BELINDA KEMPSTER & FRAN FOOTE – On Clay Hill (From Here Records SITW013CD)

On Clay HillAny recording that comes out of the Stick In The Wheel stable is worth listening to and if you’re familiar with their From Here collections On Clay Hill will delight you. If you aren’t acquainted with them, go and rectify that immediately. Fran Foote is SITW’s harmony singer and Belinda Kempster is her mother, making Fran the third generation of singers in the family (at least) since many of these songs come from her great-uncle, Ernie Austin.

So what we have here is a collection of traditional songs, many of which are Essex variants differing slightly from what we think of as the “standard” versions. The album begins with ‘John Barleycorn’, which Ernie recorded on Flash Company for Topic way back in 1974. The story is familiar but this version is new to me – don’t ever say that traditional music can’t throw up anything new. ‘The Sheep Shearing Song’ (otherwise ‘Rosebud In June’) is from the Copper Family and Belinda and Fran treat to a rather mournful shruti box accompaniment – the only instrument used on the record. ‘Dark Eyed Sailor’, ‘Bushes And Briars’ and ‘Female Drummer’ are all well-known but coming from a family tradition in this way gives them a special frisson. The harmonies on ‘Dark Eyed Sailor’ are wonderful.

‘Little Bugger’ is a song that Ernie wouldn’t sing in mixed company. The song is a version of ‘The Crayfish’ but Belinda and Fran gave it a new title from his version. ‘Dearly Missed’ is Ernie’s title for ‘The Blue Cockade’, performed with the drone of the shruti box and tight harmonies. In spite of the sad story it has a happy ending in the shape of a final verse that I hadn’t heard before. ‘Nutting Girl’ has an unusual chorus and ‘Knife In The Window’ is another song with several titles and shares a tune with ‘Hares On The Mountain’. There is still some confusion as to who’s small clothes are actually cut but never mind. ‘Bonny Labouring Boy’ and ‘Tarry Trousers’ both differ from more well-known versions.

The final track of On Clay Hill is ‘Ernie’s Song’, a brief snippet of him singing the first verse of a music hall song performed on the boards by Sam Mayo. It sort of brings things full circle.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Dark Eyed Sailor’: