressing -- getting people to reconnect with it, and realise there are parallels to be drawn from life 100 or 200 years ago. We make this music because we have to.”
"Mother You Will Rue Me" (audio only) by Ange Hardy. She wrote the song for Esteesee, an album based on the life and work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), featuring Hardy and other folk musicians. On this track, she's joined by folk veteran Steve Knightley, from Show of Hands.
Hardy explained the genesis of the song in a guest post for Folk Radio UK: "When he was 8 years old Coleridge ran away from home following an argument with his older brother Frank in which Coleridge lunged at him with a knife. Having written a number of songs about my own childhood flight from home there was no way I could ignore this episode of Coleridge’s life.
"After lunging at Frank with a knife, Coleridge’s Mother returned to the room, and fearing he’d be flogged Coleridge fled and hid at the bottom of a hill by the river Otter, reading prayers from a shilling book, hiding beneath a thorn bush and watching the calves in the field. The town crier was called in to rally the search party, and knowing full well the whole of the town was looking for him, Coleridge ended up sleeping in that field all night. In later years Coleridge confessed to thinking with 'inward and gloomy satisfaction' how miserable it must have made his Mother. That’s where the tone of the song came from.
"This song is Coleridge lamenting from beneath a thorn bush, in the cold and the damp. Coleridge wrote in one of his letters 'I felt the cold in my sleep, and dreamt that I was pulling the blanket over me, & actually pulled over me a dry thorn bush, which lay on the hill.' "
We return to the theme of refugees in a video released last week by folk singer and songwriter Martha Tilston (from Cornwall), whose fine albums I hope you all know. The song was inspired by the refugee crisis here in Europe, written to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières.
Speaking of which, there are two book-related sites raising funds for refugees as well, one set up by the Carnegie Medal winning YA writer Patrick Ness, and one by writer & puppeteer Austin Hackney: Writers 4 Refugees. Please help if you can.