Usually associated with the older generation of traditional folk singers, unaccompanied singing is making something of a comeback, not just with the occasional a capella number on an album or in the live set, but rather as a full-fledged style of performance. The recent success of The Young’Uns in the BBC Folk Awards is cited as evidence of the revival’s gathering strength, but unaccompanied harmony singing is only part of the trio’s approach, with some material employing guitar and accordion. However, formed while studying for a BMus Folk & Traditional Music Degree at Newcastle University, this quartet, Kate Locksley, Rosie Calvert, Alex Cumming and Will Finn, are strictly no instruments, relying only on their voices, both independently and interwoven.
All but two of the songs are traditional, three of which will be very familiar in folk circles, ‘My Son John’, a tale of being made legless by a cannonball, ‘Ye Mariners All’ with its handclap percussion (it’s interesting to note how many unaccompanied ballads have nautical themes) and, Locksley singing the verses with the others adding harmony on the choruses, ‘The Drowned Lovers’, learned from Kathryn Roberts, but with an added extra verse found in the Bodleian. The number itself comes from Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould’s collection, Songs Of The West, as does the album opener, ‘The Bellringing’, the sprightly tale of a Devon bellringing contest (the men of North Looe emerge victorious), Cumming taking lead with the harmonies emulating the cadence of the bells.
Moving from the West Country to the North East, ‘The Rapper Set’ has nothing do to with hip hop but refers to a folk dance involving short swords and fast stepping in hard-soled shoes and comprises the introductory ‘Calling On Song’ and two traditional tunes, ‘Drummond Castle’ and ‘Seven Stars’, with Finn providing the stepping and Calvert, who also arranged, doing the exhausting heavy lifting on the scat sung ‘lyrics’.
The group travel even further afield for ‘Sugar In The Hold’, a New Orleans cargo loading worksong set aboard the J.M.White steamboat from Mississippi, complete with a hearty ‘huah’ grunt from the guys. Then it’s back home for the last two of the traditional tunes, first up being much reworked and well-travelled sombre murder ballad ‘Oxford City’, deep voiced Calvert initially singing solo before first Locksley joins in on harmony. This is followed by my personal favourite, ‘Labouring Man’ (on which their voices are augmented by those of Gavin Davenport, Roberts & Gilmore, Stu Hanna, and Cliff Ward and Jade Rhiannon from The Willows), a song in praise of the English working man taken from 1890’s ‘Wiltshire Folk Songs and Carols’ collected by Rev. G. Hills (though I suspect a couple of lines are from the version collected by Folk-Song Society founder Lucy Broadwood from a Mr Sparks of Dunfold in 1896), the verse “In former days, you all do know, a poor man cheerful used to go…and for his labours it was said, a fair day’s wages he was paid, but now to live he hardly can, may God protect the labouring man”, revealing that little has changed in Conservative government policies between then and now.
The final two numbers are more contemporary, though Locksley’s ‘The Antiguan Graveyard’ could easily pass for traditional, the tune inspired by the jig ‘Coleraine’ and the stark lyrics by a documentary about a graveyard of British sailors forced to travel to the island to protect the sugar plantations during the 18th century. The album closes, appropriately enough, with the elegiac parting glass themed ‘Journey’s End’, a glorious four part harmony reading of a poem by Judy B. Goodenough set to music by Tommy Makem.
They say in the sleeve notes that they chose it partly “to symbolise the closing of an important chapter of our lives, individually and collectively, and the beginning of a new one.” On the evidence here, you’d be a mug not to part of it.
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‘Sugar In The Hold’ live: