DAVE ARTHUR – Someone To Love You (WildGoose Records WGS435CD)

Someone To Love YouDave Arthur thought it would be a good idea to collect some of his favourite songs from the Rattle On The Stovepipe catalogue as a Christmas present for his family and friends. When it was finished the collective wisdom was that it should be released to the wide world – a very good idea as the band’s early albums are now out of print. So Someone To Love You isn’t strictly a Dave Arthur album nor is it an objective Rattle On The Stovepipe retrospective. It is, however, a very enjoyable set.

It may be significant that Dave has selected longer songs, generally the more laid-back ones, as if he wants to savour the moments. There are exceptions of course: ‘Stackolee’ rocks along as does ‘Dead Heads And Suckers’ and the trio lean forward a bit on the murder ballad, ‘Monday Morning Go To School’, ‘Black Bottom Blues’ and ‘The Devil’s In The Girl’ – a text from Devon set to the tune by Dave, appropriately interpolated with ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’.

Dave is a great believer in the dictum that a song is a living thing and has added to several of the songs. I was fascinated to note that while ‘Bill Dalton’s Wife’ has the ring of authenticity it actually began life as a poem by Hedy West’s father for which Dave wrote more verses and a tune. The only other written song is ‘Dillard Chandler’, by Dick Connette and that borrows from old songs including a favourite of mine ‘Saro Jane’ (originally by Uncle Dave Macon but who remembers the JSD Band?).

But I digress and that’s one of the side-effects of this record; it will lead you down dusty half-forgotten trails. Although Dave Arthur’s name is above the title of Someone To Love You he gives due recognition to the three musicians who have made up the band over the last decade and a half: Pete Cooper, Chris Morton and Dan Stewart. If you have all the Rattle On The Stovepipe albums you’re very lucky. If not, this is a wonderful place to start.

Dai Jeffries

Label website: https://www.wildgoose.co.uk/

‘Black Bottom Blues’ – live:

RATTLE ON THE STOVEPIPE – Through The Woods (WildGoose Records WGS432CD)

Through The WoodsWho would have thought that Rattle On The Stovepipe had recorded their seventh album with Through The Woods. Founder members Dave Arthur and Pete Cooper were joined by guitarist/banjo picker Dan Stewart some thirteen years ago and the trio have been playing music from the Appalachians ever since. Occasionally they venture into England but the only example here was brought over by American minstrel troupes and later collected by Alfred Williams.

The title comes from the opening song, ‘Bootlegger Blues’ which they take at a leisurely pace as is their wont with Dan’s banjo and Pete’s fiddle decorating Dave’s lead vocal and guitar. ‘Jack O’Diamonds’ isn’t the better-known version and again it’s fairly laid-back. If this were a live album you would imagine them clearing their pipes and loosening their fingers. Then they’d nod to each other and tear into ‘Hell Broke Loose In Georgia’.

My favourite song here is ‘Boat’s Up The River’, the story of a race between two paddle steamers, its arrangement emulating the rhythm of the Kate Adams’ engines as she won the race easily. Two other notable tracks are ‘Lakes Of Ponchartrain’ and ‘Old Hannah’, the latter being assembled by Dave from fragments of songs about the southern prison-farms.

There are two covers and one original in amongst the traditional titles. The first is Si Khan’s ‘Gone, Gonna Rise Again’, a delightful song about looking out for future generations when no-one else does. Its simplicity reflects Khan’s empathy with working people. Dave Arthur wrote ‘Hungry Cotton Mill Blues’ inspired by union organiser and singer Ella May Wiggins who was shot dead during a protracted strike in 1929. The third “new” song is ‘Mama Went To Arkansas’ written by Tom Ovans although Dave has added to it. Again it comes from poverty and desperation as mine and mill closures left communities destitute.

Through The Woods is another thoroughly enjoyable album from Rattle On The Stovepipe with the sometimes mournful songs balanced by lively tunes. You could listen to this all day.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.rattleonthestovepipe.com

‘Lakes Of Ponchartrain’ – live:

NAOMI BEDFORD & PAUL SIMMONDS – Singing It All Back Home (Dusty Willow Records DWR005)

Singing It All Back HomeIt has been my experience that any record with Naomi Bedford’s name on it is worth listening to and adding Paul Simmonds to the mix practically makes it mandatory. With Singing It All Back Home they turn their back on their customary songwriting and present a set of Appalachian songs with roots in English and Scottish traditional songs. Despite their southern English backgrounds, Naomi and Paul sound authentically American particularly when they hit their harmonies.

Alone, they are just two voices and acoustic guitar but here they’ve assembled a cast of musicians who work together seamlessly well. Dan Stewart and Ben Walker, who co-produced the album, play banjo because you can’t have an Appalachian album without banjo and Ben also plays guitar and mandolin. Ben Paley plays fiddle, Rory McLeod adds harmonica and Lisa Knapp supplies hammered dulcimer. All of this comes over the engine room of Rhys Lovell’s bass and Billy Abbot’s drums and percussion.

The first few titles are the less familiar ones – Naomi and Paul have delved deep into the archives – but from the first notes you know what these songs are and where they are from. The first, ‘I Must And I Will Be Married’, begins in a Celtic style but when Walker’s slide guitar comes in you know that you’ve crossed the Atlantic. The melody of ‘The Fateful Blow’ sounds vaguely like ‘Johnny Todd’ but not quite and ‘A Rich Irish Lady’ surfaced later as the better-known ‘Pretty Saro’.

The first well-known track is a raucous ‘Hangman’ (‘Prickle-Eye Bush’ or ‘Gallows Pole’ if you prefer) and ‘Matty Groves’ needs no introduction but here there are rarely sung verses and variations I haven’t heard before. ‘The Sheffield Apprentice’ isn’t a song I expected to find here but I should have known that Hedy West recorded back in the 60s. Finally we have ‘The Foggy Dew’, a song well-known on both sides of the water.

If I must be critical, I would have liked notes about the origins of these versions. Not only is Singing It All Back Home a very enjoyable album, and it can be listened to on that basis, but also an important collection, particularly for someone like me – by no means a scholar but with a more than passing interest in the history of the songs.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: www.naomibedfordandpaulsimmonds.bandcamp.com/

‘Who’s That Knocking’:

RATTLE ON THE STOVEPIPE – Poor Ellen Smith (WildGoose Records WGS419CD)

Poor Ellen SmithRattle On The Stovepipe are Dave Arthur, Pete Cooper and Dan Stewart who play American old-timey music with the classic guitar, fiddle and banjo set-up, added harmonica and mandolin and a couple of excursions on melodeon. Poor Ellen Smith is their sixth album for Doug Bailey’s label.

Most of the material here is traditional, or as traditional as it can be having knocked around America for anything up to a century and a half and the band squeeze seventeen tracks into the set. Only one, ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’ can be counted as a vignette so Rattle On The Stovepipe combine the pace of square dance tunes with a laid-back feel particularly in the songs. The set opens with ‘Dead-Heads And Suckers’, somewhat adapted to make sense of the text and put it the context of the early twentieth century. It’s still traditional, though, that’s just the folk process.

The title track is a classic murder ballad from Winston-Salem – a sort of American equivalent of Midsomer where Omie Wise also came to a bad end. ‘Stackolee’ came from further north in St.Louis, committing his crime on a particularly blood-soaked Christmas Day. More modern, and certainly less violent, is Bob McDill’s ‘Rodeo Man’, a pure country song with a touch of melodeon to remind us that we’re close to the Mexican border. I think I’d like to have heard Dave Arthur’s melodeon fills higher up in the mix but it’s a fine line with such a romantic song.

Arthur wrote two songs here. The first is ‘Southern Soldier’ which sounds very English and that’s the point being made. At the time of the American Civil War the country was full of immigrants, few of whom were ideologues but were fighting for their own patch of ground. The second is ‘Blood Red Roses’, not the familiar shanty but inspired by Bert Lloyd’s version from Moby Dick.

The top instrumentals include the well-known ‘Waiting For The Federals’, the twin fiddle attack of ‘Walk Along John To Kansas’ and the bouncy ‘Little Billy Wilson’. The harmonica player front and centre of the cover picture, by the way, is the celebrated painter Jackson Pollock, pupil and band-mate of the artist, Thomas Hart Benton.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Little Billy Wilson’ live:

NAOMI BEDFORD – A History of Insolence: Songs of Freedom, Dissent & Strife (Dusty Willow)

naomiFor those who are unaware, Bedford is the personal and professional partner of Paul Simmonds from The Men they Couldn’t Hang, so it’s not too surprising to find a similar political vein to her work. Plus, of course, she has a history of political activity, having been, for example, the Artists Liaison for Artists Against The Poll Tax. This is her third album and, as the title suggests, isn’t overflowing with stories of lover’s trysts and break-ups, although nor is it a hectoring collection of unfurled protest banners.

The template’s set with the opening track, ‘Davidson/Wilder Blues’, a traditional Tennessean union song about strikebreaking written by miners in the 30s and learned from Hedy West, one of Bedford’s seminal influences. With Dan Stewart on banjo and Bedford singing in an Appalachian twang, you’d not think she was born in Putney. She remains in traditional territory, but closer to home for ‘Gypsy Davy’, although, having said that, her approach is very much on the other side of the Atlantic, drawing on Jean Ritchie and Woody Guthrie, adding a chorus and inviting Justin Currie along for harmonies. Currie also shares vocal duties and plays piano on his own contribution, ‘We Are Not The People’, a stirring, fiddle accompanied ballad about those in power from the perspective of those who will never have it and don’t want it.

Other than the two traditional arrangements, Bedford only contributes one writing credit, a collaboration with Simmonds on ‘The Wild And Charming Energy’, a nervy folk blues number about machismo with handclaps, itchy percussion and a mariachi feel, other than that the bulk of the material is courtesy of Simmonds: ‘The Spider & The Wolf’’s fable about debt with Bedford again channelling West and Jackie Oates on fiddle, ‘Overseas’, a banjo dappled song about religious intolerance that centres on the Crusades; ‘Raise These Sails’, a clopalong duet between him and Bedford spun around the provisions taken aboard the Mayflower; ‘Junktown’, a loose loping blues duet that sounds like a nod to Johnny and June about corporate culture, market forces and the powerbrokers ghettoising the common herd and featuring the defiant line “a hand up is not a hand out”; ‘Fields Of Clover’, about the rise and fall of the baby boomers and on which she sounds like Baez circa ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. The last of the Simmonds’ tracks, ‘The Old Abandoned Road’, offers a view of the pointlessness of the English Civil War through the eyes of a soldier in the Quaker army, set to acoustic strum, military drum beat and a Gaelic skirl of fiddle and mandolin.

The final cut returns to the traditional archives for ‘The Watches Of the Night’, the words taken from an optimistic poem about the rise of socialism by Tom Maguire, a British Trade Unionist, sourced and set to music by Alasdair Roberts, who sings and plays guitar, with Bedford on harmony, Ellie Wyatt on violin and Helena Ashworth on psaltery. Naomi’s name may not be as well known as others in the folk field, but, justly championed by the likes of Shirley Collins and Peter Buck, she most certainly deserves your listening attention. It would be impertinent not to.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: https://naomibedford.com/