This week I'm focused on Child Ballads: on old, old songs performed in new ways, along with a couple of other good pieces rooted in traditional folkways.
Above: "The Fair Flower of Northumberland" (Child Ballad #9) performed by Scottish musician Alasdair Roberts, with Amble Skuse and David McGuinness. The song appears on their strange and remarkable new album, What News. The video, filmed at the University of Glasgow, features performance artist Sgàire Wood.
Below: "Cruel Mother" (Child Ballad #20) performed by Scottish singer and cellist Fiona Hunter. The song is from her first solo album, Fiona Hunter (2014), with animation by Gavin C. Robinson.
Above: "Abbots Bromley Horn Dance" performed by Stick in the Wheel, from East London. The video, containing archival footage from Abbots Bromley, was directed by Ian Carter, with animation by Teresa Elizabeth Lobos. To learn more about the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance go here. To read about deer in folk ritual and myth, go here and here.
Below: "Over Again" performed by Stick in the Wheel.
Both songs are from their terrific new album, Follow Them True.
Above: "Willie's Lady" (Child Ballad #6) performed by the English folk trio Lady Maisery (Hannah James, Hazel Askew, Rowan Rheingans). It's from their lovely first album, Weave & Spin (2011).
Below: "The Elfin Knight" (Child Ballad #2) performed by folk legend Norma Waterson, her daughter Eliza Carthy, and the Gift Band. It's from their new album, Anchor, which I highly recommend.
Oh heck, here's one more:
"Matty Groves" (Child Ballad 81) performed by the French/American band Moriarty. The song travelled to the New World with early Anglo/Scots settlers, becoming part of the North American traditional songbook too.
This week, with Halloween and the Days of the Dead just ahead of us, I've chosen songs of ghosts, revenants, and the shadowed border between life and death....
Above: "Imagination: There Was Once a Man..." by Aiden O'Rourke (co-founder of Lau), who explains:
"It all began with short stories. James Robertson, one of my favourite Scottish authors, wrote a short story every day for a year, and each story had exactly 365 words. I loved reading those stories: a daily dose of poetry and wisdom. And I loved the writing. The language is emotional, concise, apposite. Somehow the words and the pacing of the stories felt musical. I was intrigued by the discipline of setting such a quantifiable daily creative ritual. Would the same be possible in music? In 2016, I decided I would take on a similar writing challenge each day for a year. I told James and he replied, 'Don't do it!' then suggested I give it a month and see if it drove me mad. By 2017, I had 365 new tunes, each one linked to a story from James' collection. There's no doubt the tunes are based in Scottish folk music; that's my backbone, the place I come from, the traditional language I love. There's a parallel with James here, too, because he loves old Scots words and tales."
O'Rourke's story-music appears on the album 365: Volume I, released earlier this year, with a second volume forthcoming. In the video above, he's accompanied by keyboard player Kit Downes; and by James Robertson himself, reading the uncanny tale that inspired the tune.
Below: "Fair Margaret & Sweet William" (Child Ballad #74), an old, old song of love and ghosts performed by the great English folksinger June Tabor. The ballad appears on her excellent album An Echo of Hooves (2003).
Above: "I Am Stretched on Your Grave," based on the 17th century Irish poem "Táim sínte ar do thuama," beautifully sung by Dominie Hooper from Band of Burns. Dominie grew up here in Chagford, dazzling us all with the power of her voice since she was young.
Below: "Wife of Usher's Well" (Child Ballad #79), performed by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart. In this song, a mother longs for her three dead sons to return to her...but when they do, they come as revenants, still bound to the land of death. The ballad is rich in folk traditions about what the newly dead may and may not do, and how the living may safely interact with them. Polwart first recorded it for her marvelous collection of ballads Fairiest Floo'er (2007), but this fine version appeared a year later on the expanded edition of This Earthly Spell.
Above: "Death and the Lady," performed by folk legends Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, from the north of England. Norma introduces the song, explaining its history and connection to the Black Death.
Below: "The Ballad of George Collins" (Child Ballad #42), a traditional song performed in an extravagantly untraditional way by the brilliant young folksinger Sam Lee, who is based in London. The Penguin Book of British Folk Songs explains:
"The plot of 'George Collins' has its secrets. From an examination of a number of variants, the full story becomes clearer. The girl by the stream is a water-fairy. The young man has been in the habit of visiting her. He is about to marry a mortal, and the fairy takes her revenge with a poisoned kiss."
In this variant of the ballad, the young man has been promiscuous with his favors and five other young women, in addition to his lover Fair Ellender, die from kissing his poisoned lips.
Above: "Kitty Jay" by Seth Lakeman, a song from his 2004 album of the same name, performed in New York earlier this year. Seth, who lives here on Dartmoor, draws much of his song-writing material from local history and lore. Kitty Jay (as the legend goes) was a poor young woman who worked on a remote farm in the late 18th century. Impregnated and betrayed by her master's son, she resolved to take her own life, and for this sin she was buried in unhallowed ground at the Manaton crossroads.
Kitty Jay's grave, which is not far from our village, is said to be haunted by a shadowy figure wrapped up in a cloak. (Kitty herself? Her remorseful lover?) There are always fresh flowers upon it, although no one is ever seen putting them there.
And to end with, below:
"In a Week," a very dark, yet eerily beautiful song about the process of death, written and performed by Hozier (Andrew Hozier-Byrne). He's accompanied here by Alana Henderson. Both musicians are from Ireland.
The three Dartmoor photographs above: An ancient cross near Crzaywell Pool, and Jay's Grave at the edge of the moor near Manaton. The last photograph, of maiden and fox, is by Alexandra Bochkareva. If you'd like more spooky songs, last year's Halloween tunes are here. For more information on Child Ballads, go here.
I'm about to head up to Sheffield for the second group meeting of the Modern Fairies & Loathly Ladies project, so let's start the week with some fairy ballads drawn from Francis James Child's masterwork: The English & Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes from 1882 to 1898.
Above: "Tam Lin" (Child Ballad #39) performed by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hammer, from their album of Child Ballads (2013). Some UK reviews remarked on the oddness of hearing a Scottish border ballad sung in American accents, forgetting that these songs travelled across the ocean on immigrant ships and took root in North America (especially in the Appalachian region), where they are now part of the traditional songbook of America and Canada too. This version of the song omits verses explaining that Tam Lin is not a fairy (or "shade") himself, but a human knight in thrall to the Fairy Queen. For the full story, go here.
Below: an Appalachian version of "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child Ballad #37), performed by Scottish folk musician Archie Fisher. The recording is from Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition (2017).
Above: "King Orfeo" (Child Ballad #19) performed by Scottish folk musician Emily Smith. The song can be found on her fine album Echoes (2104).
Below: "Twa Sisters" (Child Ballad #10) performed by English folk musician Emily Portman, from her enchanting album The Glamoury (2010). While there's not a fairy in this ballad per se, the enchanted harp at the end of the song is surely filled with fairy magic.
Above, in the Loathly Lady catagory: "King Henry" (Child Ballad #32) performed by the great British folk musician Martin Carthy. The song appeared on his classic album Sweet Wivelsfield (1974).
Below: "The Elfin Knight" (Child Ballad #2) peformed by the Celtic-Nordic group The Boann Quartet. They've released a whole album of fairy music, Old Celtic & Nordic Ballads (2012).
The drawings above are by my friend and neighbor Alan Lee, a man who certainly knows a thing or two about fairies. For more on fairies in legend, lore, and literature, go here. For the history of Child and his ballads, go here. And for literary interpretations of the ballads (in novel, short story, and picture book form), go here.
Today's theme is highwaymen (and their bold female counterparts) in British balladry. It's a subject of particular interest to me, for I've recently learned that I'm very, very distantly related to one John Clavell (1601-1643), known in his day as the "poetical highwayman" -- a robber, a rogue, and the author of "A Recantation of an Ill Led Life." * These songs of scofflaws and ne'er-do-wells are dedicated to Ellen Kushner and the writing team of the Tremontaine series. If you're following these fabulous stories online, or have read the new anthology, Tremontaine, then you'll know why.
