There is something special about real traditional folk music. It doesn’t matter where it comes from or what language it is, it stands out as something special and that’s what Better Days A Comin provides. Sara Grey and her son Kieron Means have never been into over-arranging their music although they have been known to employ Ben Paley’s fiddle – but not here. Two voices, banjo and guitar: what you see is what you get. It particularly struck me listening to Sara’s plaintive banjo on ‘Elk River Blues’ at the end of the second track.
The material ranges over a variety of sources. The opener, ‘Goodbye My Lover I’m Gone’, is an old-time song that is far too cheerful for its title. Two tracks on we have ‘Silk Merchant’s Daughter’, probably from an old broadside which begins its story in Liverpool docks. Although the song was originally British the language and harmonies here are definitely American. ‘My Dearest Dear’, ‘Red Robber’ and ‘Rainbow Willow’ also crossed the Atlantic sometime during their evolution, ‘The Carolina Lady’ sounds as though its origins lay in Europe but it’s found all through the Maritime from Nova Scotia southwards.
‘On The Way To Jordan’ is the first of two gospel songs, this one full of optimism in contrast to ‘When This World is At It’s End’ which, appropriately, closes the set. There are some modern songs here but without being told which they were you’d need to listen carefully to pick them out. Joe Newberry’s ‘I Know Whose Tears’ comes from a Kipling poem and Craig Johnson’s brilliant ‘Away Down The Road’ is set in the 1940s but it’s structured in such a way that it could be a century older. ‘The Hills Of Mexico’ is the origin of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Buffalo Skinners’ and I suppose that any banjo player has to sing a Derroll Adams song so Sara does.
There are sixteen songs on Better Days A Comin and not one is superfluous. Amongst the fun of ‘Railroad’ and the rolling blues of ‘Steamboat Whistle’ there is a sense of melancholy and hardship which is entirely appropriate in our current climate.
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‘Going To Kansas/Elk River Blues’: