PETE MORTON – Fair Freedom (Further 004)

Fair FreedomPete Morton has just released Fair Freedom and is currently touring the album. I guess most readers of will have come across Pete Morton, so let’s mull over the new album in the context of just how (self-understatedly) good he is.

‘Troubadour’ – we borrow the word from the French, who in turn nicked it off the Occitan language. Books tell us that Troubadour songs were usually monophonic, “simple musical textures consisting of a melody, typically sung by a single singer or played by a single instrument player”; the Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that “In the Middle Ages, troubadours were the shining knights of poetry … some were ranked as high as knights in the feudal class structure” and the Collins dictionary tells us that more recently the Americans (inspired by the wishes of Tom Paxton I suspect) use the word to mean any wandering singer or minstrel.

More than any other, still playing, folk singer that I can think of, ‘troubadour’ describes Pete Morton rather well. Many tunes are so catchy you can pick them up on first hearing and they have lyrics that are intricately simple, artlessly complicated, guilelessly political – choose your preferred oxymoron. This makes Pete Morton as unassumingly high-ranking in his own field as his near contemporaries Lineker and Gower are in theirs (if you’re not aware, the link is Leicester).

The new album then. Fair Freedom is a collection of ten tracks, eight brand new and two older ones re-worked.  There is no-one else who could sing a song such as ‘The Rivers Of The Isle’, naming a hundred rivers and make it sound entertaining and upbeat throughout (the song is more compelling than the kitsch naivety of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ for example). However, Morton has gone further than just singing a relatively simple list song. Having come up with the idea and written the song, given it a belting chorus, he then added the choir of St Mary’s Catholic Academy, Leek, presumably to surreptitiously bring home the even greater importance of the climate for future generations. The result is an entirely joyous opening to the album … … … until you reflect on it and consider a) the state of many of our rivers and b) the limits of human life compared with the natural world:

The rivers outlive us, we come and we go
The rivers outlive us, the rivers just flow

Which makes it all the more powerful – joyous to the ear, food for the brain. Classic Pete Morton.

‘You’re The One I Care About The Most’ has an air of music hall to it, bouncing tune and an unsentimental sweetness to the verses of love, of which my favourite is:

You can phone me anytime you’ve always got my ear [great juxtaposition]
Even if I’m cooking Sunday roast [Yes, he’s in love]
 I’ll burn it and I’ll serve it without shedding a tear [Definitely in love]
You’re the one I care about the most

‘The Genuine You’ builds on the music hall feel; in this track Morton destroys the imagery, glamour and falsity of modern life/social media compared to human reality.

Twenty years ago, Pete Morton wrote possibly the best song in the English language about the Middle East situation (‘The Two Brothers’), In ‘Sharing The Land’ on this album he may have written the second best, as he sings his dream of peace scribbled on a page – it’s nuanced, balanced and thoughtfully sung.

‘Birdsong And Green’ follows, another joyously juxtaposed song – the language of business finance and marketing pulled into a song about the natural world, all topped off with a chorus to sing along to:

Come and do your shopping at birdsong and green
Everything is priceless at birdsong and green
No collecting data at birdsong and green
They’re open every hour at birdsong and green

Know your enemy and write songs in their language to defeat them – and also throw in a glorious pun on the ‘priceless’ to mean the natural world is both free to access and so highly valuable that you can’t put a price on it. Joie de vivre in song.

‘The Lives We Lead’ is another to weigh the balance of human life – our ‘little lives’ initially set against the scale of the universe and time. The final verse, though, concludes with reassurance for the human condition – we lead ‘mighty lives’ that can ring love’s bell and can change the world. The song is thoughtfully delivered, just as singable.

‘Newton’s Parakeet’ is named after an extinct parrot and leads to a reckoning of late-animal species and a reminder that “it was not that long we killed all the buffalo” before reminding us of the state of the orang-utan and the tiger nowadays. It ends by further reminding us of the potentially similar fate mankind, who, like Newton’s Parrakeet, may become equally non-existent with “not a tweet”. Delightful pun, genius – more than that, it’s sing-along-able genius, so see that as a doubling of your admiration of Morton’s song-writing skills.

Morton’s live performances, generally, are jolly affairs. His vocal (he was described as “the Noddy Holder of the folk scene” about forty years ago) and playing take over whatever venue I’ve seen him in, from festival stage to small room. It makes it easy to forget his ability to tug the heart strings, which goes all the way back to at least 1988’s One Big Joke album and the classic ‘Another Train’. He’s done it ever since, songs made all the more tender by Morton’s strong voice against gentle picking, which might build to slow strumming and/or wider instrumentation. Well, he’s done it again on Fair Freedom: listen above all to ‘Die For Love’ a self-challenge that none of us know the answer to until we are faced with such challenges in war or other evil times. The following are examples:

Who would I be in all honesty?
if they threatened my family?
Just do your work and you’ll be free?
Would I die for love?

Who would I be if the worst came true?
Would I do the work they told me to?

Will I not speak up for you?
Or would I die for love?

It’s powerful to read; as you listen to the intonation of the song, it’s even more so – the delivery, the question marks at the end of each line, the melody make it both one of the most loving and also one of the most unsettling things you’ll hear this year. Most of us will hope we don’t have to face these challenges, in a few places in the world they are daily occurrences.

‘The Ghost Of A Sailor’ is a re-work of the song on The Frappin’ And Ramblin’ and it’s even better for it, more mellow, more humorous, more gentle because the re-worked delivery is slower, the language clearer, the song extended to nearly eight minutes and a richer tune and production allowing for better integration of Morton’s tune and the traditional music he intersperses in it. Worth every one of its four hundred and seventy-eight seconds.

The album finishes with ‘Forevermore’ a languorous song that ends with optimism and love:

Our love is strong, so dear to me, we’ll share the hopes of what could be,
May I have your company on the road to Forevermore
 Let’s find a place beyond the hill, built by love and made of will,
Through the mist we wandered still on the road to forever more

Forty or so years on the road and Pete Morton is writing, singing and playing as well as ever. Fair Freedom is a cracking album, songs that are easy to sing, and are powerful comments on many of the most important themes in our lives.

The phrase is used too loosely, (hence the opening paragraphs of this review) but in a very real sense Morton is a modern troubadour, deserving of the highest ranking in modern folk music and Fair Freedom more than holds its own against any of his previous albums.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website:

Still no videos for the new album so this is Mike’s choice of oldie. ‘In The Days When Time Was Different’ – live:

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