CUNNING FOLK – Constant Companion (Dharma)

Constant CompanionUnlike last year’s Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground, the latest from George Nigel Hoyle is predominantly comprised of traditional material from the British repertoire, the constant companions of the title, and, since the accompanying blurb makes no reference, presumably a wholly solo affair with just him and an acoustic guitar.

It opens with ‘Seeds Of Love’, the first to be collected by Cecil Sharp back in 1903, a display song about love lost by being overly picky with lyrics written around 1689 by one Mrs. Fleetwood Habergam. Given a Wizz Jones-like jazzy folk arrangement, ‘Dear Joan’ is a familiar club staple about a young woman getting the best of would-be seducer, with further fingerpicked guitar intricacies to be found on ‘Bruton Town’, Hoyle’s version somewhere between those of Pentangle and Davy Graham.

Unquestionably, the best known of the traditional numbers is ‘Matty Groves’, Hoyle’s favourite track of Fairport’s Liege & Lief, a seminal influence on his folk upbringing. Elsewhere, he runs nimbly across the frets for ‘Dick Turpin’, gets more ruminative on ‘Death & The Lady’ and visits English folklore for, at six minutes, the frankly rather overlong ‘Robin Hood & The Pedlar’. Somewhat shorter, Morris tune ‘Constant Billy’ clocks in at just 49 seconds.

He gets bluesier on ‘The Astrologer’, sometimes known as ‘The Bold Astrologer’, a little recorded number (though Heather and Royston Wood sang it on their 1977 No Relation album) about a fortune teller with an eye for his female clients, although his claim of ‘The Cruel Mother’, an infanticide ballad given a suitably stark reading, being equally rarely played isn’t borne out by there being at least 30 recordings of it since Shirley Collins 1959, most recently by 10,000 Maniacs and Nancy Kerr.

Without turning this into an essay, suffice to say that other traditional choices include ‘Souling Song’, ‘Ratcliffe Highway’, ‘Shepton Beachanmp Wassail’ and ‘Willie O’Winsbury’, first recorded in 1968 by Sweeney’s Men. The remaining three numbers comprise a cover and two originals. The former is Ewan MacColl’s classic ‘Dirty Old Town’, the sparse arrangement and weary, resigned reading here stripped off the romanticism in which it is sometimes enrobed.

The self-penned road song ‘Soft Estate’ mixes strum and fingerpicked circling runs that, talking of buzzards and kestrels flying, was born from a trip through the Twyford Down cutting near Winchester while, of a somewhat different bent, ‘The True Enlightenment’, with another deceptively simple sounding guitar pattern, is about John Dee, an alchemist, astrologer, magician, philosopher and advisor to Queen Elizabeth who’s credited with coining the term The British Empire and claimed to be have had several volumes dictated to him by angels via his self-declared medium accomplice Edward Kelly. Reputed to have been one of the Queen’s spies, Dee also used to sign his name 007!

Hoyle doesn’t have a particularly wide vocal range, so, over the course of nineteen tracks, it can feel a tad samey, but his playing and passion for the music ensure this is well worth your acquaintance.

Mike Davies

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‘Lancashire, God’s Country’ – official video: