I still tend to think of Bella Hardy as one of the bright young things of folk music but she has already done more than enough to justify Postcards & Pocketbooks, a double-CD retrospective, all the tracks remastered by Ian Carter. Bella is an old-style fiddle-singer, a 21st century songwriter and just about everything between. She can bring power to traditional songs and weave old themes into new songs and you can never be sure where her muse will lead her next.
The first disc opens with ‘Learning To Let Go’ from her poppy album, Hey Sammy, built on the pounding drums of John Blease. It sounds like the song of someone still seeking a way forward and if it’s autobiographical then that might explain Bella’s frequent changes of approach. That’s followed by the almost traditional ‘Whisky You’re The Devil’ and her award-winning ‘The Herring Girl’. This could be a traditional song or, at least, a traditional story but there is not hiding its provenance. You might expect ‘Sylvie Sovay’ to be traditional but here again Bella just takes the names and the germ of the theme and works them into something very new.
‘Maying Song’ and ‘The Seventh Girl’ are largely old songs and the first half ends with the first of two unreleased tracks, the gorgeously pure ‘Sheep Crook & Black Dog’.
The second disc opens with a new version of ‘Three Black Feathers’, the song that first made her name. Here it’s pared back to a simple guitar accompaniment by Sam Carter and the experience of nine years is obvious in Bella’s voice. Sam is there again on a new version of ‘Time Wanders On’ and the second previously unreleased song, ‘Tequila Moon’. Other standout tracks in the half are ‘True Hearted Girl’ – a robust version of ‘When I Was On Horseback’ – ‘Walk It With You’ with vocals by Kris Drever and the marvellous ‘Jolly Good Luck To The Girl That Loves A Soldier’.
The set ends almost where it began with ‘Redemption’ from Hey Sammy followed by the closing ‘Tequila Moon’ based on a chunky guitar part. I’ve heard most of Bella’s albums but Postcards & Pocketbooks succeeds in giving a different overview of her career – a mix-tape that entertains and makes you think a little more deeply about what you’re hearing.
Curated by Ian Carter and Nicola Kearey of Stick In The Wheel, the second volume of From Here is every bit as intriguing and entertaining as its predecessor. Recorded wherever the artists were with just two microphones, these performances are sometimes raw and earthy and sometimes delicate and beautiful. Some of the artists are well known, others less so and same is true of the music.
There is a sort of chronology about the album. It begins with what Nancy Kerr calls a mediaeval song, ‘Gan Tae The Kye’, which she pairs with a popular north-eastern tune ‘Peacock Followed The Hen’. From the same geographical area comes ‘The Sandgate Dandling Song’ sung by Rachel Unthank and I must admit that I’ve never really listened to it properly. It’s a lullaby, yes, but with a very hard story wrapped up in it and Rachel’s matter-of-fact delivery emphasises the hardship. The first instrumental set is the delightful ‘Cottenham Medley’ by C Joynes, about whom I know almost nothing.other than the fact that he lives in Cambridgeshire. The other two sets are from the north-east: Kathryn Tickell’s dazzling ‘Bonnie Pit Laddie/ Lads Of Alnwick’ and ‘Nancy Clough’ by Sandra and Nancy Kerr, who thus gets to open and close the set.
The chronology begins to break down now. Richard Dawson’s ‘The Almsgiver’ sounds old but which Richard wrote recently and is perfectly in keeping with the feeling of the project. You may think you know ‘Barbera Allen’ but this version by Mary Hymphreys & Anahata will be new to most listeners. Coincidentally (or not) it also comes from Cottingham. June Tabor revisits ‘The Kng Of Rome’ and rising star Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne tackles ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’. There are two distinct versions of this song, both by Charles Coborn, and Cohen goes for the political one. Both this and ‘The King Of Rome’ are set around the turn of the 20th century even though the latter was written much more recently. Appropriately, they are followed by Grace Petrie’s ‘A Young Woman’s Tale’, her updating of a song that began with the words “At the turning of the century…”, a clever juxtapositioning. Politics – although with a small “p” – return with Chris Wood’s ‘So Much To Defend’ which would appear to be made up of true stories.
Other, but not lesser, artists are Cath & Phil Tyler, Laura Smyth & Ted Kemp and Belinda Kempster, who is the mother of SITW’s Fran Foote and a very fine singer, now working as a duo with her daughter. That sort of emphasises the idea that we’re listening to a continuing tradition that has been caught in a moment of time.
Once again, Ian Carter and Nicola Kearey of Stick In The Wheel took up their recording equipment and ventured to new places within England, both physically and metaphorically. Asking folk and traditional musicians what ‘From Here’ meant to them: this impulse to make music – From Here – where does it come from? What does it mean to be making this music in 2019, using the framework of English traditional music and culture? England is divided, and we may well look to the past to make sense of the future – in such times of chaos and political uncertainty, these are timely questions.
Asking folk and traditional musicians what ‘From Here’ meant to them: this impulse to make music – From Here – where does it come from? Throughout the journey, trying to figure out who we are, as a nation. What does it mean to be making this music in 2019, using the framework of English traditional music and culture?
“The more we travelled the less we found we knew. At every turn, surprising, frustrating. And identity to grasp, or to push away. To try and understand who we are, where we are going, where we came from. Now more than ever, our identity is important, this culture and canon of music is a living, breathing thing, to be respected and taken seriously.” Nicola Kearey
A snapshot of the English folk scene right now – from seasoned professionals to folk club singers, everyone is equal and valid. Recorded on location, in front rooms and kitchens with two pairs of microphones, capturing immediate, intimate, yet powerful and evocative performances. This is not the collecting of songs to fit a pre-determined view of what folk music “should” be – rather, an attempt at documenting of what it is – a continuum that thrives, flourishes and persists in this country.
From old Northumbrian kingdoms, through the Midlands, way over to the Welsh border, with an expanding set of experimental and traditional musicians interpreting the music that roots them, in their own unique ways. Songs and tunes reflecting everyday life in England: from racing pigeons to lost children, domestic violence to fighting in the street about politics. This is each artist’s response to what From Here means to them, by way of identity or place, feeling or memory: “this is who I am, this is where I’m from”.
1/ Gan Tae The Kye/Peacock Followed The Hen NANCY KERR
2/ The Sandgate Dandling Song RACHEL UNTHANK
3/ Cottenham Medley C JOYNES
4/ The Almsgiver RICHARD DAWSON
5/ Ladle/Richmond CATH & PHIL TYLER
6/ Barbera Allen MARY HUMPHREYS & ANAHATA
7/ The King Of Rome JUNE TABOR
8/ Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy LAURA SMYTH & TED KEMP
9/ Two Lovely Black Eyes COHEN BRAITHWAITE-KILCOYNE
10/ A Young Woman’s Tale GRACE PETRIE
11/ Nightingales BELINDA KEMPSTER
12/ Bonnie Pit Laddie/Lads Of Alnwick KATHRYN TICKELL
13/ So Much To Defend CHRIS WOOD
14/ Nancy Clough SANDRA & NANCY KERR
Let me start by confessing that I never quite took to their hugely acclaimed 2015 debut, but the arrival of their English Folk Field Recordings collaborative project prompted a reassessment and, with the arrival of their own second album, I’ve become a decided convert.
I won’t bother going over the usual stuff regarding their no-nonsense raw and unvarnished approach to folk, whether it be traditional numbers or their own, or singer Nicola Kearey’s abrasive in your face East End vocals, both of which firmly set them apart from their peers, rather let’s address what they’ve done with it this time around, introducing new electronic sounds but still balancing familiar and more obscure traditional numbers with self-penned material focused around those on the peripheries of society, rituals, the way the past repeats itself and the power to change ourselves and the world in which we live.
That idea of breaking free of the cycle underpins the album’s uncompromising, forceful opening stomp ‘Over Again’, Simon Foote’s thumping bass drum beat underpinning Ian Carter’s urgent circling resonator guitar riff as Kearey raises blisters on the la la la la chorus. The first of the traditional numbers comes with the ‘Weaving Song’, a Scottish ballad celebrating the weaver’s craftsmanship taken, on acoustic guitar and Ellie Wilson’s fiddle, at a similarly jaunty pace as when Sandra Kerr (mother of Nancy) and John Faulkner performed it on Bagpuss back in 1974.
Alternating sources again, built on a slow, stately melody, Kearey’s echoey vocals accompanied by deep and heady accordion drone and violin, ‘Witch Bottle’ is an original number that takes its title from a 17th century ritual about stoneware containers used to ward off spells, which, in turn, heralds the clumping, breathless pace of the recorder and fiddle lashed ‘White Copper Alley’, a 19th century account of a woman who, driven to prostitution, steals one of her clients’ watch and wallet to buy medicine for her sick son, the track coming to strikingly abrupt halt on the word “dead”.
Taken at a slow, almost funereal march and heavily electronic with Fran Foote’s accordion drone, the haunting title track ballad follows, making effective use of Autotune on Kearey’s voice even if it does slightly obscure the lyrics, which, in the line about “when the hour is come”, seem to be about death. The vocals are again treated on ‘100,000 Years’ to give them a distant, echoey feel in keeping with the brooding sonic aura engendered by the handclap percussion and the unsettling swirls of guitar, drone, violin, keys and recorder.
As any good folkie knows, the ‘Abbots Bromley Horn Dance’ is a traditional dance tune, one of the oldest known, a jig that gradually builds in tempo and here given a fairly straightforward treatment, although the fiddle-led galumphing and whistle does remind me of Stackridge.
Like the album opener, the traditional highwayman song ‘Roving Blade’ is another urgent rhythm driven by Carter’s nervy riffs and Kearey’s forceful delivery, but then the ambience changes dramatically for what is possibly the album’s most striking number. Although the title and idea are similar, ‘Unquiet Grave’ is not the much-covered traditional song but a band original sung, essentially about remembering the buried past, unaccompanied as Kearey takes on the voice of a corpse unable to rest because of the feet trampling the earth above them, unable to move and wasting away “day by sorry day”. It is, quite, simply, one of the most chilling songs I’ve ever heard.
It’s back to tradition, in form and inspiration if not actuality, for the story-song ‘Blind Beggar Of Bethnal Green’, an acoustic waltzing number (the title part referencing the famous East End pub where Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell) retelling the legend of how Simon de Montford, a local knight, was blinded in a battle and subsequently became a beggar until found and taken in by a noblewoman, whom he married and with whom he had a daughter, Besse.
The last of the original numbers, ‘Red Carnation’, a sparse reverb and emotion-soaked song of farewell, is sandwiched between two traditional tunes. The first, the call and response shanty ‘Poor Old Horse’ is sung a cappella, Kearey providing the verses and everyone joining rowdily in for the chorus response, the album ending on an electronic fog of pulsing synth and claps like firewood crackles enshrouding the distant ghostly vocals as they dismantle ‘As I Roved Out’ and recraft it for a post-apocalypse folk vision. In speaking of the idea behind the album Kearey talks about thematically focusing on “English stuff”, because it’s weird, dark, surprising, unashamedly odd and has a personality of its own. She could equally be describing the band.
The song that gives the album its name is also its first. And, unaccompanied with seamless harmonies, it’s a portent to what lies ahead. Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp’s voices are clear and well matched, a vigorous call to arms to the poacher’s lot.
Lead track, ‘Alizon Device’, is an original composition, a ballad that explores her condemnation during the Pendle witch trials. With one of the most singable choruses on the album, we wonder if Laura’s refrain: “where the sweet heather blooms all the day” is actually the composer’s homage to her own home region.
Though instrumentation across the album is wide and varied, arrangements are sensitive and spare. ‘There Is A Tavern’ sees yearning vocals backed by simple, mournful banjo, while ‘Here’s Adieu To All Judges And Juries’ builds gently, cello joined by guitar. Then, before we realise, they’re gone.
Though Laura and Ted favour the lesser known, and often from their native regions of the North West and East Anglia, there are popular choices here, too – but their thoughtful approaches mean that the listener is offered something new. In ‘Wild Rover’, Ted Kemp sings with such remorse that we feel we cannot join in, but let him continue in his catharsis. ‘Cecilia’ is rousing and triumphant, recounted by an omniscient narrator.
And, as to expected from two librarians, one of whom is also Director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, liner notes are comprehensive, with song choices fully explained: the version selected, the additions and deletions made.
Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Ian Carter of Stick In The Wheel, a band known for their straight-up approach to tradition, The Poacher’s Fate is a record that will strike the listener for its passionate connection with the source material and its robust, full-blooded approach.
They may be newcomers to the scene, but Stick In The Wheel are certainly making their mark, not just with their own recordings and associated artifacts, but in their involvement with the folk world in general, and the traditional in particular.
Band members Ian Carter and Nicola Kearey serve as curators, collaborators and producers for this collection of new live recordings by both the great and good and some of the lesser known luminaries in the genre. The remit for those involved was to record songs that explored either place or their musical identity, culminating in a gathering of field recordings captured in locations as diverse as a stone cottage in Edale, a bank vault and a garden at Robin Hood’s Bay using just two stereo microphones and with no subsequent overdubs.
As you would imagine, the tracks are stark and raw, first up being ‘Bedfordshire May Carol’, chosen by performer Jack Sharp, leader of psych-folk outfit Wolf People, as it supposedly originated just a few miles from where he grew up. Next up, Eliza Carthy leads a flurry of more familiar names with a self-penned number, ‘The Sea’, a new setting of the broadside ballad found in Manchester’s Chetham Library and featuring on her current album, the initial pizzicato fiddle giving way to more robust playing. She’s followed by one of the veterans of English folk, John Kirkpatrick, applying his accordion to a song from his lengthy repertoire and a folk club staple ‘Here’s Adieu To Old England’, while his sometimes musical partner, Martin Carthy, also chose a number he’s recently reintroduced back into his sets, ‘The Bedmaking’, a familiar tale of the abused and cast aside servant girl. fingerpicked here to a halting rhythm.
Sandwiched in-between is one of the rising stars of the few folk firmament, the Peak District’s Bella Hardy, who went to 19th century collection The Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire for ‘The Ballad of Hugh Stenson’, setting it to a more upbeat tune than the hymnal adapted by Jon Tams, while, another member of folk royalty, Jon Boden puts his squeezebox to work on a contemplative take on 19th century drinking song ‘Fathom The Bowl’.
There’s a couple of spokes from the Wheel, both unaccompanied, Kearey delivering glottal version of the much covered ‘Georgie’ and Fran Foote ‘The Irish Girl’. They’re not the only numbers to be sung naked as it were. BritFolk alumnus Lisa Knapp has a lovely treatment of the tumblingly melodious ‘Lavender Song’, while, also from the female side, Fay Hield tips the hat to Annie Briggs with her choice of ‘Bonny Boy’.
On the other side of a capella gender fence, Geordie folkie Stew Simpson mines his Newcastle roots for ‘Eh Aww Ah Cud Hew’ (which the accompanying booklet helpfully translates as “Oh Yes, I Could Pick At The Coals”), Sam Lee turns the evergreen ‘Wild Rover’ on its head to transform it into a slow, sad lament rather than more familiar rollicking rouser of Dubliners and Pogues note, and, from Wales, a deep-voiced Men Diamler closes the album with ‘1848 (Sunset Beauregard)’, a self-penned political protest ballad about Tory policies. The remaining unaccompanied track is actually a duet, Peta Webb and Ken Hall joining voices for an Irish in London in the 50s marriage of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Just A Note’, about the building of the M1, and Bob Davenport’s account of the dangers of ‘Wild Wild Whiskey’.
The three remaining tracks are all instrumentals. Bristol’s acoustic instrumental quartet Spiro are the only band on the collection and provide their self-penned ‘Lost In Fishponds’, apparently about getting lost en route to a gig, joined here by North Wales violinist Madame Česki, while Sam Sweeney brings his fiddle to bear on two tunes. ‘Bagpipers’, one of the first things he played with his band Leveret, and ‘Mount Hills’, an English dance tune from the 17th century. Which leaves Cumbrian concertina maestro Rob Harbron to provide the third with a pairing of ‘Young Collins’, a Costwolds’ tune learned from Alistair Anderson, and, another from the Morris tradition, ‘Getting Up The Stairs’, which, by way of a pleasing synchronicity, he actually learned by way of John Kirkpatrick on the influential Morris On album.
It more than does the job it set out to achieve, and, likely to loom large in end of year awards, fully warrants a place in any traditional folk fan’s collection.