Born in Dorset and now based in Cornwall, Deere-Jones is a pure-voiced, classically trained harpist, a lecturer on the medieval harp in England, Royal Academy Associate, composer and environmentalist with four previous albums and two EPs of both original and traditional music inspired by the landscape and the nature within it. Her latest, A Little Piece Of Eden is informed by the changes she’s witnessed in rural life, the crash of biodiversity and the damage caused by intensive farming but also the hope offered by rewilding.
The album, on which she also plays English concertina and keyboards accompanied by Phil Williams of Anglo concertina, melodeon and guitar, opens with her shimmering harp arrangement of Martin Simpson’s ‘Dark Swift And Bright Swallow’, a celebration of the birds returning in spring. That’s followed by ‘Searching For Lambs’, a stately arrangement of a traditional Somerset folk song collected by Cecil Sharp concerning honest love within a rural idyll, the first seven chords of which fuse traditional and classical in quoting from John Tavener’s ‘The Lamb’, a fellow Royal Academy alumnus who’s buried in the village where she was born.
Featuring pizzicato harp emulating raindrops, ‘Cuckoo/April Showers’ interpolates a dancing notes instrumental version of the traditional ‘The Cuckoo’ (aka ‘The Cuckoo Is A Pretty Bird’) with her own tune providing the middle section. The self-penned five and a half minute title track( a reminder that The Eden Project is homed in Cornwall) is a dreamily melancholic melodically soaring lament for the way changes in farming (“I walk beside a lifeless field where once back in the day/A man and boy with sweeping scythes would mow the scented hay…A might Shire once plodded by to take his daily toll/For years he ploughed the furrows leaving hoof-prints in the clay/Now diesel fumes and engines fill the day”) have resulted in a loss of wildlife, communities and the quality of rural life (“The schools have all been demolished and the barns are second homes/The old boys kids and grand-kids left the land they’d never known”).
Returning to traditional pastures, a variant on the familiar tale of women disguising themselves as sailor, ‘The Female Smuggler’ has its origins in Taunton and tells of how, following a successful plunder of brandy, the feisty Jane is captured only to end up marrying the blockade Commodore with whom she fought.
Featuring sampled birdsong and wind, the unaccompanied echoingly sung and vocally multi-tracked self-penned ‘The Seven Whistlers’ draws on the old legend of how the unearthly calls of a group of mysterious birds, flying together at night, were believed to presage disaster (“The curlew’s cry foretells our doom, it serenades us to our tomb”) and, also referencing the skylark, turtle dove, woodcock and nightingale, reworks it to speak of how the loss of biodiversity and species (“I search the farmland’s empty sky, for sparrows chirp or lapwing’s cry”) signals a breaking down of the biosphere and bodes ill for the human race.
The second of the instrumentals, running for almost six minutes, brings together three traditional tunes, ‘Derwent Water Farewell/Orange In Bloom/Haste To The Wedding’, the first being an Irish air written, with lyrics, as ‘Derwentwater Farewell’, based on the beheading of James Derwentwater in 1716 for his participation in the Jacobite Rebellion, the latter livelier two being Morris dances, arranged for harp and guitar.
Marking the halfway point, birds return to the album’s skies with ‘The Darkling Thrush’, a lilting setting of The Thomas Hardy poem (she and Williams previously recorded a whole album of his work) musing on the turning of the year and, unusually for the generally miserable old bugger, ending with a note of hope.
Complementing her interest in English harp music is Deere-Jones love of the African harp, the kora, and she brings that vibe to ‘Deep In Love’, a sparkling Dorset variant on the traditional folk tune also known as ‘Must I Be Bound’ with its theme of unrequited love. More birdsong trills its way into the ripplingly lovely ‘By The Green Grove’, her contemporary almost pastoral hymnal arrangement of a song collected in Sussex, as ‘The Birds In Spring’, and part of the Copper Family collection, the traditional path continuing with a pulsing rendition of ‘Farewell He’, where a women bids farewell to both winter and a false lover, the song existing in numerous versions but here largely drawing on one from Dorset as collected from Mrs. Russell of Upwey.
A second unaccompanied, multi-tracked number, ‘Equus – An Anthem For The Horse’, is her tribute to the bond between the animal and the human race (“His withers bear the weight of fate and time, his loyal soul gives solace to mankind…He pulled our loads and ploughed our virgin soil, our Empires built upon his seat and toil/In killing fields he stood right by our side, in hundreds and thousands there he died”) and was written in memory of her own horse, Alf, who passed after almost 21 years together.
The first highlighting concertina, given a slight jazzy feel, the final instrumental is lively trilogy of dance tunes that embraces ‘Laura/Waterloo Dance/Enrico’, another nod to Hardy as they’re taken from his manuscript of favourite tunes, the following penultimate track, ‘The Spring’, a celebration of the new season, is her cascading melody setting of another 19th century Dorset poet, like her from the Blackmore Vale, here the rather lesser known William Barnes who, also a priest, wrote his poems in the Dorset dialect and pronunciation, hence the reference to a ‘Graegels bell’ or bluebell and lines about birds who “zing their zong at evening in the zunsheen”.
It ends with, for me, the album stand-out, the self-penned vocally multi-tracked and partly acapella anthemic ‘Broken Land’ which, referencing climate change (“we curse the floods and fear the fires”) again calls to save the country’s biodiversity (“Leave the weeds – they are wildflowers, let the grass grow out of hand/Bring the lynx and beavers back, and we will heal our broken land”) and echoes the work of herself and others as part of Keep It Wild, a Devon rewilding charity dedicated to preserving wild spaces and reintroducing previously native species as part of the healing process (“the lynx and wolf restore the balance on their own”), the track fittingly ending with a cacophonic chorus of turtle doves and storks, both of which are being re-introduced to the UK through breeding programmes. A Little Piece Of Eden is a truly wonderful album and hopefully perhaps a small contribution to a paradise regained.
Artist’s website: www.sarahdeere-jones.co.uk/
‘Derwent Water/Orange In Bloom/Haste To The Wedding’ live with Phil Williams:
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