John Smith talks about Hummingbird
Ever since my teenage epiphany at the altar of folk music, hearing Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn for the first time, I have been a devotee. The six strings of my guitar have granted me access to a sacred space between things, the unconscious interweaving sensations that allow us that gentle buzz on hearing a good folk song.
I’ve been immeasurably fortunate to open for and even play with some of my heroes and influences in the folk world; John Renbourn, Davy Graham, Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, Nic Jones, Joan Baez, Wizz Jones, John Martyn, Danny Thompson, Martin Simpson and Paul Brady.
Their work and their generosity of spirit has been a constant reminder that I must keep playing, recording and touring, no matter the cost. There is always work to be done in the service of good music.
It was with this in mind that I returned to Sam Lakeman’s Somerset studio in March of 2018, two years since recording ‘Headlong’ in that same place, to commit six of my favourite folk songs to tape, alongside one cover version and three original songs.
With my guitars and notebook, I sat for a week and dug into these songs, some of which I have performed hundreds of times, but never recorded. I always chose instead to concentrate on my own writing. If I didn’t record these songs now, representing the Folk Music that I love, I felt I was going to regret it.
The tracks quickly took on their own shape in Sam’s able hands. I invited several good friends to join me in this process: Cara Dillon, John McCusker and Ben Nicholls. Each a giant in their own right, they offered subtle and deeply nuanced performances to what I feel are my most restrained recordings so far.
Sam and I adopted the motto ‘less is more’. We all know that a Folk Song’s clarity of purpose is exactly the reason why it has been played in pubs, living rooms and concert halls for hundreds of years.
I made this record for myself, for my heroes and for you.
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A love song in the key of D, for someone I used to know. ‘Here She Comes, There She Flies.’
Lowlands Of Holland
Roud 484. Widely thought to originate in the British Isles and Ireland in the early 19th century.
As soon as I started playing Lowlands Of Holland I realised this was a powerful love song, the context simply a marker on a map, with different versions found all over Britain and Ireland. The song is about love, loss and devotion.
This formidable woman was the rebel queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe, who exacted a terrible and brutal revenge upon the Romans for the degradation and abuse of her and her daughters. She is an English folk hero, her likeness immortalised in stone, but a terrifying proposition nonetheless. ‘Eighty thousand, dead and burned.’
Hares On The Mountain
Roud 329. Collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset, thought to originate in the 18th century.
Sam introduced me to this song. There is potent and romantic imagery in this song, unnerving and pagan. I heard it once and have been hearing it ever since, like the call of some wild animal.
Roud 487. First appeared as the broadside ballad ‘Lady Franklin’s Lament’ in the mid-19th century.
Lord Franklin is a song I heard John Renbourn play many times, one that my Dad also plays in his honour. I’ve been playing this live, since I started out.
Roud 1434. Collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset, 1904.
I first heard Master Kilby in a pub session in Liverpool, a song that has stuck with me ever since. The lyric ‘Her skin shines like silver in every part’ is surely one of the best. Cecil Sharp collected this song in 1904, in Somerset.
The Time Has Come
I first heard Anne Briggs’ classic song on the Bert & John LP. Succinct and bittersweet, this is one of my favourite songs. I hope John Renbourn would have approved of my first-take guitar parts, flying by the seat of my pants!
Collected in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. No-one knows who wrote it, but it’s probably from the early 20th century. I first heard this performed by the gentleman genius Wizz Jones. It’s a heart-breaking account of two young lovers’ tragedy.
Axe Mountain (Revisited)
One of my favourite songs to play, this murder ballad tells the tale of a young woman who rids the world of a murderer using an elemental instrument of death. I wrote this under the Black Mountains in Wales, thinking on the Dartmoor I grew up with. The moral of the story; don’t mess with a Devon woman.
Child Ballad 78. Thought to originate in the 15th century.
This is the oldest song on the album, a strange and beautiful tale of a young lover whose grief is preventing his true love’s peace in death; an idea held by many over the years to be true.
I loved the idea of presenting this story as a duet. Who better to ask than Cara Dillon?
‘Willy Moore’ – official video: