I can’t help thinking of them as bright young things but then I remember when it was that I first heard The Devil’s Interval. So, Emily Portman and Rob Harbron are now seasoned professionals and Time Was Away is their first album as a duo with just Pete Judge’s flugel for company. Most of the songs are traditional although, as is the way of things, some of them have been tinkered with a bit. The final two tracks are 20th century poems set to music but not, interestingly, by Harbron or Portman.
The opening track is ‘The Healths’, originally from the Hammond collection in which there were only two of them but Emily has added two toasts from songs collected by Alfred Williams. Williams famously didn’t collect tunes so these were composed by Rob. The song still has relevance as its central theme is the disparity between rich and poor – nothing really changes. ‘Borstal Boy’ also has contemporary relevance. Its words were, as Paul Simon didn’t quite say, written on the toilet walls of a Borstal in Maidstone. It’s odd how Kent figures in these events. The text is a derivative of ‘Died For Love’ so the anonymous scribe was clearly a literate young man. Naturally enough, Emily employs a version of the ‘Died For Love’ tune.
Rob is best known as an exponent of the English concertina – still his principal instrument – but on Time Was Away he also plays guitar, mandolin and various keyboards while Emily, principally a singer, now plays banjo and piano. The result is a rich and varied set of arrangements to which Pete adds a final flourish on two tracks.
Next up is ‘The Game Of Cards’ without too much tinkering although Emily renders it gender-neutral unlike ‘Long A-Growing’ which remains as collected from Mary Ann Haynes. This is a particularly lovely version and Emily and Rob have done a remarkable job in refreshing a song that I think I’ve heard too many times over the years. ‘Down In The Meadow’ begins and ends with Emily’s recordings of diggers clearing a patch of “waste” land, actually a wild flower meadow, symbolic of the story.
The history of ‘Rosanna’ links Leeds and Salt Lake City which is quite a journey. The song is a variation of ‘Fair Annie’ and Emily and Rob describe it as a song of sisterhood, a point first made by Frankie Armstrong. It is enriched by Pete’s flugel. ‘The Oakham Poachers’ is slowed down compared with Steeleye Span’s version and, built on concertina and piano, its solemnity is more suited to the subject. The last traditional song is ‘The Birds In The Spring’ from the Copper Family and it’s probably true that “you never heard so sweet” as Emily’s version.
‘Oh To Be Alone’ is an anonymous poem found in a suffragette pamphlet and set to music by Sandra Kerr and ‘Meeting Point’ was written by Louis MacNiece in 1939 just as war was coming. The tune is by Tim Dalling and both are new to me. The poem gives the album its title and Pete another chance to embellish a song.
Time Was Away is another example of why traditional songs are so important but don’t buy it for that reason. It is a beautifully crafted record that will reward repeated listening.
Artist’s website: https://emilyandrob.uk/
‘Meeting Point’ – officially live and alone: