George 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.
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Artist’s website: www.cunningfolkmusic.com
‘Lancashire, God’s Country’ – official video: