CUNNING FOLK – Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground (Dharma)

Ritual Land, Uncommon GroundGeorge Nigel Hoyle is a man of many incarnations. He started out professional musical life as bassist with late 90s outfit Gay Dad, a band briefly hailed as the saviours of British rock, going on to join Crispin Hunt of The Longpigs (of Richard Hawley fame) in a short-lived new outfit called Gramercy and wrote Lee Ryan’s first post-Blue solo hit, ‘Army Of Lovers’, before getting into folk, both as a genre and a culture.

Adopting the soubriquet Nigel of Bermondsey, he’s released three albums under the name and, in 2014, he formed GentleFolk, whose self-titled debut album was released last year, and also produced Katy Carr’s most recent album. In addition, for the past five years, he’s run the South East London Folklore Society (SELFS), meeting monthly for talks on a wide variety of folk-related subjects.

Which brings us to Cunning Folk, his latest venture, the name given to practitioners of folk medicine and folk magic (sometimes referred to as white witches), an album tracing a journey across the south of England exploring the history of its trees and local folklore and which, alongside Hoyle variously on guitars and shruti box also features Sam Kelly on drums, pianist Oliver Parfitt and Carr on backing vocals plus assorted uncredited musicians on strings and woodwinds.

Hoyle describes the aptly titled autumnal sounding opening number, ‘This Is How It Starts’, as an exploration of the island prompted by listening to Radio 4, a journey through other places, other histories and new traditions, “calling across the borders that we make in the land.”

The first call on the journey is ‘The Old Straight Track’, a five minute number that, named after the book by Alfred Watkins, opens with bowed cello and unfolds into a stripped back, acoustic accompanied dreamy song about ley lines. We’re then joined by a guide in the form of ‘The Modern Antiquarian’ (a nod to Julian Cope) who, in the company of pipes and strings, leads us “between the borders of then & now…over the field & hill”, a “pre-millennial odyssey From Knowlton Henge to Avebury” that also introduces the first hint of influences taken from The Incredible String Band.

From here we fetch up on the site of a ruined church on Cranborne Chase with its nearby Neolithic ramparts and ancient Yew for ‘What Has Been and Gone Before’, flute and a percussive beat permeating swirling tune the lyrics of which reference Augustine’s mission to bring the Christian faith to the pagan isles, a meditation on the natural process of change as the old gives way to the new, but remain a part of the spiritual legacy.

A more familiar landmark is found in ‘Chalk Horses’, a song about the mysterious ancient figures cut into the down and hills of southern England set to a funky rhythm with barroom blues piano. The catchiest and most immediate track is the rhythmically itchy, hand percussion and flute flourished ‘Uncommon Ground’ itself, strummed a celebration of Britain’s island heritage where “All the roads we run take us to the sea”, an invitingly singalong chorus rolling things along.

Britain’s past is again recalled in the ethereally sung, harp-clothed and floatingly melodic ‘A Brief History Of Agriculture and Mining’, which, charting history “from the stone to the clay to the bronze to the iron”, tips the hat to the farmers and tin and coal miners who worked the land.

The cunning folk themselves are the subject of the ISB-like ‘The Chime Child,’ a drone and harp-infused medieval styled tune that takes its title and swaying miasmal chorus from the belief that a child born in the chime hours, between midnight on Friday and the following dawn will be gifted with healing more and be “masters of music & finders of rhyme, & every beast will do what they say, & every herb that do grow in the clay.”

The warning that, for such folk, “to show too much may not be wise” is borne out in the following ironically titled track, ‘Lancashire, God’s Country’, an account of the 17th century Pendle witch trials where 10 of 11 accused were ‘witnesses’ coached by the clergy, hung for witchcraft, the other apparently vanishing from prison, Hoyle’s spoken delivery recalling that of Vinny Peculiar.

Things are more reassuringly peaceful and pastoral on the trilling flute-adorned ‘The Song of the Nidge’, an encouragement to get in the woods and the shipping forecast zones and listen to the birdsong. Ornithologists will tell you that the word nidge is likely a reference to the hummingbird, known as Kawis Nidges, but, more specifically the song directs you to the call of the yellowhammer (Emberiza Citrinella), the great tit (Parus Major) and the curlew (Numenius). And it’s another call to connect with nature that closes the album, ‘Walk Through The Juniper’ a slow gathering airy invocation of the Juniper forest of the Cairngorms, a wild place to understand our insignificance in the universe (“when I go I leave no trace”) and, lost in the modern world, follow the example of Nan Shepherd, the Scottish poet and author of The Living Mountain, get back in touch with who we are. Balm to the spirit and a hymn to the magic and mystery of the land, acquiring yourself a copy would be a shrewd move.

Mike Davies

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KATY CARR Polonia (Deluce MDL513)

KATY CARR PoloniaCarr has clearly found herself a successful niche market. coming from a Polish-Anglo-Scottish heritage, since her third album, Coquette, she’s been focusing her songwriting on stories related to Poland. Her last album, Paszport, was based around Poland during World War II with the inspiration for the material partly derived from Polish Home Army and resistance veteran Kazimierz Piechowski. It earned her a Best Artist nomination for the Songlines Music Awards 2013, won Best Concept Album in the 13th Independent Music Awards and saw her awarded honorary membership of The Polish 1st Armoured Division.

For the follow-up, she’s again returned to Poland, the album and celebratory and not a little Kate Bush-like title track bearing the Latin name for the country (it’s also the title Elgar used 100 years ago for his composition to benefit the Polish Victims Relief Fund) and again the focus is mostly around wartime and its immediate aftermath. Indeed, the punchy, brass-fuelled ‘Snow Is Falling’, a song about the end of a love affair, has its roots in the Yalta Conference of 1945 which ceded Poland to Soviet influence.

That said, the second track is ‘When Charlie Met Pola’, her voice operatically swooping and soaring over saloon piano, accordion and clip clopping spoons in a tale about Charlie Chaplin’s meeting with Polish actress Pola Negri, enticing her to become a Hollywood star and his fiancée (they never married and she became Valentino’s lover). Love also informs the following two numbers, soured on the train rolling rhythms of ‘Got A Little Bit Of Love’ and reborn on the rocky ‘We Can Go Dancing’. As the liner notes explain, these too have deeper meanings, the former a nod to the women of the resistance and the latter concerning the country’s dedication to the concepts of freedom and nationhood.

With its lurching reggae beat, horns, electronics and Herbaliser’s Oliver Parfitt on vintage keyboards, ‘Bomba’ pays homage to the Polish mathematicians who devised a machine (allegedly but unlikely named after the ice-cream dessert) to break the German’s Enigma codes (two years before Alan Turing’s breakthrough), its designers, Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski, also the background subjects of the wheezing rhythm ‘The Mathematician’, the story of romance blossoming at Bletchley Park, although none of them actually ever worked there.

On the female front, ‘Jumping With Zoe’, which features electronic effects by Steve Beresford and a snatch of ‘Hejnal’, a Polish national musical motif played on bugle, commemorates General Elzbieta Zawacka, the only woman to jump with elite Polish parachute regiment, the Cichociemni, while, Carr’s vocals spiraling down the scales, the piano-trilling ‘Christine The Great’ concerns another Polish heroine, Krystyna Skarbek, a former Miss Poland who became the first female agent for the Special Operations Executive and Churchill’s favourite spy, as well as the inspiration for James Bond’s Vesper Lynd.

Elsewhere, the jaunty, brass flushed and reggae rhythmed ‘My Beloved General’ nods to Stanislaw Maczek, one of the leading Allied commanders who, when the war ended, was stripped of his citizenship by the new Communist regime, refused a military pension by the British government and ended up working as a barman in Edinbugh, the lurching ‘Mr. Trebus’ refers to the Polish veteran who, remaining in Britain, became a compulsive hoarder and was featured on the A Life of Grime TV documentary, while, accompanied by clavinet, the displacement-themed ‘Quo Vadis’ takes its inspiration from the book by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Displacement and exile also inform the folksy ‘Poland Calling Polonia Home’, itself inspired by the mother and daughter Greek myth of Diameter and Persephone, and, rather obviously, ‘Exiles’, a piano waltzing instrumental homage to those who have kept the flame and spirit of Poland alive over the centuries, a notion that also lies at the heart of ‘Hands Of Time’.

Featuring BJ Cole on pedal steel and electronic insect noises by Beresford, the album ends with another instrumental, ‘Red Wine’, inspired by a Polish TV series about a woman in post WWII Warsaw who has turned to drink in grief over her lover, killed in the Uprising of 1944.

The history of wartime Poland and the contribution of its people to defeating the Nazis remains a largely untold story (the Poles were the only nation not celebrated in the 1946 Victory Parade), but, thanks to Carr, it is no longer going unsung.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website:

‘Polonia’ – the official video: