Taking their name from a pastel shade of colour (and not to be confused with the Dutch/Icelandic jazz-folk duo of the same name), Jane Bentley (percussion), Suzanne Butler (fiddle, guitar) and Margaret McLarty (guitar, banjo, piano) are, augmented at times by Jennifer Clark on double bass, a close harmony Scottish trio, Siskin Green originally formed to perform for BBC Scotland’s TV programme Reflections At The Quay during the pandemic. Their music is anchored on themes of feminism and faith, embracing religious belief as well as issues of social justice, inequality and inclusion, and it’s fair to say the lyrics with their mention of God and Christ, are very much directed at a Christian audience. However, steeped in folk traditions, their singing and music go beyond religious parameters, although many of the numbers are drawn or adapted from hymns or the Bible.
Case in point is the album opener, ‘Will Your Anchor Hold’, their Appalachian-flavoured banjo-driven setting of an 1882 hymn by Maryland Sunday school teacher Priscilla Owens and, incidentally, the official hymn of Dollar Academy, an independent school in Scotland. There’s two more such direct adaptations. Featuring double bass and Holly Marland on kora, they offer an interwoven three-part harmony musical reworking of William Whiting’s ‘Eternal Father, Strong To Save’, rather better known as ‘For Those In Peril’, and, with the same instrumentation, the shimmery ‘Take This Moment’ , a consecration hymn written by Kilmarnock-born John L. Bell and his Iona Community colleague Graham Maule.
Bell’s also the source for ‘There Is A Line Of Women.’, which, inspired by work songs and performed a capella with just body percussion, is his invocation of strong women in the Bible, such as Mary and Esther but also lesser-known names like Shiphrah, Tamar and Rahab. He’s also the source of the decidedly Celtic-flavoured fiddle and piano-based instrumental ‘Helen and Ellen’s Waltz’, Iona Community radicals and activists Helen Steven and Ellen Moxley, as well as the music for Alison Robertson’s hymn ‘Love Is The Touch’, the courtly medieval arrangement here encompassing shruti, bodhran, double bass and fiddle.
Earlier in the set, with fiddle and Bentley on bodhran, McLarty draws on Psalm 148 (alongside Joni Mitchell, authors Charles Foster and Adam Nicholson, and the poets Robert Burns and Mary Oliver) for the liltingly anthem ‘Raise An Alleluia’, a celebration of the connection with nature and an invocation of those voices speaking of relationships not dominance.
Butler provides two contributions, the first, Appalachia and banjo again to the fore with fiddle flourishes, ‘The Glory And The Grey’ is a walking with God number, the chorus drawing on Bell and Maule’s ‘Today I Awake’, the other being the percussive purposeful walking rhythm, album closer ‘Long Way To Go’ that speaks of the ongoing struggle for women’s rights in lines like “a law can lash me for letting down my hair” and “when the clothes I wear and what’s underneath my dress mean when I say ‘no’ that you’re still hearing a ‘yes’”.
The three remaining numbers all have hymnal origins. Set to the tune of the traditional ‘Star Of The County Down’ (itself an adaptation of the traditional ‘Kingsfold’), anchored by bodhran and with a decided Irish jazzed folk groove, ‘Canticle Of The Turning’ was written by American Roman Catholic composer Rory Cooney with the words based on Luke 1 about Mary’s response to God’s actions in the world. The translation paraphrased by Bell, the suitably mournful five minute ‘Dolorosa’, with sparse guitar notes, sawing cello and hand pan percussion, comes from Central America, the term a reference to Mary’s sorrows, and the words speaking of “the indifference shown the poor”.
The third, featuring shruti, adapted by McLarty and dappled by her banjo, is the glorious three-part harmony and part unaccompanied ‘Heart Full Of Anxious Request’, that takes Anna Letitia Waring’s words from 1863 and gives them a feminist spin by changing the male pronouns for God to She.
As I say, those who share their faith will get more from the words, but anyone who appreciates Scottish-infused folk and the sound of pure voices in harmony should really check this out.
Artists’ website: www.siskingreen.com
‘Will Your Anchor Hold’ – official video: