More commonly seen in partnership with Ciaran Algar, Greg Russell now also embarks on a solo career with an album the title of which refers more to his politics than the colour of his hair. That said, accompanied just by banjo, he does include a cover of the American traditional tune, ‘Joe Bowers’, the true story of a man whose fiancée married another while he was off gold prospecting, giving birth to a baby whose hair, in Russell’s variation of the last line, “was inclined to be red.”
There is, as you might surmise, a strong socio-politics element of in its collection of self-penned, traditional songs and covers, Russell coming across as a cocktail of Martyn Joseph, Don McLean and Billy Bragg, opening the album with ‘E.G.A’, a rousing accordion-accompanied number he wrote for the Shake the Chains project involving songs of community resistance and protest, his being a tribute to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who, in 1865, became the first woman in the UK to qualify as a physician also going on, in 1908, to become the country’s first female mayor.
Taken at slower pace ‘Farewell’ is better known as the 19th century traditional ‘Faithful Sailor Boy’, a familiar tale of lovers parted by the call of duty, never to be reunited, although Russell gives it different spin by substituting “wars raging high” as opposed to the original’s storms. Although written by Graham Moore and Mick Ryan and featuring on the former’s 1995 album Tom Paine’s Bones, the strummed ‘The Road To Dorchester; sounds every bit a traditional ballad, recounting the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six Dorset farmers transported to Australia for forming a union.
Workers rights are also at the heart of another powerfully sung number, ‘Crooked Jack’, a song based on the hardships endured by Irish and Scottish labourers working on the hydro electric plant at Inverary, Argyll, Scotland (the title a reference to spinal deformity caused by working underground), Dominic Behan’s lyrics set to the tune of ‘Star of the County Down’ .Protest of an environmental nature is to be found on the self-penned ‘Race To Burn’, a fingerpicked number concerning the cost of progress to the earth and its wildlife.
It’s not all about protest, however. Set to a rolling and tumbling melody with a jigging accordion, ‘Travelling Onwards’ is an autobiographical reflection on letting go of fanciful teenage dreams and moving forward with more realistic ambition, and enjoying the roads down which they take you, here making music. Likewise, although written by Christine Lavin, the resonatingly strummed troubadour folk of ‘Tomorrow You’re Gone’ (shades of the young Harvey Andrews) with its lyric about the life of a gigging musician, could be equally from personal experience.
The many permutations of the Child ballad ‘Lady Isabel And The Elf Knight’, involving a maiden and a knight and a tale of seduction, are a staple of many a folk artists repertoire, and, featuring guitar and a buzzy accordion, Russell’s no different, ‘Bold Knight’ opting for version 4E, the one in which she drowns him and involves a prattling parrot.
A West Yorkshire song about class snobbery (dad rejects his daughter’s choice of man because he works in the ‘wrong’ end of the mill and comes from the slum part of Morley) written by the late Keith Marsden (from Morley), ‘Willy-Ole Lad’ follows the original in being sung unaccompanied with a depth that belies Russell’s 24 years.
Of the final two songs, one’s a cover, the other an original. The former, the 60s Greenwich Village protest era-echoing ‘What You Do With What You’ve Got’, was written in 1985 by American singer and activist Si Khan, its line “What’s the use of the finest voice if you’ve nothing good to say” something Russell clearly takes to heart. The album ends with the rustic hymnal-like ‘Storylines’, an affirmation of “the togetherness they’ll try to breach/A unity they cannot teach” written after hearing some club folk singer declare politics had no place in music and that he only sang English songs. “We all sing now”, declares Russell. Get a copy of this fine album and lend your voice.
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Artist’s website: www.gregrussellfolk.co.uk
‘Crooked Jack’ – live: