RAKOCZY – Frontrunner (Talking Cat Recordings TCCD2002)

FrontrunnerWell, this is a bit different. Fruzsina Zsofia Rakoczy is an Anglo-Hungarian singer, concertina, recorder and bagpipe player, born in Budapest and based in Manchester who got into folk through the local euro dance scenes. As such you might expect either rave culture influences or songs steeped in her Eastern European traditional roots. What you get is, instead, an exploration of the image of the horse in British folklore that serves to examine how we treat each other delivered in musical styles that range from Pentangle-like folk jazz stylings to morris-flavoured stomps and lusty shanty drawing on influences ranging from The Dresden Dolls, Tom Waits and David Bowie to Lady Gaga, Blowzabella and The Peatbog Faeries.

Backed by The Horror Show, four musicians variously contributing hurdy gurdy, harmonica, drums, bass, xylophone, strings and ukelele, it starts, however, with bagpipes in full skirl, underpinned by military drums for the drone-like ‘Hooden Horse’, a calling on song from Kent written by the late Phil Martin that relates to the tradition, usually around Christmas, of parading a wooden hobby horse, mounted on a pole and carried by someone hidden under a sackcloth, through the streets, scaring the kids as it went.

‘Heavy Horses’ is, of course, the Jethro Tull number (here given a lighter treatment with an almost hymnal wordless backing vocal) in celebration of the cobs and draught horses who used to be the backbone of the English transport system and were cast aside with the advent of industrialisation, the song essentially about the transition of eras and ways of life.

The first of two self-penned tracks comes with the whirligig, clattering percussion and whistling arrangement of ‘Miss Portly’, a song about an 18th century race horse called Miss Sportsly and the efforts made by her owner to see her run her best at Kildare. It’s followed by a clutch of traditional numbers, kicking off with a bracing, percussive and hurdy gurdy driven take on ‘Skewbald’ (the American variant being ‘Stewball’), and the tale of a talking horse beating the favourite, which, on a historical note, records a real race in Kildare in which the runner up bay mentioned was not Miss Griselda as in the lyric, but the aforementioned Miss Portly.

It’s followed by a rousing pipes coloured Celtic shaded ‘Wanton Brown’ a title variation on ‘The Blind Harper’, a tale of equine fraud in which the crafty harper not only steals King Henry’s brown horse from the stables and gets recompense for his own having been supposedly also stolen but then wins a bet that he actually has Henry’s horse at home.

Another song related to the hobby horse tradition, given a stately hurdy gurdy and recorder setting, ‘Poor Old Horse’ is a familiar ceremonial number, more known for its refrain than the verses, though likely more about husbands putting out their aged wives than sending their nag off to the glue factory.

The fourth in the set is the lope-along ‘Creeping Jane’, another number about a real race horse, Yorkshire Jenny, a ragged looking dun mare that became part of racing history when she left all the champions standing at a 19th century race at Newmarket.

Featuring hurdy gurdy, ‘Mari Lwyd’ is the second original, a number based on the rather more ghoulish South Wales version of the Kentish hobby horse tradition, in which a horse’s skull is mounted on the pole. Then, set to walking beat with tumbling chords and chiming xylophone, comes ‘Taoist Tale’, a song written by Tucker Zimmerman based on the Taoist tale about how fate works itself out in the story of how a farmer’s son escaped military service after breaking his leg trying to tame one of the wild horses he brought back to the farm after losing his dad’s old horse.

It ends back in traditional pastures with, first the fingerpicked stridently sung ‘Little Dun Dee’, a song collected by Mike Yates from gypsy singer Mary Ann Haines in 1974 that relates directly to the same filly celebrated in ‘Creeping Jane’. Then, finally, it’s all feet to the floor for an exuberant rousing romp, complete with a rock n rolling guitar solo from Jon Loomes, as she gives full rein to ‘Dead Horse Shanty’ (sometimes also confusingly known as ‘Poor Old Horse’) with its crowd friendly refrain of “and we say so, and we hope so”, originally performed to celebrate the end of a sailor’s first month at sea when he’d paid off his debt to the ship, known as “paying off the dead horse” from whence, of course came the expression flogging dead horse!

It’s a fabulous debut that, if you have any horse sense, should have you throw open the stable doors, pony up and gallop out to acquire. I’m chomping at the bit to hear what she does next.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.rakoczymusic.co.uk

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