When did you last hear a Viola da Gamba in a folk club? Exactly. The instrument in question is played on The Colour Of Amber by Nick Hart who sings and plays harmonium alongside Tom Moore on viola and harmonium. It’s traditional folk music but not as we know it as the duo put a quasi-mediaeval spin on the songs and tunes.
The title track, which opens the set, comes from the Romany singer, Mary Anne Haynes who worked as a flower-seller in Brighton. From the first notes you can tell that it’s a Romany song and you may think of it as a cousin of several other songs. I don’t call it a variant because Nick and Tom believe the second verse to be unique to this text.
Now I’m old I have to get accustomed to reading about Martin Carthy being a source of songs. ‘The Jolly Bold Robber’ was actually sung by John Kirkpatrick with Brass Monkey but I can hear something of Carthy’s phrasing in Nick’s delivery and strong hints of A.L.Lloyd, who published the song in Folk Song In England. ‘Three Jolly Sneaksmen’ definitely comes from Carthy and Nick’s baritone lends it a more sombre texture than its anonymous author might have intended. Mind you, Carthy’s version wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, either, although his guitar was rather jaunty.
The first of four instrumentals sees Tom taking the lead part on ‘Flowers Of Edinburgh’. With the viola as the melody instrument Tom takes it at a slower pace than the somewhat higher-powered Scottish fiddle versions, more akin to the way Cecil Sharp collected it. That said, Tom says he ‘borrowed’ the arrangement from Tony Hall. ‘The Child Grove’ is an old country dance tune also taken at the stately measure that the duo prefer and is perhaps more like John Playford envisaged it.
‘Babylon’ is a grim tale with familiar motifs including two murders and a suicide – a song well suited to the lower registers of the instruments. After the Morris tune, Ladies’ Pleasure’, we have ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ which at least ends happily for everyone except the deserted lord. More Morris tunes come with the pairing of ‘Swaggering Boney’ and ‘Constant Billy’. The Colour Of Amber ends with ‘Bold Riley’, which may have come from the Georgia Sea Islands via slaves or it may have been ‘assembled’ by Bert Lloyd who first recorded it.
The Colour Of Amber is difficult to summarise. On first hearing I found it rather gloomy, all to do with the deep tones of the instruments and Nick’s voice. Subsequently, it didn’t feel that way but it’s clear that Nick and Tom have stamped their musical personalities on a set of mostly well-known songs and tunes, all the time being respectful to the history and legacy of the music. On top of that they have transposed arrangements from squeezeboxes, guitar and unaccompanied voice to bowed strings and drones. It feels like a point where the past meets the future.
Artists’ website: https://www.nickhartmusic.com/
‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ – live:
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