Hilary James’ English Sketches is re-released

Hilary James

Hilary James’ “elegant singing” (Daily Telegraph) has received much acclaim: quintessentially English but easily crossing the great musical divides from British folk ballads to blues and Berlioz. She’s famed too for an unlikely taste in bass instruments (she could turn up with her giant mandobass or slimline, semi-acoustic double bass). Her fine guitar accompaniments cross the genres from Vivaldi to bluegrass and she might even manage a step-dance if the wind is in the right direction. She has recorded six solo albums and also illustrated books, produced video art animations, and augmented reality projects.

About English Sketches

In the 1890s, Sabine Baring-Gould, one of an army of late-Victorian collectors of traditional song, noted down a Devonshire dance tune called ‘The Mallard’. It had probably found its way over from France, but once in England had acquired a brief nonsensical refrain celebrating wild duck meat, an associated ritual of gluttony, and so its title. The collectors of that era, while deeply respectful of the material they were preserving were still not averse to occasionally cleaning up lyrics they deemed unacceptable for their Victorian target market. In this case, Baring-Gould went a little further by writing some new words of his own and giving the resulting song the more generic title ‘A Country Dance’. Here, in a medley with Simon Mayor’s ‘A Jig For Good Measure’, it serves as both overture and, in extended form as a reprise.

The fruit of Baring-Gould’s labours in Devon and Cornwall, a collection of 120 songs, was published as Songs Of The West, first in 1889, with other editions over the next few years.  It served as source for other songs on this recording: the jovial ‘The Bell Ringing’, arranged for voice and mandolin quartet, and the poignant ‘Lady And The Prentice’, here with guitar, ‘cello and oboe.

‘The Two Ravens’, known in Scotland as ‘The Twa Corbies’, is a well-known border ballad and has many lyrical and melodic variants. Set here to a new tune, its gruesomely inventive lyrics give us a bird’s eye reminder that we humans are not always top of the food-chain. From the same part of the world comes ‘Young Benjie’ a tabloid tale of love, rejection, murder, revenge and the supernatural belief that corpses may rise to betray their assassins.

‘The Bold Fisherman’, in hypnotic 5/4 time, has been found widely throughout Southern England and East Anglia. The collector Lucy Broadwood suggested it could be laced with Christian symbolism, but it’s performed here at face value as a simple, romantic love story.

‘Can Love Be Controlled By Advice’ is from The Beggar’s Opera, written in 1728 by John Gay and first performed that same year. ‘Beneath The Willow Tree’, accompanied here by just mandolin and ‘cello, is taken from Chappell’s Popular Music Of The Olden Time, a collection of songs, dances and airs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, published in 1857. There are several thematically similar but essentially quite different American and Irish songs.

Four new settings of English poems complete this album. The rich colours of ‘Winter’ and warning words of ‘Spring’ are both taken from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The initially optimistic but ultimately dark Bredon Hill is a setting of the poem by A E Housman, first published in 1896 as part of his collection A Shropshire Lad. In a 1933 Cambridge lecture Housman cited both border balladry and the songs of William Shakespeare as influences on his writing. He further explained that Bredon Hill, actually located in Worcestershire, was written before the Shropshire setting of the collection had been conceived.

Like Housman, his contemporary Thomas Hardy frequently focused on themes of the English countryside. In the two stanzas of ‘Weathers’ he describes the changing seasons and how all flora and fauna, including we humans, are swept along with their flow.

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For more on Hilary’s music and art visit www.folksong.co.uk

‘Winter’ – official video: