Tunes for a Monday Morning

Nightingale  photographed by John Bridges

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.

The Nightingale by Henry Justice Ford (1860-1940)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."

Below: "One Morning in May," a traditional British song performed by Lee and Kathryn Tickell (on Northumbrian smallpipes) for BBC Radio 3.

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.

Tunes for a Monday Morning: Ballad Lands

In 2012, music critic Ed Vulliamy wrote:

"Sam Lee is one of Britain's finest singers and the most cogent force of his generation in British folk music,"  "an heir to the great revival during the 1950s and 60s led by Martin Carthy and the Watersons, and Fairport Convention in their wake. Lee brings contemporary folk music back to whence much of it came: Roma, Gypsies and Scottish and Irish Travellers, who have passed these songs from generation to generation, over centuries. He scours Britain for those whom many avoid or despise -- travellers in camps or housed -- to learn their lore and songs. And a first collection makes up his debut album: Ground of Its Own, nominated for a Mercury award."

A second album, The Fade in Time, has just been released, and I highly recommend it.

In the video below, Lee discusses the album's genesis and examines the roots of the Traveller song "Jonny O' the Brine."

Below, he records another Traveller favorite, "Lovely Molly," with the help of the Roundhouse Choir. This old Scottish folk song is believed to date back to the early Jacobite rebellions.

Via Ed Vulliamy, here is Sam Lee's description of how he first came upon Traveller music while embarked upon a self-directed study of folk music at Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Song and Dance Society:

" 'I discovered Jeannie Robertson, the great Scottish Traveller ballad singer, Harry Cox and the Copper Family -- and I wondered, who are these people? I bought their CDs and was blown away. I thought, I have to learn all these songs. There was this difference between songs the Gypsies sang and songs you learned at Cecil Sharp House,' he says. 'I love the songbooks, Irish Tinkerbut I decided I'd rather throw flames on what tradition is left out there. The Gypsies are our Native Americans: they practice a kind of shamanism mixed with Christianity and the old beliefs.

"The glory of folk music is 'this latency -- the power within to express these things, like the power within everything, trees, plants, the inanimate.' Lee's love of song was inseparable from his love of nature and he felt this in the travellers' songs: 'I'm a tree-climber,' he says, 'and this music is for me like being up in the branches, knowing you are connected by its roots, deep into the earth.' "

"Lee's muse appears to be a kind of paganism: 'It's about respect, really, for these gods, whatever and wherever they are, and the land. When you're close to the land, respect it. Know that whatever you do, every plant you pick, will have consequences. I know that even walking through a wood has an impact, which makes me lightfooted.' Pantheism? Paganism? I ask. 'I'm hesitant to put names to it,' he replies. 'Just look for this sense of sanctity in the land and find it in song.' "

Scottish Travellers & Traveller Piper

Lee often collaborates with contemporary artists drawn from multiple disciplines (dance, performance art, film, etc.), creating unusual pieces like the new video for "Blackbird," above (and his wonderfully wacky video for "The Ballad of John Collins," 2012).

"The Gainsborough Packet," below, is another collaboration: a short film by the Newcastle artist Matt Stokes, with music written by Jon Boden (of Bellowhead and the Folk Song a Day site). The film is based on an early 19th century letter (preserved in the Tyne & Wear Museums archives) by Newcastle working class hero John Bodikin, relating his colorful life story to his friend Pybus. Sam Lee plays Burdikin in the film, investing the role with sweet mischievousness.

The vintage photographs above, of an Irish Tinker, Scottish Travellers, and a Traveller piper, are from George Crawford's Paleotools blog.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Cotton Mill girls  1909

Let's start the week with some more good songs drawn from the folk tradition of the British Isles:

Above: Pilgrims Way, a trio from the northwest of England, performs "The Handweaver and the Factory Maid."  The song comes from their 2011 debut album, Wayside Courtesies. (The photograph above is of cotton mill girls in 1909.)

Below: David Gibb & Elly Lucas, a folk duo out of Derbyshire in the English Midlands, peform a jazz-inflected version of "The Blacksmith."  It comes from their 2012 album, Old Chairs to Mend (which also contains charming original songs like this one).

Next: Jim Moray, based in Bristol, performing "Lord Douglas," a variant of  the Child Ballad "Earl Brand." The song comes from his fifth album, Skulk

I confess I've been on the fence about Moray's music in the past, which mixes folk, rock, pop, and electronica -- but he's completely won me over now with Skulk, in which the traditional roots of the music are foregrounded a bit more. And lordy, what a beautiful voice he has for folk material. The album's name, says Moray, comes from the collective noun for foxes, inspired by fox legends and lore. (For more of his music this morning, go here.)

And last (because what could possibly follow this?): Sam Lee's rendition of "The Ballad of George Collins," from his 2012 album Ground of Its Own. It's a great song from a great, great album -- but this one gets my vote as the wackiest damn video of the year. Wonderful, and thoroughly magical, but truly wacky too. See if you don't agree.

Lee, who comes from "a Jewish family of artists in Tufnell Park, north London," collected many of the songs he performs from Britian's Romany Gypsy community. There's a fascinating article about him on The Guardian's site here, which I highly recommend. How I'd love to have a long natter with this lad...preferably under the stars beside a warm campfire, with a bottle of good single malt whiskey to hand....

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Above, the Devon folk band Mad Dog McCrea (who played at our village hall recently), performing a foot-stompin' version of the Anglo-Scots folk song "Raggle Taggle Gypsy."

English Gypsies by Augustus JohnBelow, two poignant (and more realistic) songs about Gypsy life here in Britain: Chris Wood, Karine Polwart, and the MacColl brothers perform Ewan MacColl's "Moving On Song: Go, Move, Shift" (at a Ewan MacColl tribute concert); and the great June Tabor performs "All Our Trades are Gone."

For more about Romany Gypsy life and lore, visit the Travellers' Times website,  Romany Road (The Gypsy Lore Society's site), and The European Roma Rights Centre. "The Road That Has No End," my 1997 article on Gypsy folklore (in the JoMA archives), is a little dated, but contains some good book recommendations.  I particularly recommend We Borrow the Earth, Patrick Jasper Lee's book on the Gypsy shamanic tradition.

The painting here is by the Welsh artist Augustus John (Gwen John's more famous brother, 1878-1961 ), who was obsessed with Gypsy life. He spent a lot of time with Romany friends in England and on the Continent, spoke the Romany language, and liked to live and travel in gypsy-style himself, often trailing his extended family behind him. His son Pyramus was born in a Gypsy caravan here on Dartmoor, not far from where I live. (John himself wasn't actually there at the time, and his imperturable mistress Dorelia MacNeil gave birth to the child alone.)

For some great Gypsy music (rather than Gadjo tunes about Gypsies), I particularly love Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello. Also, check out The London Gypsy Orchestra, which (as Rima Staines notes in the Comments below) is dedicated to Gypsy music, though it's not an all-Gypsy group.

A video for a rainy Saturday in Devon. . .

Here's an absolutely gorgeous version of the Moving on Song -- Ewan MacColl's now-classic ballad about the plight of the Gypsies in Great Britain, created for the BBC Radio Ballads series -- performed by the MacColl brothers, Chris Wood, and the fabulous singer/songwriter Karine Polwart. MacColl's work always reminds me of how art and activism can go hand in hand . . . and how important art can be in this role.

The BBC Radio Ballads were ground-breaking documentaries created by producer Charles Parker and musicians Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger in the late 1950s, weaving voices from various British communties (railroad men, fishermen, miners, boxers, Ewan_macollGypsies, people with polio, etc.) with songs written for and about them. Parker defined radio ballads as "a form of narrative documentary in which the story is told entirely in the words of the actual participants themselves as recorded in real life; in sound effects which are also recorded on the spot, and in songs which are based upon these recordings, and which utilize traditional or 'folk-song' modes of expression."