Above: "Shoot Them All" by Pilgrims' Way, whose new album, Stand & Deliver, is entirely devoted to highwaymen and brigands. "Shoot Them All" is their exuberant rendition of a traditional song known variously as "The Undaunted Female," "The Staffordshire Maid," and "The Serving Girl and the Robber."
Above: "Alan Tyne of Harrow" by James Fagan & Nancy Kerr. The exact history of this 18th century broadside ballad is a contested one, but it's probably a variant of an older Irish song, "Valentine O'Hara."
Below: "Turpin Hero" by Jake Bugg (audio only). This too is an 18th century ballad, but based on a known historical character. As A.L. Lloyd explains: "Dick Turpin, an East End butcher’s boy, commenced his wild career by stealing cattle in West Ham and selling the beef, door to door. Pursued by the law, he took to housebreaking and highway robbery. Things became hot, he retired, got into a squabble over a gamecock, was arrested, unmasked, and hanged on April 6, 1739."
Above: "Sylvie," a song also known as "Sovay" and "The Female Highwayman." Collected in Oxfordshire in 1911 by Cecil Sharp (but certainly much older), it was popularized during the '60s folk revival by a beautiful rendition from Pentangle. The version above was recorded for a forthcoming album of ballads by Rachel McShane, with her band The Cartographers. She stitched the song together, she says, "from lyrics found in dusty old books and websites and wrote a new melody and arrangement."
Below: "The Highwayman," written by Alfred Noyes in 1906, with new music composed by Canadian harpist and music scholar Loreena McKennitt (audio only). It's from her gorgeous sixth album, The Book of Secrets (1997).
The art in this post is from a children's book version of "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak (1937-1993).
*Although it's not known where the Clavell family originated (some say the Celtic region of Spain), John Clavell's branch setttled in Dorset, England, while mine lived in the French Alps, near Grenoble, before fleeing to Switzerland and the Netherlands during the Reformation. My many-times-great-grandfather, George Craft Clavel, sailed on a Dutch ship to Philadelphia as child in 1737, where he was sold to a button factory owner to help pay for the family's passage. He paid off the bond after five year's work, rejoined his family, and became a farmer and Indian trader on what was then the remote Pennsylvania frontier.
Above, "Dh’èirich mi moch, b’ fheàrr nach do dh’èirich" by Julie Fowlis, from the Isle of Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The song appears on her magical new album, Alterum -- named for a Latin word that means "otherness" or "the other."
The mythical, dreamlike video (directed by Craig Mackay) was conceived as a spiritual and otherworldly interpretation of loss. "My own work is steeped in tradition and historical reference specific to the Highlands," says Fowlis, "with a leaning to many beliefs and cultures," so the video features both sea and land, "the two most contrasting elements we exist in." The owl feathers symbolize journeys, transitions, and silent flights through the dark of the night, used in a headdress to link them to these more ancient associations.
Below, "The Swan Swims" by Ione Fyfe, a fine singer and ballad collector from Aberdeenshire in north-east Scotland. The song is a variant of Twa Sisters (Child Ballad #10), and will appear on Fyfe's much-anticipated new album, Away From My Window (March 2018).
Above and below: two songs from Emily Mae Winters' stunning new album, Siren Serenade (2017). Winters was born in Birmingham, raised on the south coast of Ireland, and is now based in London.
The first is the album's title song, inspired by the sirens of myth, with backing vocals by Lauren Bush, Hannah Sanders and Lauren Parker. The second is "Down by the Sally Gardens," with lyrics by William Butler Yeats, from a poem published in The Wanderings of Oisin, 1889.
To end with, two classic songs by Robert Burns sung by two more wonderful Scottish singers...
Above: "Ae Fond Kiss" by Robyn Stapleton, from Stranraer, on the south-west coast.
Below: "Green Grow the Rashes, O' " by Siobhan Miller, from Penicuik, near Edinburgh.
The art today: two drawings for Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans" by Helen Stratton (1867-1961). Stratton was born in India, raised in Bath, and spent her adult life in Kensington, London, working as an illustrator.
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.