Available only as a Bandcamp download, dedicated to Paul Sartin and featuring long-time collaborator Saul Rose on accordion and reuniting with David Delarre on acoustic guitar, Conversations We’ve Had Before is not, as the title suggests, retreading old material in a new format, but rather a case of coming to familiar topics in the folk collective from different musical angles and songs hitherto unexplored.
That said, all bar one of the choices are traditional, opening up with the musically muscular ‘Knife In The Window’, a variant of Pretty Polly originally intended for a second Wayward Band album, a decidedly bawdy tale of Johnny stealing into Nancy’s bedroom but, given the length of his fol-the-riddle-i-do hanging down to his knee, unable to get his trousers off, unlacing them with the titular knife, she having a child nine months later bearing such a mark. Set to the tune of ‘Hares On The Mountain’, Carthy learnt it from Neil MacColl’s arrangement for the 2015 film of Far From The Madding Crowd.
Nothing to do with its contemporary sexual euphemism, a ‘Mud-plumper’ is an archaic term for someone who dredges ponds, ‘Avington Pond/Mrs Casey’ specifically relating to the teams doing such work in Avington near Winchester and then downing pints in The Plough, the rousingly delivered shanty-like song collected in 1905 and paired with a lurching take on the Morris tune.
Reputedly dating back to Elizabethan times, the oft-covered ‘The Blind Beggar Of Bethnal Green’ gets a whole new slow paced, six-minute musical setting with period colours and delicate guitar filigree courtesy of Delarre who also compiled different broadsides to arrive at the lyric. The first of two instrumentals, ‘Pecket’s Black Mary/Love Lane’ draws partly on John Offord’s ‘John Of The Green’ book for the first tune’s lively fiddle and guitar percussion while the other is Carthy’s own equally spirited homage to a pub in Newcastle where she spent far too much of her time. To give it its full title, ‘John Of The Green Cheshire Way: The Famous Hornpipes in Triple Time of North West England with a Selection of Country Dance Tunes of the Baroque Era’ is also the source for ‘Sword Dance/Cheshire Rolling Hornpipe’, the initial slow, accordion wheezing part giving way to the rollicking conclusion.
Another pairing, this over seven minutes, ‘The Spanish Lady’s Love / Planxty Charles Coote’ brings together a dreamy, achingly sung setting of shortened version of a poignant 16th century poem ascribed to one Thomas Deloney, printed in Thomas Percy’s ‘Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Vol. II’, a curious tale of a woman kept captive by an English soldier after the taking of Cadiz that combines Stockholm syndrome with a generosity in returning his jewels when he returns to his wife, here twinned with a lively tune by Turlough O’Carolan.
From the same period, and with a reference to the Spanish Armada, ‘Away My Brave Boys’, which she describes as a “nice bit of jingoism”, has a rousing, accordion-powered intro before transforming into three-part harmony a capella. Interestingly, the notes says it recalled to her Alfred Bryan’s 1915 ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier’, an American anti-war song that was recorded by Michael Weston King.
Moving to the early 17th century, forlorn violin provides the backdrop for their setting of John Donne’s ‘The Message’, a letter to a false lover that moves on to explore divine judgment on the righteous and the wicked, given a suitably dark-grained vocal treatment by Carthy. The two guys adding their voices to the chorus, that’s followed by ‘Go From My Window / Whitefriars Hornpipe’, the song given a shifting time signature arrangement with slow verses and uptempo refrain, featuring revised lyrics from her version on Oliver Knight’s 2002 Mysterious Day album, the energetic instrumental, learnt from Tim Van Eyken, originating in Lancashire despite its title.
Now, while ostensibly a Beatles cover as far as most will assume, with accordion, dreamy violin and lullabying guitar notes, ‘Golden Slumbers’ does in fact date back to at least 1599, McCartney having lifted (uncredited) from ‘Cradle Song’, a poem by Thomas Dekker that first appeared in his play The Pleasant Comedie Of Patient Grissil. They carry the weight beautifully.
The penultimate track is a lurching version of ‘Bird In The Bush’, a Victorian Broadside and another excursion into sexual euphemism, this learnt from the a 1966 anthology of traditional erotic song by Frankie Armstrong, A.L. Lloyd and Anne Briggs, everything rounding off with the fingerpicked and accordion led, wearily sung five-minute ‘The Light Of Other Days’, a broadside ballad unusually treating on depression (“the light of other days is faded, / And all their glories past; / For grief with heavy wing hath shaded, / The hopes too bright to last”), written by Alfred Bunn and M.W. Balfe for their 1836 opera The Maid of Artois.
It’s somewhat depressing that someone with Carthy’s pedigree and following finds it economically unviable to make Conversations We’ve Had Before available as a physical disc (though it might also be a pragmatic decision to separate it from her recent more experimental and prog-folk work), but, complete with a song notes PDF, this are conversations well worth having and an essential addition to the collection.
Artist’s website: www.eliza-carthy.com
‘Sword Dance/Cheshire Rolling Hornpipe’ – live: