MARTIN SIMPSON & THOMM JUTZ – Nothing But Green Willow: The Songs of Mary Sands and Jane Gentry (Topic TSCD614)

Nothing But Green WillowIn the summer of 1916, Cecil Sharp and his assistant Maud Karpeles visited Madison County in the North Carolina Appalachians where they lodged at the Sunnybank Inn in Hot Springs owned by Jane Gentry,and, prior to that, Mary Sands who lived in nearby Allanstand. The two women sang their visitors numerous traditional folk songs, many of which had originated in England and mutated by way of the narratives and names in their new settings, which were duly collected and published in English Folk Songs From The Southern Appalachians. Many of those are now interpreted on Nothing But Green Willow by Simpson, well-known for his arrangements of traditional American folk songs, in collaboration with German-born and Nashville based bluegrass musician Jutz, in tandem with an array of guest vocalists.

The collection opens with them both on guitar joined by Emily Portman For ‘Fair Annie’ (Simpson having previously recorded it in 2001), the bizarre tale of how, pregnant with his eighth child, a lord’s mistress is told to prepare a welcome for his bride, who turns out to be her sister, the pair disposing of the lord and sharing the wealth of his seven ships between them.

Simpson switching to banjo with Justin Moses on weeping fiddle and bluegrass star Sierra Hull handling vocal and mandolin duties, while it retains the title ‘Geordie’, in the tale of a woman leading for her lover’s life after he steals some horses, the condemned man here becomes Charlie. The longest number at five minutes, the much recorded ‘Pretty Saro’, in which an immigrant of poor means laments for the lover he left behind, is given a contextual reworking in being tremulously sung by Odessa Settles, a singer of African American heritage.

Simpson on slide, unusually ceding the violin to Tammy Rogers, Seth Lakeman plays tenor guitar as well as lends his distinctive vocals to the slow walking ‘Edward’, a lurching murder ballad reworking of the Cain and Abel, the killer initially telling his mother the blood that of his dog and horse. Another name change from the title, Edward’s also the protagonist of ‘Edwin In The Lowlands Low’, his bride foreseeing his death at the hands of his future father-in-law, the Appalachian-styled treatment here featuring Tim O’Brien simultaneously on vocals and fiddle.

A rare religious song from Sharp’s collection, the simple fingerpicked ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ again features Rogers on fiddle and Simpson’s slide while the vocals come courtesy of the perhaps lesser now Kentucky bluegrass singer Dale Ann Bradley with soaring harmonies by former Union Station member Tim Stafford. Rather better known, Ireland’s Cara Dillon steps up on soprano for a yearningly lovely reading of ‘Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies’, recorded after just one rehearsal in her kitchen.

There’s three numbers featuring just Simpson and Jutz, the first being their arrangement of ‘The Wagoner’s Lad’ with the former on vocals and Jutz playing a1941 Epiphone Triumph archtop guitar that once belonged to Norman Blake. At this point, Rogers get to take centre stage, both on fiddle and vocals for a gender reversal perspective of ‘Married And Single Life’ as, to fingerpicked accompaniment, she dispenses hard earned advice as to why plighting troths might not be the best idea if you value your freedom.

It’s Lutz’s turn to take on the vocals for a fine, suitably mood take on ‘The Gypsy Laddie’, a number with numerous title variations, among them ‘Gypsy Davy’, ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies O’ and ‘Black Jack Davy’, the first number the pair recorded in Nashville and the launch pad for the project. The last of the two guests arrives in the form of Angeline Morrison for ‘The Suffolk Miracle’, another cheery folk ditty, this time a ghost story in which, banished by dad after falling for a commoner, a young woman wakes to find her lover at her window the pair going out riding until he complains of a headache and she ties her handkerchief around his head. Returning home, dad tells her her lover has died of grief, so, as you do, she goes to his grave and digs up the bone and guess what she finds round the skull. Morrison makes it more tender than it sounds.

The final guest on Nothing But Green Willow is Fay Hield who proposed giving a 4/4 time signature, unusual for traditional folk, to ‘I Whipped My Horse’ a song about the unsentimental nature of rural farming, which wouldn’t pass muster with the RSPCA these days (“I whipped my horse till I cut the blood”) and ends with the dead nag’s jawbone being used to plough the corn. The singing and playing are more playful than this might suggest.

It ends with the third of the sole duo numbers, this time their twin guitars and Jutz’s throaty vocals bringing a suitably forlorn reading to ‘Awake! Awake!’ a final tale of thwarted love and murderously disapproving fathers in the manner of ‘Silver Dagger’ sometimes known as ‘The Drowsy Sleeper’ and from whence the album’s ‘Green Willow’ title comes.

There’s nothing on Nothing But Green Willow most won’t be familiar with, but the stripped back sparse arrangements and the different vocal texture bright by their guests ensure they all sound engagingly fresh.

Mike Davies

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‘Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies’: