SETH LAKEMAN – A Pilgrim’s Tale (BMG)

A Pilgrim's TaleThis year marks the 400th anniversary of the departure of The Mayflower from Plymouth, setting voyage to take its cargo of 102 persecuted Puritans, some of whom had returned from Holland where they had taken refuge, to forge a new life in America in what would become known as the Plymouth Colony, albeit with only fifty-three surviving the voyage and the bitter winter before they finally disembarked in 1621.

Featuring a series of concerts at locations significant to the story, for his tenth studio recording Lakeman, who grew up not far from the quay in Plymouth, has assembled a concept album recounting a fictional (albeit grounded in extensive research among contemporary and modern sources) narrative of the journey. Featuring musical contributions from sister-in-law Cara Dillon, father Geoff, multi-instrumentalist Benji Kirkpatrick and upright bassist Ben Nicholls, each track is preceded by narration written by Nick Stimson, Associate Director of Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, and spoken by Paul McGann, the stories told from various perspectives, including that of the Wampanoag tribe (and to whose descendants Lakeman spoke) who occupied the land, which they called Patuxet, on which the pilgrims settled.

Indeed, it’s here that the story begins, the sparse ‘Watch Out’ recounting a vision by a young Wampanoag girl of a floating island of tall trees and of people coming ashore, Lakeman’s pulsing violin setting the ominous tone of the warning she gives. Backtracking, the traditional based ‘Pilgrim Brother’ recounts the religious backdrop that led to the fundamentalist Separatists fleeing England, the track shaped as a song of hope for the future with a lively stomping and circling rhythm and catchy singalong chorus.

Featuring Lakeman Sr, a setting of John Masefield’s 1903 poem The Emigrant, ‘Westward Bound’ introduces The Mayflower and its captain, Christopher Jones, and is sung in his voice as, set to a sparse, traditional sounding tune with violin drone, he contemplates the voyage ahead, the instrumentation and pace opening up midway into a heavy-footed shanty. The longest track at just over five minutes, the dirge-like ‘A Pilgrim’s Warning’ is set on Sept 6, 1620, still in Plymouth, as William Bradford, one of the pilgrims whose journal provided source material, speaks of the likely hardships, “the bitter storms and tempests”, ahead.

Eventually, the ship sets sail, violin and drums hauling away the traditional shanty ‘Sailing Time’ (based on ‘Padstow Farewell’) with both Lakemans and Kirkpatrick weighing in on the vocals. Several weeks into the voyage, the ship faced disaster when the huge waves fractured a key structural support timber. Fortunately, repairs were able to be carried out using a metal mechanical device called a jackscrew, which had been loaded to help in the construction of settler homes, the incident recounted on ‘The Great Iron Screw’ featuring harmonium with Nicholls on bass and Jew’s harp.

The girl of the first track makes a return in the intro to ‘Dear Isle of England’, now old and blind and having an even starker vision of a flood of settlers taking over their land, the song itself, arranged for military drums, harmonium and sawing viola and again featuring a rousing refrain, concerning the tension aboard the ship as it sights land, low on provisions, giving rise to The Mayflower Compact, a new model of democracy which, variously signed by the separatist Puritans, adventurers, and tradesmen on board became the first governing document of the Colony.

A duet with Dillon, the slow swaying, plucked and bowing violin ‘Saints And Strangers’ speaks of the first cruel winter and how, according to maritime author Nathaniel Philbrick, the settlers stole the Wampanoag corn and desecrated their graves, although Bradford’s account refers only to taking some of the corn and paying back with no conflict. Events then move to March 1621 and the building of the first homes with ‘Foreign Man’, one of only two tracks to feature electric guitar, but, as the tribal beat song makes it clear, it’s been a hard scrabble journey to stake their claim “on this common land”, with the settlers subjected to “arrows that fell down like a gathering cloud”, a number that pretty much encapsulates all of colonial history.

As per the title, the standout ‘Bury Nights’ is preceded by McGann speaking of the loss of life, the end of the winter seeing 49 crosses, the survivors hungry and emaciated, before, featuring just violin and harmonium accompanying vocals by Lakeman and Dillon, in a hymnal-like number calling to “cast all sadness from this place” and follow “the winding path to heaven high”.

The saga ends with contact between the tribe and the settlers and a mutually beneficial treaty being drawn up, the one realising they can’t fight muskets, the other realising they need help to survive, the narration giving way to ‘The Digging Song’, a traditional stomp about working the land with its earthy chorus of “Give me a spade or a man who can use it/Dig everyday as a freeborn man” before closing with Lakeman’s violin and Kirkpatrick on guitar for the instrumental ‘Mayflower Waltz’.

Creating an album about the voyage that essentially gave birth to the USA, was an ambitious undertaking, but Lakeman has pulled it off superbly, respecting both sides, inventing but staying true to the core of the story.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Watch Out’ – official video:

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